I have been grappling with the notion of home for some time now. The amount of brain-space taken up with these thoughts directly correlates to how much further I travel from where I was born. Or perhaps it’s an age thing. The older I get, the farther away I am from where I started. Either way, I am intrigued by the psychological feeling of home. Dorothy, as she clicked her red sparkly shoes, thought there was no place like it, but what exactly is it?
The question is particularly poignant in a city like Hong Kong. The rate of movement here is astonishing and I’ve started to seriously consider canvassing potential friends with a Survey Monkey to see how long they are likely to stay before fully committing emotionally to the relationship. Every June I – along with many other expat wives in this city – pack up the bags and take the kids to the airport practically the second their school shoes hit the back of the closet, leaving my husband to wallow in self pity, not to mention excruciating heat in the middle of typhoon season, until he can break free from the shackles of the office and join us for a couple of weeks. The entire operation is made possible by the fact that I work at a school with the summers off, coupled with our desire for our children to make connections with family in Canada. And let’s be clear, we provide them with a fantastic summer. There is, however, a niggling feeling at the back of my mind that this eight week exodus does nothing to propagate the notion of Hong Kong as their home.
My husband and I have made a choice to live abroad with our family in the hope it will give them a unique and global perspective. It is also giving them a very different childhood than mine. They were born in England and lived the first years of their lives in three different houses in London. In Hong Kong they have spent the last six years in two different locations. The only house we own on this planet is located rather inconveniently in a remote mountain village high in the French Alps where we will most likely never live. And so, perhaps to compensate for the constant movement and change we have imposed on their lives I feel compelled to show my children where I am from; to make sure they know my home and help them understand who they are.
My mother still lives in the house where I was born. A two hundred year old wooden frame house which was one of the first built in a very rural community in eastern Ontario, which she has kept alarmingly unchanged since about 1985. Not only is my brother’s original vinyl collection still there, the desk where he diligently studied each evening remains largely unchanged apart from his daughter’s collectables rammed into it’s drawers during the holidays. His hockey cards and Dungeons and Dragons game sit next to the (probably now priceless) original-still-in-tact Star Wars figure collection complete with Darth Vader case, all lovingly hoarded. My room has been redecorated twice (really, what does that say?): once as an office for my father which he never used and then transformed back into a small guest bedroom that no one uses other than me. Aside from the overwhelmingly uncomfortable feeling of sleeping next to my husband staring at the same wall I did when I was six, I love that little room with its sloping alcove ceilings. I know every squeak of every floorboard which has not changed in thirty years, only perhaps like me, there are a few more creaks and cracks. My kids find comfort in its quirky layout and all its nooks and crannies, they flop on the old sofa that has been in front of that TV since my brother and I sat on it watching Star Trek after church every Sunday, and they are curious about the pictures my mother places on any and every flat surface as if any empty area is a missed opportunity to proudly display family members. The kids have even grown to accept the inadequate internet connection, although it is more than mildly infuriating that we have to walk outside and up the hill to the cemetery to get any phone connection. Yes, it is true that all of these things make it home, but it is the memories attached to these things that resonates.
Home, when I really think about it, is roast beef dinners, Sunday afternoon football, my mother chatting happily and my dad’s laugh. It is the place of childhood sleepovers and teenage drama, against a backdrop of snow and freezing rain or steamy hot summer sunshine. The house is so familiar that it’s sameness is merely a backdrop the things that happened there. More than the objects, or the wood, bricks and mortar of the place, it is the memories of people that I associate with that house that give me comfort. I find that even if my memories are grounded forever in one place, my sense of self can never be constrained by geographical location. Or if you wanted to take the more cynical view, as Ernest Hemingway does in his excruciatingly honest account of expatriate life, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”
Although my mother grew up in Ireland and my father hailed from Manchester, through little miracles of coincidence and love, they ended up forging a home for my brother and me in Canada; however to this day my mother connects herself to her memories of a childhood by the sea in Ireland. In fact, she spent years of my childhood dragging us across the Atlantic during summer holidays so she could connect us with her home, something I have cherished and ultimately made part of my identity and in a self-propagating cycle have subjected my children to the same. I recently came across a gem of a book which I think any child should have access to read, particularly those of Expats: Home, by Carson Ellis (Candlewick Press) is a beautifully illustrated glimpse into other peoples homes and serves to illuminate our collective need to find a place to belong. The probing question Ellis poses ‘Where is your home? Where are you?’ implies more than just a physical state.
Humans are united in their desire to belong somewhere. Home is merely how we describe that feeling of contentment, of knowing who we are and our place in the world. Interestingly, since the times when our nomadic ancestors roamed around the earth, we have somehow, somewhere connected our physical space with our sense of self. Groups of homes became villages, towns, cities, kingdoms and eventually nation-states giving humans a sense of connection (and in doing so towards the end of the 15th century planting the seeds of nationalism).
For me, it is the clear sense of home which provides me with tangible evidence of what makes me who I am. I return to the physical space of home to remind myself of where I came from. Reconnecting with home allows me to understand myself and appreciate where I am now, and most importantly face the road ahead as I move on.
Of course, my children consider it is beyond boring that I come from one place: they have told me this implicitly. They have a much different perspective, but they are young, and I wonder what they will think of home when they look back on their childhood? Weirdly, but deliberately, I make a point of keeping our furniture the same – it’s that quaint idea that familiar objects will give them comfort – which is the reason my son still sleeps on the same bed he has had since he was four years old, the mangy leather chair that has been gnawed down by the little stray cat we had in London sits in our living room (through about 5 moves), and we still eat off the wedding-gift kitchen plates from Habitat circa 1994. If we move on, it is certain that the house, the climate and the population density will all change, but we’ll still be eating off those same damn plates, which I’m willing to bet my kids will remember in flashbacks forty years from now.
I am comfortable with the idea of home being a feeling which exists in my consciousness rather than a place. Since my husband and I have taken that decision to ramble, to embrace the unknown, to experience the unfamiliar, well, the notion of home sustains me through that journey. It’s the strangeness of the new that can invigorate, give perspective and allow our minds to open up.
And so we roll on. Whether we remain in this amazing city, or find new pastures, we spin the wheel and bank on the fact that no matter what we do, for our two lovely boys, home will be a scratched up leather chair, their mother chatting happily, their father’s laugh and those crazy plates.