November 23, 2012

How Do We Decide Where Home Is?

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What is the issue?

“Home is where the heart is.” Well, yeah, no kidding, we’ve had that sentiment hammered into our heads from our childhoods. It’s stared at us from those kitschy needlepoint pillows at our grandmothers’ houses and been sung to us in many a country song chorus. And as grounding, stabilizing, and reassuring as home can be, it’s also a pretty fragile concept.

If home is a place that calls to us, what happens when we have multiple homes, then? I consider myself very lucky, as I have four places I feel I can legitimately call home: Mars, the tiny western Pennsylvania town I grew up in; Washington & Jefferson, my university; Cologne, Germany, where I studied abroad for four months; and Aomori, Japan, where I’ve lived for the past year and a half and will stay in for the foreseeable future. I’ve fallen in love with each place for very different reasons and in very different ways. At different points in my life, each of those places has felt like the home for me, where I found my footing and came into my own. And because of that, I’ve felt distinctly homesick for each of these places to varying degrees.

I think that’s where the fragility of the concept of home starts to rear its head. If we feel more homesick for one place, does that make it more of a home to us? And conversely, are the other places less of a home? The last few times I’ve gone on holiday while living in Japan, I’ve been anxious to get home at the end. And by ‘home,’ I don’t mean America; I mean my little apartment in northern Japan. Maybe that shift is the start of America becoming less of a home for me.

For a lot of people, having multiple homes can be desirable. After all, it’s the rare person who hasn’t yearned for a home in the city and then a quiet country or beach abode, right? And our dreams get bonus points if we start dreaming of a home abroad. A villa in Andalusia? Apartment in Tokyo? Charming little cottage in England? Bungalow in Bali? Sign me up, please and thank you.

But honestly, how many homes can one person claim as their own before they aren’t homes at all, but instead just places that hold a handful of happy memories? And as the number of our homes increases, does the value of each place decrease?

If we identify ourselves as a different person in each place, do we just step into a specific role depending on where we are? I know that’s definitely come into play in my life. In Japan, I know that I’m quieter and more apologetic because of the culture. Next month, I go back to America for the first time in a year and a half, and I know I’ll feel out of place until I revert back to acting, at least in some minor ways, like my “American home” self.

If so many homes are calling out you, maybe it starts to become difficult to discern between them all. Fair warning: first world problem coming. This summer I was insanely lucky enough to spend three weeks traveling through Europe. I revisited my host family in Germany, and during that period, I hopped on a discount airline to Barcelona for a few days. I don’t know if it was the heat, the mushy, overpriced paella, or the fact that by 7:30 a.m. I’d been leered at half a dozen times in La Boqueria, but homesickness struck with a vengeance.

But I had no idea which home I was yearning for. Cologne, where I spoke the language and could navigate the metro without a second thought? Japan, where my cozy apartment and all of my belongings were? Or America, where my family and the majority of my friends lived? If you’d asked me which place I’d rather have gone back to, I have no idea how I would’ve answered. “All of them, preferably,” would’ve been the most accurate.

I know my own homes are pretty far flung, but if you’ve ever moved while growing up or gone away to university, whether it’s on the other side of the state or on the other side of the country, the concept’s the same. I don’t think the distance between each home makes all that much of a difference; each place is still its own.

For each of us, there’s some magical turning point that turns a random place that had been just another pinpoint on a map before into somewhere where we’ve both picked up a new piece of ourselves and left a part of us behind. Sometimes it’s a person; I didn’t truly call my alma mater home until I fell in with a specific group of friends who “got” me. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros sing, “Home is wherever I’m with you,” and while that mentality definitely can be true, I think it can also go along the lines of “When I found you, I found my home.” But it doesn’t have to be a person that solidifies a place as a home in our hearts; for each of us, it’s different.

The German language has an awesome word that I sorely wish could be translated into English: Gemütlichkeit. There’s no perfect way to describe it aptly, but it basically means the cozy, wholly safe feeling you get while at home. But I think the more homes you have, the higher the danger runs of losing the feeling of Gemütlichkeit and replacing it with just bland comfort. You’re happy in each place and you know them well enough, but they’re not truly your home. If we split ourselves among the different homes we have, I think there’s a limit that you eventually reach. Instead of truly living in places and making them your homes, you just start collecting them. They’re like knickknacks from travels on a shelf: pretty enough to look at and impressive to reminisce about, but ultimately hollow and without any true value.

You might be leaving part of yourself behind there, but you’re not picking up anything new. Eventually you’ll just end up empty. TC Mark

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Alex Brueckner

Alex is a self-proclaimed grammar Nazi who currently lives in Aomori, Japan, where her time is primarily filled by …

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