We talk about it like we know where it is at all times, but in reality I’m not sure any of us could accurately describe “home.” What is home?
Is it a physical location that can be marked on a map? Visiting my family and friends here in western Pennsylvania for the past week has left me with a serious doubt that I can adequately identify a place called home. It’s such a transient concept and it varies in troubling ways: home is my parents’ house, my mother-in-law’s house, the region where I grew up, and the places where I keep my belongings which, at this moment, includes Suzhou.
But home can also be where I receive mail (which is three address right now: two stateside and one abroad), where I sleep (usually Suzhou, because we’re just visiting the U.S. right now), where my family is (Pennsylvania), or simply the place I return to at the end of a day (which varies greatly). These things matter based on the physical location of the cells that comprise my sentient being, using latitude and longitude. It’s at once scientific and sociologically (and in a legal sense) accurate, depending on dimensional aspects of time and space.
But these places don’t always feel like home. The mental and emotional elements of human existence enter in here because we know, without too much thought, when we feel at home or when a place feels homelike.
While setting up our apartment in Suzhou, Andy and I made efforts to “warm up” the place by including plants, photos, and other signs of life because otherwise our furnished apartment didn’t feel like home. The feeling springs from a mental account of welcoming, (semi-)permanence, and love.
In this sense, home can never be a place. It’s a feeling. Our linguistic description of the feeling (at least in English) feels inadequate, though, since we’re using a simile to describe something so critical to human existence. Similes are tricky because they’re literary devices, comparisons using “like” or “as,” and often used to add depth or clarity to a description of a concept that is elusive or ephemeral or otherwise requires imagination. If I use the simile “feels like home,” I don’t give you any real details about what “home” is–I’m triggering your imagination to find more specific emotional connections that I’m not articulating. I’m not saying what home is; I’m asking you to assimilate your own concept of home with mine for the sake of linguistic simplicity.
(And, honestly, probably because we expect that people we talk to have a sense of home similar to our own by nature of the human experience, which is definitely not true and problematic for reasons like we see in the news regarding such issues as the Dakota Access Pipeline invading the home of Native Americans, refugees who needs escape their homes, veterans who return “home” and feel displaced, and much more.)
So it feels like home here, but it feels like home in China too. But both places also occasionally give me the strange sensation that I don’t belong. Because our visit is short, we can’t belong–we are temporarily included, invading the everyday lives of our loved ones. I don’t know everyone or everything about their lives. It’s the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) often rationalizing peoples’ obsessions with social media, television news, and reality television: we might miss something, so we can’t look away. I recognize the FOMO in myself with family and friends, which usually results in sadness or jealousy. From 6,000 miles away, it’s a lot easier to let those feelings go. But being in the place once referred to as home and not feeling at home because I have missed out? It’s miserable.
Some of the things I’ve “missed out” on are crushing. My grandmother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, for example. When I moved in September, all we knew was that she wasn’t well. Grandma used to be so sharp. Now? She’s showing signs of language failure when she says gibberish and clearly thinks she’s said a comprehensible word, and just continues speaking. It’s heartbreaking and makes me want to just stay with her, even though that would mean watching a slow decline into this terrible disease. But I can’t stay with her, and I trust that my family will help her get good care. I will leave on Sunday knowing that when I return in the future this one aspect of home will never be the same. And I will mourn this.
I’m still glad we moved abroad because I love my job, value the experience I’m getting, and enjoy the ways I’m learning about the world. I know that even if we stayed put our whole lives that I would miss out on things, feel sad about my grandma, and wonder about the moving target of “home.” But you know what? I didn’t ever expect it would be this difficult to visit what, to this point, I called home. This has easily been the hardest part of living abroad.