For expats, where exactly is “home”?

I was interviewed yesterday for a online publication whose theme was about people who move to foreign countries and set up businesses. After the interview, Flo and I talked about what such a move involves regarding family and the concept of “home.” I ended up sending the text below to the guy who did the interview. I think many of you could relate to this as well…

While reading the other stories you have on your site, about people who leave their homes to move to another country and open businesses, it had me thinking about what a disruption this can all be in people’s lives. It often involves a different language and a different culture that has to be learned in order to survive. I learned Spanish because there was no other choice, it was learn or starve. Sink or swim. And in order to do business, if you don’t understand how business is done in your new country of residence, it can be extremely frustrating and disappointing. I may have gone to Mexico with the ideas of what was going on in the First World, but I learned quickly to accept how business is done in this Third World country. If I had tried to do business, mostly regarding relationships, the way it was done back home, I would’ve had a very hard time. I soon learned to enjoy the customs where family and relationships come first over business.

The concept of assimilation is important as well. Do you immerse yourself in this new culture, or tend to hang out with expats who speak the same language and share a common bond? Assimilating opens up a whole new world, gets you thinking differently, out of the box, provides the advantage of two points of view or more. But you lose the concept of “home” as well.

When you live your life in one country, or state, or city, you know where home is. And that’s important. This where there are people similar to you, where your family is, similar customs, and many aspects of life that you have grown up with and are familiar with. But when you move to another country, and perhaps then a third or a fourth, this concept of “home” becomes difficult to pin down. Where exactly is home? For me, I have much less in common with my hometown and the folks I grew up with as I get older. It would be difficult to fit back in again if I returned. And I suspect that is the same for the others as well. The concept of “home” is a very important and we tend to lose that.

If you get married to someone from the new country, that can be challenging as well as now you can’t avoid the culture and the language differences because you are experiencing it at work and and at home. And then throw some kids into the mix and it really gets interesting (and more challenging).

Our kids grew up in Mexico with also American and French citizenship. They heard three languages in the home, and spent summer holidays in France and Canada, so they became familiar with their customs and differences. I could see how they would change, like putting on a difference face as we visited family; they adjusted quickly to the culture, spoke just that language, and “became” French or American/Canadian. But, when you asked them who they are: Mexican, French or American, they have difficulty answering that. I see them with their friends, it is like they have three different personalities that they move into to fit the person they are with along with their culture and customs. This is something we had to learn as well, although it wasn’t as easy for us as it was for them, that’s just what they knew from a young age.

Today, we tend to share our lives with people who are also from other countries and cultures. A discussion involves multiple languages, whichever one tends to have the right word or phrase. A sentence spoken can often embody three different languages. Who else but this group could understand it? But if someone is there who only speaks English, for example, not only does the language change, but also the mannerisms. Quite interesting to see it take place.

So moving to another country, assimilating, can seem at first to be a terrific idea, it is perhaps a little over-glorified. As we grow older the concept of “home” becomes more important to all of us. And when you don’t quite know where that it, it throws you off. I hear my wife and I now talking about wanting a home with a yard and a pool where the grandkids can come to – we are trying to create a “home” we can share with them. Fortunately, though, there’s no plans for grandkids yet, so we still have some time to continue to live a gypsy-like life. But it is continually becoming more and more important to us. And where will it be? Where the kids live, or close to them, we presume. But with one in Canada and another in France, that’s challenging!

For those that stay in their home country and city, this is not something they have to grapple with as much. Home will always be home, even if the kids do move away. They can always go back home. Our kids don’t really know where home is, and we are kind of lost with that concept as well.

Perhaps home is where family congregates. It isn’t necessarily a tangible concept, nor a geographical location. It is where one’s family is and when they come together, wherever that may be, that is home.

Recently we finished watching three seasons of “The Americans”, a Netflix series that is about a couple of spies from Russia living in the U.S. They’ve created a family, two kids, and their business front is a travel agency, but they are really in the business of spying. They kill people, they do a lot of bad things. But underlying this story is a theme of family and acceptance. They are Russian but their kids are American. They are in this country not by their choice, married (forced) to someone they didn’t choose. They begin to like the U.S. in some ways, but battle with their allegiance to their home country. What is acceptable to like and what isn’t? It’s a bit of a stretch, but we liked this because they have to deal with issues similar to what any expat has to deal with – separation from home and family. And on top of that it’s just a great TV series.

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