There’s no place like home…
“You’ve made it look so easy,” my friend Brenna said last weekend. “You moved here, found a house, made friends, learned some Vietnamese, quit one job, got another, traveled all over by yourself.”
“No,” I countered, “you’ve made it look easy.” Brenna, a Californian so optimistic I have to wear sunscreen, worked at Apollo with me. She quit, then a whole bunch of other people, including myself, quit. We were discussing adjusting to Hanoi. You would think that after eight months, we could stop talking about it. No. We are always adjusting to Hanoi.
Adjusting to a new country means that, sometimes, you’re homesick. You might want a glass of Cotes du Rhone and a plate of frites with saffron aioli with your oldest friend. Or an impromptu dance party to Pink with your roommate because you’re angry about the Republicans’ latest attempt to take away women’s rights. Maybe you want to listen to All Things Considered while you cook something wonderful using ingredients you understand. Or perhaps you simply want to walk by Lake of the Isles at four in the afternoon to see the way the sunlight slants on the late winter snow.
My father’s career as a journalist and editor meant that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Washington, DC; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Athens, Ohio; Wichita, Kansas; Chicago, Illinois; Horseheads, New York; Wausau, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota. None of these places were home, exactly, though they each contributed to the vocabulary with which I use to define that elusive concept. I shouldn’t say define; I am only beginning to be able to approach a definition of home.
It’s fitting that a newspaper is the mirror of my soul; the New York Times printed this article about homesickness among people living abroad today. I’ve been feeling homesick and it’s hard for me to come to terms with it. Wasn’t moving seven times within the USA an immunization against homesickness?
The article claims that society today admires people who are essentially rootless, those who can live anywhere, having ties to nowhere.
The global desire to leave home arises from poverty and necessity, but it also grows out of a conviction that such mobility is possible. People who embrace this cosmopolitan outlook assume that individuals can and should be at home anywhere in the world, that they need not be tied to any particular place.
Most of us, at least those of us who went to American high schools or suffered through college Classics courses, have read The Odyssey once or, if you were less fortunate, twice. Odysseus spends the entire poem trying to reach his beloved Ithaca, his home and kingdom. Where did Frodo wish he was throughout the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? Home, probably eating multiple breakfasts, in The Shire. Home is important, even if it is imagined.
I would like to consider myself a cosmopolitan person but I know that I’ll never truly be at home everywhere. I aspire to that, but it is impossible. In university, I took multiple courses from one professor, an art historian who was an expert in French 19th century prints. He was in his sixties, was married to a French woman with whom he collaborated on research and with whom he collected a great deal of art. Every winter break and summer break, he and his wife would leave Minneapolis for their apartment in Paris. Once or twice, his cell phone rang in the middle of a lecture. It was always an art dealer calling from France. He seemed tremendously cosmopolitan but he had a strong Brooklyn accent and his lectures were punctuated by is regular use of Yiddish. Listening to him, he was neither French nor Minnesoootan. My sister says I talk like a Chicagoan, though when I’m talking about Minnesooota, I sound like I’m out of the film Fargo, and when I say the word Wisconsin, it’s clear I’ve spent some time there. Her own accent twangs of Kansas edged with Chicago’s harshness.
We cannot escape the places we come from; there will be something in our accent, our table manners, our politics that connects us to that place. What we can do is have many homes. I remember complaining to my grandmother once about how moving so much always made me feel like I did not belong anywhere. “You and your sisters,” she said, “must put down roots everywhere.” Wichita was home immediately after we moved there because I was too young to think differently. I reluctantly let Chicago become home only after living there for three years. I never called Wausau home while I lived there; it was “home” after I went off to college because that was the word for the place your family lived. Minneapolis slowly charmed me with its quirks.
It’s been said that “Home is where the heart is.” I could never leave my heart in one place; I would never be able to choose just one home. Instead, my heart has become a sponge, soaking up the places I live. I am coming to terms with the fact that I do get homesick; I am more connected to the USA now than I was when I was living there. I am concerned for its future and, sometimes, long for the comfort of a culture whose taboos and norms I understand. No matter how much I move and travel in the future, I will always be connected to the places I have lived because each one is, in its own way, home. Home is not where the heart is. The heart is where home is.
PS: Writing this, and the first sunny weekend day in months, has totally cured my homesickness. Thanks for reading.