Around the holiday season, a common exchange between people living abroad ends in, "I'm going back 'home' for the holidays this year." Ironically, many of us who say this have been living in our new adopted countries for more years than our original ones. The notion of "home," however, remains fluid.
This past December, my husband suggested we go to Oxford Street to do some Christmas shopping before going back to Jerusalem for the holidays.
"You seriously want me to shop in those touristy areas?!" I snubbed, and refused to go.
Oddly enough, it has only been three years, yet here I was thinking of London as my territory, and of tourists as invaders in my personal space. Despite this, I did not always feel "at home" in my most recent adopted city. Having lived for varying periods of time in six different countries, I have dealt with the issue of what "home" really means every year for the past 10 years.
So, it was not strange to think of it again this year. This was, however, the first time I dealt with the issue as a mother. Naturally, it made me reflect even more on the issue of "home," on why we go abroad and what happens when we do and on how to deal with these sentiments.
I wondered if there was a "right" answer... If I would ever really find "home."
When you go abroad, it can be for a variety of reasons: to pursue opportunities, to escape certain fates or experiences, to try new things. It is there that you are able to reinvent yourself and to grow. You develop a new identity built on a strength you form through the challenges of moving to a new country, learning a new language, experiencing a new culture and creating a new life.
You miss your old home, however. Sometimes, you seek out that grocery store 15 miles away because it sells the same kind of cheese you had back home. Other times, you hear someone speaking your language on the street and you feel homesick. Some days, you smell a certain dish and you remember your mother's cooking. Despite these nostalgic feelings, you eventually begin to adapt and to take many of the comforts of your chosen life for granted. You start to build a rich social life and even to think of your new adopted country as 'home.'
Visiting your old country becomes relegated to the holidays. You look forward to it excitedly, but also anxiously, because going back feels like running into a person you haven't seen in years. It forces you to raise a mirror to yourself, to confront who you were and how much you have changed in the years since you left. Yet when you return, you feel like the person who took off all those years ago but that everything else you left behind is no longer the same.
The truth is, you've changed and everyone you know has changed as well, but the change has taken place at different rates and in different ways. Some of the changes make you happy, but other changes force you to come to terms with how much life has moved on without you. On the one hand, you feel like an outsider. On the other, you feel lucky to have left and to be able to move between these two homes.
This privilege, though, comes with a price. There are nights when you lay awake thinking of the things you are missing back home. Even as these nostalgic thoughts lessen with time, many of life's defining moments -- holidays, birthdays, weddings, deaths, births -- remind you of what you are missing and make you questions your choices.
But you know that your heart has more than one master. The country that raised you, the other that adopted you; the family that molded you and the friends that embraced you; the past experiences that defined you and the new opportunities now in front of you.
Dealing with these feelings, however, is as ambiguous as the feelings themselves.
Occasionally, these experiences make you think about going back. You wonder why you left and start to ponder what truly matters in life. You know that you have worked very hard to get to where you are, to carve out this new life for yourself, and you can't give that up for a few pangs of nostalgia. But, you also know that regardless of the length of your stay in your new country, you will always be an ex-pat, defined by a different culture, habits and language.
So, you lament the price you pay for wanting more; the price of trading in one life for another of larger opportunities and greater freedoms. You have more things, more experiences, your horizons seem wider and your knowledge base denser, but you lost some things along the way as well. You feel destined to be torn between places and to never feel completely at home...
Sometimes, you start to feel tired of this instability. You feel tired of being torn between two or more homes.
You feel tired of not knowing.
You want to clip your wings...
...but you also want to fly.
You recognize that because of your choices and desires, your life may never be as simple as black and white. But through all this complexity, you come to understand one very simple thing. It's that even though "home" was defined by geography, over time your geographic roots have become weaker, and "home" has now come to be defined by family.
You realize that through much of your life, even though you thought it was geography that defined you, it was actually your family that gave meaning to this geography and made it "home."
Your family has been the one constant through all the variables of life.
That's why, on my first holiday "back home" as a mother, I experienced more emotions than I had ever experienced before, but why it was also easier for me to deal with them.
On our last night there, my husband asked, "Would you consider moving back here?"
"Not anytime soon," I replied.
We talked about the reasons why and how my answer may have been different given different circumstances.
I knew deep down, however, that it didn't really matter what my answer was. My "home" now was my husband and daughter, regardless of geography.