Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Contradictions of Home

 We are very pleased to offer a guest post today by our friend, Jenni Gate.

Intro: Jen Gate

Jenni Gate has worked as a paralegal, a mediator, a small business consultant, and a writer. Born in Libya and raised throughout Africa and Asia, Jenni’s upbringing as a global nomad provided a unique perspective on life. As a child, she lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Washington DC area. As an adult, she has lived in Alaska, England, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. New adventures abound. To read more about her adventures around the world, visit her at Nomad Trails and Tales.

By Jenni Gate
Growing up among different cultures creates contradictions in our adult lives that we find ourselves dealing with for the rest of our lives. This is true as we try to determine our identities, in coming to terms with personality issues, in transitions, in finding meaning for our experiences, and especially when we try to define what or where is "home."
An average person who grows up in one place for their whole childhood knows who he or she is. He has a strong sense of identity in the place where he spent his childhood. Even if she moved house within a town or city, she can define herself by the geographical boundaries. Someone who is born and raised in a small town identifies so closely with that town that even if she moves away long into adulthood, that place is still home in her heart. There is pride of home, often a deep love for the way of life in which one was raised, and broad, intimate knowledge of the traditions and cultures of home.
When we grow up moving from place to place, culture to culture, we call many places home. We hold diverse realms of cultures, traditions, and social norms within us. When we move from place to place, we are always trying to gauge what the social norms are, learning new traditions, adopting cultures, even new languages. We may feel that we can fit in anywhere, but we never really fit in. We miss the depth and breadth of knowledge a local person has of the culture of a place. Our parents may be able to go home, to a place that nurtured them in childhood, established moral boundaries, set social norms and cultural practices and traditions, but as children who grow up exchanging whole worlds with the sound of a jet engine, we carry a tormenting ideal of home within us that we may never find.
Although it may seem obvious, in practical, real-life experience, this feeling of being out of step or at odds with the particularities of a place is a living contradiction. When we return to our passport countries, we may not have a sense of place to return to. We may look like we belong, so the expectations are the same as for a local person. But in reality, we are hidden immigrants, unfamiliar with the norms, expectations, cultures and traditions of a place. Many of us feel rootless and restless for the remainder of our lives as a result. Some can't wait to pick a place to call home and settle in.
Long into our adulthood, regardless whether we feel settled or rootless, we cringe when anyone asks where we're from. How do we explain that we are from many places, that we have called many places home? How do we choose just one place to be from? Is it where we felt the most accepted? Is it where we just began to set down roots when a parent’s job was transferred or a civil war forced an evacuation? Is it where our friends bonded with us during a coup or war with a closeness we have never felt again? How do we explain that even when we look like we belong, we may be foreign in every other way? If we have parents of different ethnic backgrounds, it becomes even more complicated to explain.
For me, defining home is extremely complicated and contradictory. I feel like an outsider looking in. When I lived in a small town, the provincialism of the townspeople was apparent in every gesture, every comment, every question, and I felt like a complete foreigner at times. Even though I felt love for my country, I also felt split loyalties during international crises, and it was impossible for many of my new friends to understand.
Having lived in many places that are no longer safe to travel to, it has been important for me to read as much as possible about many of the places I have called home. Sometimes I've learned more about a place after leaving it than I did when I lived there. I've had my heart broken when places I once called home become embroiled in war, when they suffer natural disasters or famine. How, in those times, do we describe the sense of helplessness that comes over us that there is little we can do to help the people of a place we once loved?
We hold many homes in our hearts, many cultures, many traditions, many ways of being. We hold places in our hearts that we can never return to. We hold the memories of friendships, of heartaches, of happiness particular to a place. We may never fully belong, but we adapt, we empathize with others, we try to make sense of the contradictions, we struggle with our shifting identities, and eventually we create a sense of home within ourselves.
How do you define "home"? What does it mean to you? Do you have a strong sense of identity because of the homes you've internalized, or is identity a fluid concept, something you change and adapt with every new location?


Anonymous said...

wow, Jenni, thanks for making me "think" this morning - personally, the concept of home has been elusive. Some say home is where the heart is but how can that be when you don't even know what one is? Growing up in a small town, home for me was somewhere I never wanted to be - it was an abusive, negative, horrible place and damaged me severely and continues to haunt my adult life - as a child writing was my only outlet and as you probably can guess most of what I write has to do with emotional homelessness. Loved your post - very relevant.

KL Mullens

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

You are not alone and there are many who went through what you describe above. Writing is indeed a wonderful form of release. We will all be wishing you well and hope you stay in touch.
Thank you for writing to us.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

"I feel like an outsider looking in." This. But the older I get, the more I appreciate my outsider status. I think it makes me a better writer to be always a little on the outside, to observe and to watch. Like I was positioned there for a purpose and not as the result of some character flaw. Also, for me "home" is found in being among certain people or engaging in certain activities, more than a geographic location. Thanks, Jenni!

Jenni Gate said...

KL, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It's a good reminder to me that even when someone has a more rooted childhood, it is not always the best environment for a child. I used to use that saying all the time, "home is where the heart is," but as I moved and continued to move in adulthood, I felt like I was leaving pieces of my heart all over the place. I read a memoir of a biologist a few months ago, and she commented that when we live in a place, we inhale the dusts and sediments as we also exhale and leave our own DNA on the place. We take it in and are changed by it, but we also change the place. I try to think of home in terms of a global eco-system that nurtures as we nurture it, but I'm well aware that is an illusion.

Thank you for commenting. I'm happy it started you thinking this morning, and I hope you are able to play with this in your own writing.

Jenni Gate said...

Jennifer, I agree. Sometimes the best perspective as a writer is to be on the outside looking in!

I like the perspective that you find home with your communities and activities. It's a good shift from the traditional way of thinking about it.

Thanks so much for commenting!

Gloria Alden said...

Jenni, when I started reading your posting, I felt like I've lived such a boring life compared to yours, but then when I read the problems that come with being a nomad, I realized how lucky I've been to live in the same county my whole considerable life. But that could also be because even though I was a rather shy child, I was surrounded by a large extended family, and good parents. So if home is indeed where the heart is, my home is firmly rooted in NE Ohio - roots that go back many generations. I hope someday, Jenni, you'll find a place you will feel is home for you, too.

Jenni Gate said...

Thank you, Gloria! I wouldn't trade most of the experiences in my life, but I do feel wistful at times about this issue. I may never find the ideal place to call home, but for me the process will be one of constant re-definition.

Ohio sounds like a great place to call home, and you were indeed fortunate to have a stable, nurturing environment to shape you.

Thank you for reading and commenting!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thank you Jenni for your thought-provoking post. Although I have never resided outside the U.S., I moved with my family from small southern town to small southern town during my childhood, never attending the same school two years in a row. Although I didn't leave the south until my college years, for many years I have thought of the Pacific Northwest as home. Although I made good friends in the places I have lived, it is the landscape, my love of the high country, that truly settles in my heart as "home."

Thanks again from a "former" fellow Alaskan.

Jenni Gate said...

Hi Nancy,

Always nice to hear again from a fellow former Alaskan. Your childhood was marked by high mobility in a way that we probably share many of the same traits. You know what it's like being repeatedly uprooted and always being the new kid at school,trying to fit in. It's interesting we both love the landscape of the northwest. I'm glad it feels like home for you.