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Home Is Where the Heart Is

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Home Is Where the Heart Is

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‘Home sweet home’. Once a simple adage that has adorned embroidered cushions, door mats and other domestic decorations for years, it no longer seems like such a straightforward statement.

In a day and age when our personal and professional lives aren’t constrained by post codes, state lines or even borders, and when travel — the desire to move — becomes the norm, the question of where we call ‘home’ grows ever more pertinent.

According to a 2013 report by the United Nations, approximately 3 per cent of the world’s population live outside of the countries in which they were born. That means roughly 232 million people don’t currently call their country of origin ‘home’. Whether drawn away by a loved one, enticed by the prospect of a new job opportunity, or simply feeling an urge to live somewhere different, a considerable proportion of the global population are reinventing the very concept of ‘home’.

The word can evoke a range of connotations, depending on who is asking — and answering — the question. Traditionally, questions pertaining to home tended to mean the place where one was born or where their childhood home was. However, if the places we called home as a child changed frequently, or where we were born was merely a matter of coincidence, this set of criteria may not be such a good measure. Further, as expat lifestyles and long-distance relationships are becoming more and more common, these examples may not be as concrete or definite as they once were.

Perhaps it’s best, then, to turn our attention to the homes we’ve had throughout our adult years. While they say that we can’t pick our family but we can pick our friends; university flats, young professional house-shares or the various dorm rooms of an extended period of travel could all be considered homes that we’ve selected ourselves, and the people that fill them our extended, chosen family. These are the places we ‘decided’ to be based, where often our first memories of developing our education, shaping our careers or nurturing our personal relationships came to fruition.

But what happens if, as part of that journey of self-discovery, we feel ourselves called to a city or country thousands of miles away, that we may never have been to before but feel compelled to visit or live in? There may be no other reason except for the desire to up and go which calls us there, but we just know it’s somewhere we’re meant to be. That’s how we end up on planes or trains, with nothing but suitcases and a head full of dreams, ready to start anew.

If we therefore have childhood homes, places we’ve lived for educational, professional or personal reasons and then places we feel connected to in other ways, when — and how — does one accept the transition from the idea of ‘home’, singular, to that of multiple homes? And how do these interact, working with or against one another in the formation of our identities?

For me, I realised this multiplicity most recently after returning home to London — the city where I grew up and where my parents live — after an extended period of travel. I had come back from New Zealand, where I had gone to reconnect with family who had moved there nearly a decade ago, as well as being inspired by its geographical remoteness — I don’t think it’s possible for me to get any further from ‘home’, in a sense.

Big Ben by the Thames, London. Photo by Thomas Ligart
Big Ben by the Thames, London. Photo by Thomas Ligart

There’s something special about my childhood home and a part of me will always be attached to London because it’s where my family and school friends are. However, returning to the city, I no longer felt as connected with it in the way I had done before — people had moved on, areas had changed and at times I felt out of sync with the fast-paced nature of life there. This sense of reverse culture shock — feeling like what once was so familiar was somewhat foreign — is common for many people to experience after living overseas.

I found that I was looking forward to returning to New Zealand as well, which is the place I have chosen to call home for the past year and that I continue to do so now. Each time I landed back at Auckland airport after a month in Australia or a spontaneous trip to New Caledonia, I felt a sense of coming home then, too.

What is it that creates these feelings, and why do some places hold such power over us in this way? Turning to the trusty dictionary, the word ‘home’ is defined in a number of ways. However, what unites the different definitions is a recurring mention of permanence. Perhaps it’s intrinsic to us as human beings to have a need for stability, and loved ones or work obligations are just some of the things which can anchor us to particular locations.

Interestingly, if we look to Māori culture, the concept of turangawaewae could help shed some light on why people are drawn to certain locations. The meaning of this word — ‘a place to stand’ — refers to the feelings of empowerment and connectedness we draw from a given place. While turangawaewae in the traditional sense is related to the ancestral connections embodied in the physical landscapes around us, the overriding sense of grounding implied by the term may also be present for other reasons in places we’ve chosen to live.

Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand. Photo by Kurt McManus
Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand. Photo by Kurt McManus

As the UN data shows, world travel is an ever-growing trend, and this in turn is changing the nature of our society and the rules and norms which define it. As a fairly frequent flyer myself, what has always struck me is how on just about any given day of the week, airplanes and airports are busy. Waiting for my flight from Auckland to Hong Kong on a Wednesday afternoon earlier this year, the departures lounge was full. And it didn’t stop there. The flight was packed out. Where are all these people going, and why?

Looking around the café in departures, it was clear to see there were a mixture of travellers waiting to get on their way. Smart suits and the clicking of laptop keys suggested passengers who were going to or coming from business meetings or other work-related travel. More chatter and a whir of activity seemed to come from families, who were perhaps flying off to or ending a holiday or reunion. Plane travel used to be seen as an exotic and glamorous form of transport. However, with an increasing number of workplaces spanning multiple global locations, or families spread across continents, air travel is now more of an everyday means to an end rather than an
occasional luxury.

According to the Benefits Beyond Borders report by the Air Transport Action Group, 2.97 billion people took flights in 2014, and that’s with a total global population of 7.2 billion. If we know from figures like these that the world is becoming a more accessible, and in some sense, a smaller place, then it’s no wonder that something as equally definitive — the concept of ‘home’ — is also in flux.

In my own experience, while at first I struggled with not feeling ‘at home’ when I returned to London, I came to the realisation that maybe what was needed was a change of definition. With this new outlook, I decided that it was perfectly acceptable to have multiple homes, which exist both concurrently in the present, and also in my memories of the past. Instead of looking outwards and attempting to locate and secure one home in one city, I realised that I have many homes across the world. While this could seem to be unsettling, in fact, I found in this way of thinking that sense of stability we all seek, knowing that in whichever corner of the world I may be, a friendly face or familiar feeling may also be there too.

Published on September 3, 2015
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