Thursday, 21 July 2011

Where is home?

The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.  ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Auckland City seen from the North Shore
Image Copyright: Kath Liu 2011

For me, this one quote perfectly sums up what it feels like to return to your country of origin, be it permanently or for a quick visit, after a period of living overseas. For me, it feels like something has grown and it no longer fits like it used to, like a favourite t-shirt you used to wear all the time that accidentally got shrunk in the wash. Of course, the process of change from being overseas is a lot slower and more subtle than an overnight laundry incident and you often won't even realise that it has happened until you go back for your first visit. The process of trying on your previous life for size, as it were.

When I'm asked where I'm from, it's a challenge to answer in absolutes. I was born in Cornwall, England but I did all of my teenaged growing up in Auckland, New Zealand. I was already a bit of a mutt before I moved to Taiwan but now I feel like I've morphed into something else entirely but goodness knows what that actually is. All I know is that when I went back home to NZ for a visit recently, I felt different. Stretched. Slightly misshapen. A little odd. There were the obvious things that happen that made me notice, like the fact that I forgot that in NZ you follow road traffic conventions and keep to the left on escalators (in Taipei it's the reverse and you stay to the right-hand side) and I was shocked and appalled by the cost of living and how it had risen since I had last been back - mind you I don't think you need to have left the country to feel like that when  inflation is 5-6% per annum and wage increases are 1-2% per annum.

But there were other things that made me feel weird, like after having had a couple of glasses of wine at the wedding I was there for, I found Mandarin phrases bubbling up through. I found myself nearly saying "為什麼?" (wèishéme?) instead of "Why?" and other strange linguistic anomalies. I found myself feeling unusually intimidated by hoodie-wearing youths even though I knew that they weren't at all dangerous. I found myself feeling like a stranger in a place where I used to be absolutely comfortable - feeling exactly the same way that I did two years ago when I first moved to Taiwan. I guess if I was going to be staying in NZ longer than I was you'd say I was experiencing reverse culture shock but since I was only there for a week, I'll just call it feeling out of place in a familiar environment. 

It's a fairly lonely experience too. There you are, feeling like a fish out of water and everyone else around you has no idea you're feeling like that. Why would they? You've come back home. It's natural for them to assume that you feel like you've just slotted straight back into your old life and everything feels comfortable and familiar.  So how was I supposed to tell anyone? If I responded to "I bet it feels good to be home!" with "Actually it feels really weird and I don't feel like I fit in here anymore..." then I run the risk of accidentally offending someone or making it sound like I wasn't enjoying the fact that I was back in NZ which I was, absolutely. Being back and seeing all of my dear friends and spending time with family was fabulous. The ability to shop in regular stores who carried my size was brilliant. Going to the supermarket and seeing more cheese than you could shake a stick at was lovely. Nothing was wrong with New Zealand, what was wrong was me.

Living overseas changes you, it has to - you have to adapt to a new environment, usually learn a new language and get used to all sorts of crazy things. I mean, this makes sense logically but the emotional reality of these changes can sometimes be harder to accept. Going back to NZ pointed out to me that I wasn't the same person who left in 2009 and that felt very strange. If I wasn't that person anymore then who was I? Where did I fit in? Where was home really at? There is something rather unsettling in not really knowing which country is your home but it's also kind of exciting because it opens up all sorts of possibilities. If I can count England, New Zealand and Taiwan as my 'homes' of various types then doesn't that mean that ultimately anywhere we choose to settle could be considered home? Life without boundaries can be terrifying but also freeing. Maybe that old t-shirt no longer fits but there are many more out there that will.

Have you ever had this experience of going back to a place you used to live in and feeling like a stranger? How did you deal with it?


  1. This was a beautiful and thought-provoking post. Maybe Thomas Wolfe had it right after all.

  2. As the Crowe flies - I think he did, to be honest. Or at least, you can't go home expecting everything to be the same - it'll be as different as moving to a new country again. Thanks for your comment, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it!

  3. Great post...caught me in a reflective mood and hit home. As a (close on) 20 year expat home is now where I am. I feel less and less connected to my birthplace (Australia) although I dearly love it and strangely more connected to my ancestral home (Scotland) though I have never lived there for any period of time...
    This is a piece that deserves to be read, Kath, and read by many. those at home never understand that living away, no matter how ordinarily, changes you. And "home" changes while you are not there...I could write at length on this but since you have already said it so succinctly and beautifully I will simply leave it at "I agree"

  4. Yes, yes and yes.

    I might write about my own reverse culture shock experiences at some point, to add to the canon of experiences about it online.

    I did experience true and total reverse culture shock twice. Once when I returned from India and I felt that my entire point of reasoning and understanding of life had been turned on its head. I came back to people interested in fun stories but not really interested in listening to me pick apart weird feelings of being home but feeling like I was looking at home through a thick glass window. I craved things I could not have in India - pizza, nights out at lounge bars, sleeveless shirts - and yet as I indulged in them I felt like a privileged Westerner turning her back on things she witnessed in another part of the world (among them poverty, sexism and a lack of choice). I wasn't ready yet to say "yes, I want this, I want to spend much of my life abroad learning langauges and experiencing other places, meeting people from different countries and doing crazy things" and yet the future that awaited me - a cube monkey in some office somewhere - was no longer remotely appealing - and to make matters worse, few people seemed to understand why.

    I have more to say about that but I'll save it for my own post.

    When I returned from China I spent 2 1/2 years back home, mostly working in one of those dreaded office jobs. I couldn't explain how China had changed me - I had not loved China the way I loved India and it induced in me a certain melancholy that I feel still resides in me today, and expresses itself through cynicism. I felt socially disconnected, invited to happy hours and young professional networking events and finding myself unable to make small talk with people I didn't get who didn't get me. All Americans, and yet I felt disconnected even as my heart was bursting with feelings of how...of how people would refer to their surroundings, their jobs, their lives in ways that laid bare how they saw themselves and their environment. I would be in that same work or social environment and feel completely differently, and I didn't know how to articulate that without sounding like a complete weirdo.

    The first time it hit hard, to the point where I ended up in student counseling. The second time I dealt with it on my own, but I don't think it ever fully went away until I made the decision to move to Taiwan.

    And oddly, I have settled into all three countries far better than I ever re-settled into the USA.

  5. I moved around a lot while I was growing up, so I never felt like anywhere is home. I have totally lost count of how many times I had to get into the car and drive off. I went through foster homes when my dad couln't take care of me. I live with strangers; moving around not realizing why.

    This is beautifully written.Thank you for sharing. I can't say I relate because I have no connection whatsoever with any place at all.

  6. THE Steve - Thanks very much for the lovely comment, much appreciated! It's interesting where you end up feeling most connected to while you're away. Recently I've been feeling more connected to Cornwall than NZ which I haven't felt in a very long time.

    Jenna - Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting comment! It's great to hear about other people's experiences with this kind of thing. I think for me the worst of it is when people just can't understand it.

    黃愛玲 - Thanks for your feedback! I'm sitting here trying to figure out what it must be like not to think of anywhere as 'home'. I've tried to get my head around it before after chatting with some of the kids of expats here who have grown up in all sorts of countries and don't feel like they really belong to any
    of them. From my standpoint that seems like it would be a really difficult thing but then for those like yourself who live it might not think so? Is it hard? Or is it just how life is?

  7. So glad I decided to wander around your blog a little more - you capture here a lot of the things I felt when I went back home to the States for the first time in 23 months. (Not that I've been counting.) In my case it may be a little different, again, because I'm living in a developing country and don't have an ex-pat community - I'm a couple hours from the nearest English speaker, which has always been the best stat I can think of to describe how isolated life can be where I am now. I loved my three weeks in the States and am excited to move back there a year from now, but there were so many things that were hard to explain - why I got dizzy every time I went in a grocery store, why I "shut down" when I tried to go clothes shopping, why I would try and get other people to help me order at a restaurant (just too many choices). No doubt there are people who think my life is pretty exciting, but it was strange for me to see some of my friends moving on with their lives in a way that I feel I'm not - being in serious relationships, having "real" jobs, etc. Plus, as much as I tried to stamp it down I kept having those weird linguistic hiccups, too. When my parents drove me home from the airport I wanted to see my father's iphone (and so much new technology - totally overwhelming) and was trying and failing to write an email on it. A couple days later my mom asked me why I had kept saying "opa!" while I was on his phone, which I hadn't even realized I was's a word that, at this point, just feels natural.