Is Home Really Home When You’ve Been Away for so Long?

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”– James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Today marks my 12th year anniversary in Canada. This is actually the longest I’ve lived anywhere.  The other day a friend was remarking on how interesting it was that I’ve lived outside my country of birth for the majority of my life and, indeed, it’s the place where I spent the least time.

In my old diaries I read the euphoria I experienced when I moved to Canada. The hopes of a teenage girl, and the naïveté as well! Acculturating to life in Canada was a lot harder than I’d expected but for me it ended up being an ideal environment for personal growth.

Ironically, living in Canada helped form my identity as an African woman. In my African life, living in an upper-middle class/expatriate community, attending an international school and using English the majority of the time, very few facets of African culture truly interested me in my younger years, except for perhaps music and art. It’s not something I’m proud to admit now but I feel it’s important for me to acknowledge that. However, moving to a Canadian city with a black population of less than 0.5%, I was a novelty;  I was expected to be an authority about African culture but embarrassingly I knew very little. It was then I realized the significance of history and the importance of knowing where you’re from, regardless of how long you lived there. After my first year in Canada my thirst for acquiring African knowledge was quite insatiable. I collected as much information as I could, asked my relatives back home to send me books, music, art, etc., much to their amusement. To me it was extremely comforting and exciting to learn as much as I could about my heritage.

But now I think about how I’ve lived away from home for over a decade. I don’t have as close of a connection with my country as I once did, and that made me feel a little bit melancholy. That is, until I read the following from Canadian writer, Neil Bissoondath,  about identity and the meaning of “home”:

My own roots are portable, adaptable, the source of personal freedom that allows me to feel “at home” in a variety of places and languages without ever forgetting who I am or what brought me here. My roots travel with me, in my pocket, as it were, there to guide or succour me as need may be. They are, in the end, the sum of my experience, historical, familial and personal. There are, in the end, my sense of self.
– Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions

 

And from Amin Maalouf ( In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong):

“I sometimes find myself “examining my identity” as other people examine their conscience. As you may imagine, my object is not to discover within myself some “essential” allegiance in which I may recognise myself. Rather the opposite: I scour my memory to find as many ingredients of my identity as I can. I then assemble and arrange them. I don’t deny any of them.”

I like those quotes because they express how I feel and what I’ve experienced. We are all an amalgamation of our experiences and our upbringings so I’m sure I’m not the only one who can relate to them. It makes me grateful to think of myself as an adaptable human being,  a cosmopolitan one.  Living in Canada has definitely afforded me opportunities of a different sort than I would have received back home and I’m grateful to have Canada as my home. Acknowledging my heritage will always be important to me.

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20 thoughts on “Is Home Really Home When You’ve Been Away for so Long?

  1. That Bissoondath quote is the most beautiful thing I’ve read this week – I think it’s the essence of joyful self-identification… Mighty migrant words = )

      1. I have often felt that home is a matter of individual choice more than anything. That it is not enough that society claims us for itself merely by chance of the geographical coincidence at birth. It gets even more complicated with marriage, having children, being afforded career advancement opportunities and getting recognition (perhaps not acceptance) in ‘foreign lands’. One learns to idealise and adapt to one’s own concept of home, be it in the stark reality of the physical surroundings one finds themselves in, or the fictional/mystical environment one escapes into by way of art and other pursuits of beauty and truth. We want to say to ourselves “Home will find me once I find myself a home”
        Lol, about how I knew… Really, now, I’m surprised you ask. Really surprised. Like I was MW herself.

      2. I agree with your thoughts. I think with this globalized world of ours the lines are definitely getting blurred. Spot on with the idealisation, I mean home is never perfect but we often only remember the good parts.

        lol, I won’t ask but I really have no idea. I might just be tired, haven’t been sleeping much lately 😀

  2. So much food for thought! I for my part have never left my country, but I definitely went through a phase when I thought I was “too cool” for Argentinian culture (Teenage Caro and I wouldn’t get along). I think that roots become more important the older we get – probably because no matter where we want to go we need to know where we’re standing now.

    That quote is so, so lovely – and accurate, I think. We haven’t talked very much, but from the conversations we did have you strike me as a person who’s very sure of herself, an adventurer who might feel fear but won’t let that get in the way of your enjoyment of a rich and fulfilling life. So it makes sense that your identity would be adaptable and fluid while still remaining thoroughly what makes you you.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Caro! And you’ve given me plenty of food for thought! I was thinking how complicated my identity was having lived on three continents and I’d never considered that even living in one country could cause similar issues, depending on the person.

      And thanks so much for your kind words! I truly appreciate them ❤

  3. The Bissoondath quote is so comforting… What a great post, Rowena. It sounds like you had such an interesting childhood and one that almost makes you a citizen of the world rather than just one particular place. What country is your family originally from?

    1. It (the quote) is, isn’t it? When I read it I was reminded of one of the reasons why I read:) I agree with you, Adria, though it’s been tough trying to navigate my identity! I’m from Malawi and I grew up in Scotland and then moved to Malawi as a pre-teen 🙂

  4. Wow… that is so interesting! What diversity… and that makes for many great experiences and encounters. But I’m sure it wasn’t easy as a child/teen either when it’s tough finding your identity even if you’ve always lived in the same place! And I can understand that even now, you must feel as if you are a blend of many nationalities and cultures. Even though it’s difficult, it’s also a wonderful gift.

    1. Thank you, Adria! It really was hard and I think I felt ashamed about having all these contradictory feelings! I’ve definitely reconciled my feelings now and I’m happy, though always searching for deeper understanding:)

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