Monday, September 21, 2015

A Conversation About "Home" With My Dad (The Original Expat)


When I was five or so, my dad and I had a Sunday ritual: I'd sit on a little step ladder in the kitchen and watch him make breakfast for us. Scrambled eggs, a piece of ham, and two pieces of cinnamon toast. He still makes the same breakfast for me when I go back for visits.

Now we have a new Sunday ritual: I call him on FaceTime while he's making breakfast and I'm making dinner. We talk about his work, my work, the news, our new house ... I show him things like our new carpet or the mosaic lamp we bought in Singapore. Once in a while, he'll interrupt with, "What are you making? Is it any good? That chicken is going to be too dry like that. I guarantee it."

This time, our conversation turned to my grandma's Happy Valley apartment, which was sold to the highest bidder last week after she passed away this summer. Apparently, the sale made Hong Kong papers.  I clicked through photos of the emptied flat on my cousin's Facebook page, feeling a hollow sadness as I remembered the sound of the door opening and my grandma's face lighting up on the other side as she greeted us with our suitcases in tow.

"You know, I'm rootless now. I have no connection to Hong Kong anymore," my dad declared between bites of toast."I have no home!"

"But wait," I said. "Don't you feel like our home in Washington is your home?" 

His answer surprised me. Without pausing, he answered: "No. I've never felt like this was my home. I mean, it's where you kids grew up, but those are all the memories I have of this house. The Happy Valley apartment was my home, when Mar Mar was around." 

This made me equally sad and curious at the same time. I'd never heard my dad define "home" like that. I decided to investigate further.

"But don't you feel like where you started your own family was your home?" I asked. 

"No," he said with his mouth full. "I always felt like, you know, if anything happened - and I mean, anything - if it all went wrong, I could go back to Mar Mar's place and everything would be fine." And he dissolved into fits of laughter, as if it was the silliest thought in the world.

But it wasn't. Because I've often thought the very same thing. And I wish it were different. I wish I could say with certainty that this new house that John and I have bought together is my "home".

Maybe one day it will be.

But after having this conversation with my dad last night, I'm beginning to think it might never really feel like that - and that scares me. I'm beginning to think that my home will always be that house in the Puget Sound that overlooks the treetops with a view of Mount Rainier; that house with the strange, hilly hairpin driveway that I can (probably still) manoeuvre out of with one hand on the steering wheel; that house with a small bedroom that still has my high school awards mounted on the wall and probably always will.


That house I know.

It scares me because I knew exactly what my dad meant about "if it all went wrong". Because secretly? I've always felt like that about my childhood home. I've tried to wean myself off of calling it my "home" ('I'm going back to my parents' house for Christmas' vs. 'I'm going home for Christmas') for a while, but it feels wrong. The words feel strange in my mouth, or even when I form them in my head.

It scares me because it makes me feel guilty; like I'm betraying John or my decision to live here in London by calling somewhere else my "home". It also scares me because I dread the day that I say to someone, between bites of toast, "I'm totally rootless!"

But maybe "home" is actually a feeling. Or a belief. For me, my "home" is the last place I remember feeling completely and utterly safe; protected. Like a force-field had been drawn around it, deflecting anything or anyone bad who tried to enter that bubble. And that, to me, will always remain my family home. It's something I've struggled to admit in the last few years, but hearing my dad say it was a relief.

Of course, he shrugged off this rare glimpse of sentimentality by taking another bite of toast and asking, "So. When will your dinner be ready? And are you going to have wine or what?"
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36 comments

  1. The idea of 'home' is so funny.... Mr S has his parents number in his phone as 'home' even though he hasn't lived there for about 20 years! My mum and dad's number is 'parents' cos I've never lived in their house and I don't consider it 'home' I know it's different for me as I'm not an expat, but I've lived in London for 10 years but suburban Buckinghamshire will always be 'home' Rambling comment! Sorry!
    Lots of love,
    Angie

    SilverSpoon London

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    1. John and I have different definitions of "home" too, Angie! I don't think it matters if you're an expat or not ... home is where your favorite memories are, I think. I just thought about it more after reading your comment and when I think about it, my college campus feels like home to me too. xx

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  2. I think home is where you felt happiest. For me, that's the house I lived in between 1976 and 1985 (and my Mum didn't sell until 1998). Having said, whenever I visit my mum I still say I am going home ("where the people know my name"). Recently I had a conversation about where I would live with my son if something happened to my husband (fingers crossed that nothing will happen to him!). I thought I would automatically say that we would move "home", but the reality was that I thought we would remain in London (in a smaller house) and make a new home. So there you have it, the idea of home is where you want it to be.

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    1. I love hearing about your own experiences, Ruth - thanks so much for sharing, as always. xo

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  3. awww, I get what your Dad means! For me 'home' is Brunei in the Far East, in the house that I grew up in overlooking the jungle. But since he left there 7 years ago, I've got nothing to connect me there anymore. There's no sentimentality to my parent's home here...and I can't quite feel like my home in London is 'home-home' because I always had plans to move on from there someday soon. So- rootless it is!

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    1. I can't believe you grew up in Brunei, Angela - that must have been incredible! I'd love to see some photos of your childhood house if you ever blog/share it! It sounds like you're definitely rootless like my dad! It's an interesting concept and one that I haven't felt - yet. I can't even bear to think of the day they sell our house in Washington ... talk of it horrifies me already!

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  4. What a beautifully written piece, Jaime. I second your thoughts on home being a feeling and a place where you feel safe and protected. I'd say my home-home has always been my parental house in Manila where I grew up but I've made a home-home in London, too. In a way I've learned to love home-home more than my original home. Perhaps because this is where I've learned to be an adult and learned to fend for myself without being spoilt by mom and dad.

    Oh well. Expats and third culture kids really have it tough.

    Honey x The Girl Next Shore

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    1. Thank you, Honey! I like the idea of "home-home" - something I think to myself a lot but never say aloud! I think, as I said to someone else in the comments, that growing up is a big part of it too. Maybe my dad is admitting that part of him still hasn't grown up and longs for that time he lived in the love and security of my grandma and grandpa's home ... I know I've always got my parents' protection, but as an adult, we have to fend for ourselves eventually and I often just want to hide and be looked after instead! Sigh. xx

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  5. Such a lovely post, Jaime. I don't think your feelings are unjustified at all - there will always be a part of me that calls Glasgow home even though, like you, I didn't really appreciate it when I was there. Or maybe you just have two homes now?

    Lauren xx | The Lifestyle Diaries

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    1. Thank you, lovely - I know we've chatted about this before! I also know that you can relate because your "home" is so different and far from where you live in London now. I'm trying to come around to this idea of having two homes! Think we just need to be in our house a bit longer for me to get used to it as well xx

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  6. "Home is where the heart is" - a simple sentiment I never fully understood until I moved from Kuala Lumpur to start a new life in London. To this day, I still don't have a physical place I call home - my 'home' is where I feel joy, that is, in other people. All my best friends and my family are my home, and that will never change no matter what city I live in. x

    Jasiminne | Posh, Broke, & Bored

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    1. It *is*, Jasiminne! And I think you're so right. xx

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  7. Ahh Today is my house 3 yr anniversary and finally I can call it home. To my "home" was always my home in Kenya. One day that transition happens. The period of time it takes to feel that = unknown. Home is a feeling of bliss and security xxx

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    1. I love this, Binny - thank you for sharing! I have been waiting for that transition to happen for me too (and yes, maybe it will simply take some time!) but just hearing my dad say that he thought of his family home as "home" made me realise and accept that maybe that transition won't ever happen. And that it's okay, even though it means feeling sad once in a while! xxx

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  8. I really loved this post, Jamie :D I bet if I asked my dad where "home" was for him, he'd say where he is now...even though he hates the actual state he lives in. I think "home" for him is wherever his siblings and mother are, which is why all but one of them live in Georgia.

    My answer might be the same. Even though I know I'll never see that house again and all trace of our life there is gone, I've actually always felt like the house I haven't lived in since I was 10 years old was my "home" because it was the last place my parents and I were a family together. I've moved around so much since then (a few times to places where I didn't even have a bed of my own and had to sleep on the couch), that no place has felt like home. I'm trying to make a home for myself now. I look forward to feeling that warm glow inside when I think of the home I've made for me.

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    1. Thank you so much, Gianni. I'm sure you'll find your home soon. You're remarkably adaptable and brave to have moved around so much!

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  9. Such a beautiful piece.I moved away from Lancashire with my mum when I was 9, but it will always be home to me.My family are there, and although my dad doesn't live in the house I grew up in anymore,his house feels like home to me.When I drive over the boarder from Yorkshire to Lancashire I always get a warm, safe, happy feeling inside and have always thought if things 'go wrong' where I am I would move 'back home'.

    Xx

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    1. Thank you, Kara! Glad to hear that you also think of the place you spent the first few years of your childhood in as your home too. I love your description of the warm, safe feeling you get when you drive over the border from Yorkshire to Lancashire ... that's so special. xxx

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  10. When I was in university my parents sold my childhood home and moved to a completely different part of Scotland. They didn't want to do it, but Dad's work took him elsewhere and it made no sense for them to live apart!

    I still feel like that tiny village is "home" and I probably always will because my memories of growing up and becoming the person I am now all happened in that locale.

    But, I get a warm fuzzy "home"-like feeling when I go to visit my parents in their new home, even though I've never lived with them there on a permanent basis. It's not the place, it's the people. It's not the same but I would much rather be in a place that's not "home" with them than in the place that's "home" without them. Without my parents that village doesn't have anything in it that makes it mine.

    Maybe that's part of it? Even if your dad could go back to Hong Kong and that apartment, it wouldn't be the same without your Mar Mar there.

    I think, especially as loved ones travel and settle further away, you can have more than one home. In fact, those of us that do are lucky. We're not fracturing one home by living away from where we grew up, we're gaining another.

    I like to think of it that way. xx

    Sorcha x Bright Field Notes

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    1. I think you're right, Sorcha. I try to think of my childhood home without my parents there (which is the scariest thought EVER and one that I shove to the furthest corners of my mind) and it feels frightening ... but at the same time, it's so *lived* in by them, that I still feel their presence there even if when they're out and I'm staying at home by myself. Does that make sense? Already, I feel like this about our house in London, even though we've only had it for 3 months! I can "feel" John working in his office even when he's not there or him running up and down the stairs to our bedroom when I'm at home alone. I'm really looking forward to making it more of a home and also to my parents' visit this Christmas ... I'm thinking their presence will make it more "homey" to me! xxx

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  11. This is beautifully written, and something that I'm sure resonates with many of us. I think that, as of today, I can say that "home" is wherever I'm living, and not my parent's home anymore. My childhood home is long gone (we moved out when I was ten, when my parents separated) and my "second" home (where my mom and stepdad live) doesn't feel like "my" home anymore (even though it feels like the safest and cosiest place on earth!).

    I'm sure it's different for all of us, depending on our experiences and our attachment to places and people and family. Like you said, I think "home" is mostly a feeling, and I'm sure you could feel that "home" is both with John in London and in your old home. :)

    Charlotte | www.themidnightblog.com

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    1. Thank you so much, Charlotte - and for your words of comfort. I'm going to work on changing my way of thinking, I think! My parents are coming over for Christmas this year and it's the first time they'll see our new home, so I'm hoping that once they stay in our house, it'll make it feel more like "home" to me! xx

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  12. I understand 150% what you are saying here. It's clouded all of 2015 for me. Not feeling alone in this, is huge though. So know you're not alone in this.

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    1. I'm so sorry to hear that, Annmaree - I know that you can relate. Part of it is being an expat, part of it is growing up. I think that I am also just having a hard time growing up! I wonder if my parents babied (or actively baby) me too much?!

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  13. I know you read my post on something similar recently so you definitely know I'm with you on this! I don't think I'll ever think of London as home because I'll never be able to afford to buy somewhere here anyway which is pretty tough to accept.
    Cx
    charliedistracted.com

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    1. Yes, and I could so relate to your post, Charlie! And yes ... the housing market is just so ridiculous and unfair in London. It makes me really angry to think about.

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  14. You know, I wonder about that too. Even though I'm back in the States and living near family (and heck, even living WITH family for now) I still always wonder about home. Part me of feels like we're all just acting in some big play as adults, and someday we'll all go back to the way things REALLY are...which is me being a kid, and my parents being the ages they were when I was younger, and living in the houses that we lived in then. To me, that's the reality, and today's reality is the traveling theater version of my actual life. It's so weird.

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    1. I've never thought of this traveling theater version you described, Robin, but I often sit in the backseat of my parents' car when I'm at home with my brother on the left and it feels like NOTHING HAS CHANGED. And for a second, it feels great. Then the sadness sets in and I realize that in reality, EVERYTHING has changed, though that feeling of feeling safe/secure and part of my family feels the same. That's what I hold on to.

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  15. Gorgeous post. I agree with you, I think home really is a feeling that we have, even in the most surprising of places, even in places we've never been before!

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    1. Thank you! And thanks so much for adding your thoughts!

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  16. I'm with you - home is a feeling. I lived in a little farmhouse for the first 18 years of my life, and since then I've lived in (I think) 8 different houses for significant stretches of time, and some of them after the move from New Zealand to London. My parents moved while I was over here but when I visited their new house, it instantly felt like home - they were there, our beloved bits of furniture was - and of course our bouncy irrepressible dog! And then I returned to my flat in London and that was home too. It's a good way of feeling, I guess! :)

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    1. Thanks, Jessi. The farmhouse you grew up in sounds amazing! I'm hoping now that we've bought a house in London, I can make it my other "home" and get that same feeling with it too. :)

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  17. My parents were talking about selling their NY house, where I grew up, because they've bought a beach house in North Carolina for super cheap. I was like, but wait, what, no you cant! Even though I haven't lived there in like 12 years. I think for me home will still always be where my family is, even though I've got a new family here in England, family time was always a big thing for me growing up.

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    1. I agree, Dannielle. I also think it has a lot to do with your memories of growing up in the same house ... it's often more than just the people in it, but the memories of the people *living* in that house and the different corners of it that were particular or special to you. Sounds like your parents' new house is amazing though! Beach house is the dream.

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  18. I suspect my parents would feel the same way - home for them is Malaysia, they'll never give up their Malaysian citizenship, while for my siblings and I, home is NZ in the same way I would never give that up for any sort of UK citizenship! The parents' house will always been what I consider 'home' but I think it's ok to root yourself to more than one 'home'... for me, it's where you're the happiest!

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    1. Sorry for the late reply to this, Connie, but thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts!

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