I had never been concerned with “home.” Not beyond superficiality anyway. But lately I have been forced into thinking about the concept by a bombardment of holiday, travel, and domicile inspired references. “Did you go home to the States for the holidays?” “When are you coming home to London?” among other such statements. I had wanted to spend the holidays in Japan again as 2017 ended and 2018 began, but with recent events in my personal life turning things upside down, and American family and friends asking when I was going to visit “home,” a longing for the US increased while Japan took on a new emotional weight I didn’t feel I could yet carry, and didn’t yet dare try. So I decided to book a trip “home” to the US. But to someone like me, is that really home? A vagabond’s dilemma. What is “home” anyway?
I think most people relate the word to two concepts. The first is where one is from (country, city, region, whatever fits) in the form of birthplace, family residence, or location of upbringing. The second is where one currently is and lives one’s own life away from the gravitational pull of the past. It’s an understandable and accepted bifurcation. For those who have never really left their country of upbringing or even their town or region of birth to reside elsewhere, “home” is a somewhat stunting singularity, but for many, the bifurcation remains applicable. Becoming an adult with pursuits of career, educational opportunity, romantic entanglements, self-exploration, quest for fulfillment, and so many other things, prompts most of us to release our past and design our own life and identity. What was once a singular concept becomes divided between the past and the present—our former and current selves.
Home is first a place to which we can return and feel traces of who we were and sink into the familiar. The result is what most feel to be a sentimental steadiness—or an emotional centeredness—rooted in the past. It also can, in some instances, act as a safe and known entity, a security blanket, providing a cushion against the tide of time and the uncomfortable realities of a world ready to challenge insecurities. But home is also where we spend a majority of our time, the place to which we retire in the evenings, receive mail, or feed the cat. Where we live becomes home as base of the contemporary self and the day-to-day beats of life form a new rhythm. We become acclimated to new norms of our own design rather than the design of familial conformity or falling victim to fear of “leaving the nest” (at least in the west). Returning to the sentimental home for a visit has its value, but the new self needs a new context.
Some then see the two become intertwined as time passes. New self, old context. I was recently walking with my “sis” in the beautiful back streets of Bergen, Norway. She pointed out a playground she frequented in her youth and a school she once attended. She addressed them as a woman in her late-20s, far removed from the fussy child or rebellious teen she once embodied. Intellectually and emotionally developed and evolved after living abroad and successfully constructing a new self, she returned. Owns a flat, a car, a career is on track, and lives in a merged state of the self-designed adult and the sentimental origin. The bifurcation existed but a resettling has occurred. “I think most people return home” she said. The bifurcation served its purpose and the two concepts resolved themselves.
For some of us, it’s a little more complicated. Being an expat and traveler places me in a purgatory of sorts. The US, while “home” in terms of being woven into my DNA and an anchor for history, outlook, and disposition, lacks the ability to inspire emotional centeredness. My most recent trip cemented this. It is a past I can visit, but the sentimentality is fleeting. Since I am still from the US, calling it “home” is never going to be inaccurate on a superficial level, but it’s never going to be honest in sentiment. It’s not that I don’t love my country, and I do feel the warm fuzzies when I satisfy cravings such as shopping at certain stores, seeing friends, or getting that particular meal which can’t be replicated anywhere else (“a taste of home” as the saying goes), but I cannot pretend I feel something more profound when I do not.
This may be due to the fact that I have no single US locality which fits the bill. As a child I lived in California, New Jersey, Illinois, and then California again (all after having been raised for the first seven years of my life in the northwest of England). If forced into deciding on a homebase, it would be Sacramento, California where my most formative years were spent. It’s where I went to high school, learned to drive, had my first girlfriend, first job, first apartment, earned my first college degree(s), first band, etc etc. Then there’s my adulthood rooted in Portland, Oregon, a city to which I moved by choice and a desire to leave the confines of the stagnant and familiar. A music project of consequence, my own business, a return to academia, more girlfriendness, and at least a decade of always seeing PDX on my itinerary could make it a candidate for home. But both lack emotional or psychological contentedness. I am not grounded or centered by my previous circumstantial locality and simply don’t find solace or comfort looking backwards. As the weeks of my US visit passed, it felt like time-travel. It felt redundant. I beat those levels of the game and now I’ve moved on. “I think most people return home…” Are you sure, sis? Perhaps I’m just different.
London, England is my current center of operations. It is where I have my most pressing commitments, legal residency, and a closet full of Babymetal shirts. I have friends, a new business, and keep a bank account. It’s home in a very practical sense, but not in an emotional or sentimental one. It’s that level of the game I just don’t enjoy playing, yet it is where I need to be to accomplish tasks and move me forward. It is therefore of my design, but I have intentionally been gun-shy about giving it a feeling of stable residency since I dislike it on a fundamental level. From late 2016 to late 2017, I refused to even have a London mailing address of my own and instead shifted my bags from one temporary sleeping arrangement and wifi spot to another. Seeing as how I was on a plane every six weeks or so this hardly constituted an inconvenience. However, with changing commitments in the final stanza of advanced academic pursuits (my primary goal), I now have a mailing address. The more stable accommodation is out of pragmatism with a new longer visa in hand rather than out of a need for domesticity, but I cringe when London is referred to as “home.” Though postgraduate and doctoral work, many friends, a business, and other details have established a permanent connection with me, the UK is transitionary; a tool, a means to an end. It’s not so much a context for the new-self as it is a vehicle to the next context.
So the question remains: what (or where) is “home?”
At first, I was reluctant to refer to Japan as home as even with my ever increasing time in the country, I felt it gave a false impression of my present circumstances while also clearly not being where I’m from. However, in 2017 plans were set in motion to at least establish the practical home which would reflect my emotional attachments. Yet I retreated from such labeling when those plans began to unravel and the painful weight to which I earlier referred began to manifest. I have since realized this is emotionally unfair. After all, if “home is where the heart is,” then home is also where the heart can be broken. It just comes with the territory. Though the one person who would greet me in Tokyo and say “welcome home” is no longer waiting for the message that I touched down, Japan is still where I choose to place myself because it reflects who I have become and provides the context for who I am becoming. Maybe that is essentially what home really is: the right mirror for the right reflection. No personal relationship or government issued visa can change that. The former and present self which most people contextualize within a “home” is then for me the present and future self instead.
And it is not as if the pragmatic home is not already being experienced. This is important as it separates mere tourism from a more serious development of lifestyle. I spent more time in Japan in 2017 than the UK and US combined, same looks true in 2018, so the “majority of time” box has been checked. The country is not representative of a holiday or reprieve from a day-to-day grind. It does not, or ever really did, represent a sense of escapism. I have received mail, done laundry, and stocked a fridge after grocery shopping. I’ve bought dishes, toilet paper, and bathroom cleaner (as one acquaintance put it “home is where the bleach is”). I have made monthly living budgets and stuck to them. Staff in certain restaurants know my order and a pharmacist knows of my sinus issues. I’ve been in Japan in every season, been woken up by earthquakes (not worryingly huge ones…not yet), and been caught in multiple typhoons. I have had job interviews and taken business meetings. I have left belongings because of my inevitable return, been accepted by amazing friends, and have made strides with the language. I have rolled my eyes at some tourists and then helped others find their way. That all counts.
I see it without rose-tinted lenses as well. I know it ain’t perfect. I have been threatened by old xenophobic men. I struggle with the culturally ingrained repression and self-defeating social dispositions which are the darker alleys behind an irresistible politeness, respect, and sense of honor. I have seen ugly mysoginistic behavior in a society often locked in a manner of thinking five decades behind the west, and the confusion of occidental longing in a gender performance still psychologically bound by crippling cultural expectation. I have fallen in love and negotiated a family and residence, and shed tears over a ring returned and that family become but a ghost of an idea. Warts and all, pain and all, it is still the right reflection in the right mirror
And then there’s the music. My fandom, my complicated relationship with music, and a delicate armistice with my own musicianship, are all served in the most satisfying way by Japan. It brought me here. It keeps me here for longer stretches of time. The single most important of the immutable characteristics of my identity has found a balance that no previous location, circumstance, or context has been able to achieve. It is maybe the most profound assertion of core principles I have encountered. This knowledge of one’s self, understanding what the pillars of identity truly are, is a vital component in the quest for home. There needs to be a knowledge of what should be reflected back at you when seeking that mirror. You have to know yourself to see it.
While I might still be really struggling to come to terms with changes in my life, I am not, as the vagabond tag implies, homeless. So while no one was there to say it when I arrived at Narita just a few days ago, it doesn’t change the mirror, and it doesn’t change the reflection. I can say it to myself and know it to be true. “Welcome home.”
Song of the Day: Home Sweet Home by Mötley Crüe.