One evening, two years ago, two of my friends tried an experiment on me.
We’d had a few drinks and had gotten a bit loud while discussing the topic of having a sense of home.
We all lived in countries we did not grow up in, and had moved around most of our lives. But, unlike me, they felt an attachment to one country above the rest. They could name the one place that they considered their home. They believed I should as well, and wanted to challenge me to choose a place I felt most attached to.
They asked me to name the first country that came to mind.
Quickly, without thinking, I was to blurt out what was in my gut.
But all I had was silence.
My mind was blank. How could I choose?
I don’t have any one location that I hold close to my heart. I have many. I was born in one country, raised in another, studied in a third, my family is from a fourth, and my career has taken me to others. When people ask, “Where are you from?” I don’t know what to say. It is not a question I can avoid, for it comes right after the customary, “How are you?” and “What’s your name?” Yet, I dread it.
When I am asked, I pause and consider how likely is it that I will see that person again. If it is likely, I give them the full answer. It if is unlikely, I choose one country or two. India, Mexico, Colombia, United States, or whatever suits the conversation.
Even when I share my full story, the initial pause I take helps me get my guard up. I don’t know what the reaction will be. Sometimes I get an “Oh cool!” from those interested to know more. Other times I get a flat “Oh,” and a step back from those who consider me to be too different for comfort.
It either results in great conversation, or is an immediate conversation killer.
Because I have moved around, I do not feel attached to any particular place. Yet, I feel attached to them all—and this is what confuses people. They believe I have to have a country I feel most attached to, a number one on the list. I must have one place I consider my home. This is what my friends had expressed that night.
And I can understand that. A person’s sense of home is an integral part of their identity, of who they are. And so it is for me. It just so happens that several places form part of my identity.
I have to admit, it can be disconcerting.
There are times I feel out of place because I know I do not belong. I am always the outsider, the person who is different, who is not quite like the rest. Yet, part of me always belongs. I find it easy to feel connected to the places I live in or visit. I can adapt to different locations, and I can make a space for myself anywhere I go.
For those of us who lack this sense of belonging, it still is important to form a home identity, or we risk feeling permanently displaced. We just have to be a little more creative about it.
We form attachments in ways that allow us to be mobile.
So, instead of feeling attached to a place, we increase our attachment to other things:
>> People: When we feel connected to someone, although distance does not allow us to share the same space as them on a regular basis, a connection, a true connection, is not broken by time and space. But, we need to make sure we keep in touch regularly, and to let people know we still care. Keeping these connections everywhere we go helps us feel that we belong.
>> Images and videos: Looking upon familiar faces brings comfort to any foreign place. Seeing images of the people who mean the most to us helps us feel connected. And although still images are irreplaceable, video contact gives us the impression that a touch is a simple matter of reaching through cyberspace.
>> Reading: Reading allows us to escape. It gives us a place to go to, and allows us to connect with other people and other places, no matter how fictional they are.
It is especially useful when we want to ease into a space. We can feel perfectly at home with a good read while curling up on a comfortable piece of furniture, waiting on an uncomfortable chair in the airport, or enjoying a delicious drink at an outdoor café.
>> Music: Music can also transport us, or it can offer the perfect accompaniment to any environment. It can move us to our feet to dance heartily to the tunes we love best. It fills the tiny nooks of our being that in turn feed our souls.
>> Food: Food can give us comfort unlike any other. We rely on food for every occasion, however challenging or celebratory. And, we live in a time where it is easy to find any kind of food from any place in the world. So it is likely we will find tastes that comfort us—if we take the time to look for them.
Even so, some of the traditional foods of India, Mexico, and Colombia can be hard for me to find. When that happens, I choose similar flavors, such as spices, chili, and fruits, albeit not all together. One or the other usually does the trick. And that is key. Looking for ingredients that are similar to those we cherish can help us feel the comfort we seek.
>> Nature: No matter how the scenery changes from place to place, spending time in nature is grounding. It helps us feel attached to the larger world. We feel we are a part of the place we are in, at least for that moment, and thus we belong.
I may not be as fortunate as others who have a strong sense of belonging, but I feel blessed that I can carry my sense of home with me everywhere I go, no matter where it is.