“So, where is home? Where do you call home?”
“Where do I call home? Hm. Interesting question… my parents own a flat in Scotland.”
Often, as a TCK (third culture kid) this is my default answer. I don’t have a particular hometown. There is no one house or one place that’s hoarding all my childhood memories in boxes, waiting for my return for the holidays. No, there are footlockers on three different continents, each guarding some things I deemed important enough to store for who knows how long. There are long awaited aeroplane trips to see family and friends.
They always ask me where I call home. I am not sure why. Would it make a difference to other people if I offered a secure answer? It must, because I consciously choose my answer depending on who is in the room. In a group of Americans I will without fault say, “my parents live in Scotland, but they are originally from Texas.” It gives Americans a tangible note, something they can understand, relate to. They feel more comfortable.
With the British I will be more specific, “My parents live in Crieff, but they travel a fair bit and they’re originally from Texas. I grew up mostly overseas.” They have a town, a name they can pin on a map and associations they can group with it. They have a reason for my accent, which is a far cry from Scottish and they have a reason for my name, which is most definitely not American. They have all they need.
In a group of internationals, I can be selectively specific, “I grew up in Angola, my parents are American and they live in Scotland.” A global context, an understanding that I grew up elsewhere, but it stays within the three country limit. Most people are not seriously interested in the cultural nuances surrounding your upbringing, they want you to provide context so they can better understand you.
With those I’m pursuing a friendship with, or relatives, I try to be more thorough, “I was born in Scotland, to American parents living there. They now own a home in Crieff. When I was very young we moved to Angola. We lived there until I was nearly finished with school then my parents moved to the Middle East. I went to university in the States and now I live in Cambridge with my husband.” But even with my “in-depth” explanation I leave out the year we spent in Portugal between Scotland and Angola. I omit boarding school in Kenya – partially because it is another story altogether and because it is difficult to explain that I left home at thirteen, flew across the continent every few months, lived in a dorm with other teenage girls who were also far away from home, and didn’t see my parents often. I don’t mention that my husband and I spent a year apart last year while I lived in Laurel, Mississippi to work and he lived here, in Cambridge. It’s overwhelming for others to hear.
As a naturalized TCK, I adopt someone else’s home whenever it’s convenient for me and for the conversation. The easiest home to adopt is my parents’ – Scotland. They own a flat there. The flat in Crieff is dependable. It’s not changing anytime soon. The highland town itself, despite what the facade of the Drummond Arms suggests, is not going anywhere. It’s a place I’ve worked, shopped, met friends, made new friends, run, walked, spent holidays. For all intents and purposes it is a home. It’s just not mine. And saying it is, is a lie.
This past year, while in Mississippi, homesickness overwhelmed me. It would be easy to say I was homesick for Cambridge, as my husband was here, but I wasn’t. It would be easy to say I was homesick for Texas, which was close enough for me to touch and holds almost all my extended family, but I wasn’t. I was homesick for a place I have not seen for nearly ten years. The same place I immediately think of when someone says “Where is home?”
As I lived and worked in my husband’s hometown it was easy to be envious of his steady background. Almost every visit to Kroger I would run into someone from his church, someone who knew him as a child and could now talk to his wife in between the El Paso Fahijta seasoning and the WooHoo deals. The doctor who delivered my husband was delivering the babies of my co-workers. It was surreal. It was as if I had stepped into those towns I’d read about or seen in movies, where people live continuously in a humdrum of happy community. It was my husband’s home, now it belongs to his parents. It is their home. Graciously, it was also mine for a year and now it’s returned to being their home, not ours, not mine.
I started following a Scottish Instagram page one night in Mississippi. They post photos of walks, scenery, animals, camping trips all over Scotland. Some are taken by their team and others submitted by the wider Instagram population. I joined it believing I missed Scotland – and I do, in a way. It is my place of birth. It is my parents’ home. My sister and brother-in-law live there. I love the familiar walks, the wistful scenes, the dramatic landscape whispering of fairytales. From the traipsing heather to the misty clouds Scotland is a magical home – but it is not mine.
I’m not homesick for oatcakes and cheddar cheese. I’m not homesick for Ribena or Millions. Those are holiday moments. Holiday home. I wish I was. I really do. As I scroll frantically through pictures of islands and Monroe’s and glens and woods I yearn for a deep homesickness to take root. I long to be infected with a desire to see and be in this tangible, available country. I can visit Scotland. I can walk on Skye, eat on the pier of Anstruther, ride a ferry from Oban – I can do all of this again and again in a wild attempt to feel at home. But I won’t, and I know that. I know, even as I am desperately following every Scottish wilderness account I can find, I am only substituting countries. I am forcing Scotland to be a stand-in home because the home my heart aches for is gone – the cinder block house, painted cream, in a red dirt slum, with a guard dog and guns, a fridge with pineapple Fanta and a freezer with a lock – that home has no Instagram page. It no longer exists in time, possibly no longer in space either, so I’m forced to find another place, forced to make my heart attach itself and lie, saying no, I’m homesick for here.
But I’m not. Scotland belongs to my parents, not me. It is their home, not mine.
And that’s a terrible reality as a TCK. The world is overflowing with other people’s homes while ours are trapped in memories. We try to share as much as we can and then feel just as lost and empty as before because we’re looking for the wrong thing. We’re waiting for our homes to be validated by others, to be recreated in our current situations. That is not going to happen. We can celebrate our past homes, all that they meant to us, we can carry on with our traditions, we can explain ourselves over and over to others but we also have to realize the undeniable truth. We are living in a world that will not be our home.
I have written excessively about Angola. In part, maybe I write to explain it to others. I know my family and friends will never visit, so it is my responsibility to illuminate the muddy, rubbish strewn street I called home. Perhaps, more truthfully, I write about Angola to say good-bye. With each carefully remembered paragraph I am able to transport myself. Once again, I smell the burning piles. I feel the humidity swell and break with buckets of water from a yellow sky. I hear the calling mama’s, the playing children, the singing church. I can create, in time, an Angola that never changes from my perception and I can safely enjoy it in my far removed living room.
It is an illusion. And it is an illusion that hinders me from moving forward into reality. Each time I write about Angola, I am trying to say good-bye, entirely, as difficult as it may be. I am hoping every word I write on Angola will soothe the gaping wound left in sixteen year old Iona as she flew away for the last time. Maybe, if I am lucky, thoughtfully crafted sentences will provide relief from burning homesickness. Then I will be free to relish in the present day, the present homes in my life, the new ones on their way.
Perhaps that is an impossibility. I will never not have grown up in Angola (excuse the poor grammar). It will always be part of my story. When mentioned it will always lead to an exhausting plight of questions. Angola is a certain part of my past, but it does not have to be a source of pining in my future. Angola will remain where I grew up, just as Laurel will remain where my husband grew up. But the Angola of my childhood has grown, changed, moved on, just as the Laurel of my husband’s childhood will continue to grow, change, move on – though in different ways. We both have to make a conscience decision to close the screened door, turn and look fiercely toward our future.
We will both go back, in our own ways. For him, we really will visit Laurel, as often as we are able. We’ll walk past the old houses enjoying the waft of sweet olive blossoms on warm spring days. We’ll sit in the basement eating pop corn and watch What About Bob just as he did when he was younger. We’ll eat the best buttermilk fried chicken in his mom’s kitchen. We’ll laugh with his siblings and their spouses about stories, relationships, and the strange nuances of family life.
For me, visiting will look different. I will visit Angola when I read what I have written, when I find books on it, when I recreate old recipes, when I speak to my parents about my home. I will visit when I retell stories to my husband so I can make sense of my out-of-reach country. I will visit. But I cannot return. In writing, I hope to be able to fold up the mosquito net and close that door with some finality. I can safely leave childhood Iona there, playing in the red dirt with her dog, reading Harry Potter by lantern light when the power is out, eating Portuguese bread and South African cheese. She’s fine. And wishing I was her again is only disabling me from moving forward – to new, unwritten adventures. Angola is her home, not mine.
The Eternal Home is a reality; earthly home is a concept. It is a poor shadow of what lies waiting for us in the Kingdom beyond. We waste so much time worrying and waiting for the ideal home here, a home filled with child like nostalgia, we forget to be adults. We’re waiting to recreate our Angola’s or our Crieff’s or our Laurel’s and we forget to be present in our moving world. We forget to look around us and see others, broken and hurting just as we are. We become obsessed with finding the same feeling from the past, we forget to extend our hand into tomorrow. My hope, my very great and mighty hope, is that by writing, maybe even by writing this piece, I will be able to grow up and say good bye. I hope I will hold on to the treasures home gave me, but let them rest in their proper place. I hope I will cultivate space in my life for others, for new homes, for new experiences, for new stories and new identities. I hope I will let the homes be what they are, in their own time and in their own place. Maybe they belong to someone else now and that is okay. I hope I will be desperately homesick for my Eternal Home, remembering that all in this world will turn to dust. And I hope the same for others, whether they’re TCKs struggling to find a place in a new country or simply someone caught between the cusp of growing up and the safety of turning back. We cannot go back, but we can be grateful and move forward in faith.