As more people move away from homes and hometowns for jobs, relationships or other reasons, new nests are created in distant places. What does home mean in this age of migration and movement? What does it take and how long does it take to feel at home in a new place?
Where is home? It is a question often asked and one that has often stumped me. When it was posed by a friend of a friend last week, I mumbled something to move the polite conversation on, but later sat down and gave it some thought: where exactly is my home? I counted the number of cities where I have lived for periods ranging from at least a year to more than a decade in each: London is the twelfth. Journalism, academia and serendipity have taken me places over the decades, literally. I have felt at home in most of the cities, some instantly, while in others it took me a while.
So, what are the conditions that make you feel at home? Is it a matter of physicality: bricks and mortar, soil, or is it a state of mind, and some tangible and intangible things that remain with you throughout your life, such as music, books or memories? Four Fs are the minimum conditions needed, says a friend: family, food, fun and friends.
The idea of home has an idyllic feel to it, long extolled in literature: a space of love, comfort, shelter, care and family, but it also extends to a place; for example, the German has several meanings of home and homeland. It can also mean a person (‘with you, I am home’) or a town where you were born and grew up, which for most expatriates and diaspora links with the notion of ‘myth of return’, that one day you hope to return to the original home, which may or not happen.
Pico Iyer, novelist and travel writer, has pondered over the idea of home in the context of globalisation and migration; he writes:
‘Home lies in the things that you carry with you everywhere and not the ones that tie you down;
Home is not just the place where you happen to be born. It is the place where you become yourself;
Home is essentially a set of values you carry around with you and, like a turtle or a snail or whatever, home has to be something that is part of you and can be equally a part of you wherever you are. I think that not having a home is a good inducement to creating a metaphysical home and to being able to see it in more invisible ways;
I exult in the fact I can see everywhere with a flexible eye; the very notion of home is foreign to me, as the state of foreignness is the closest thing I know to home;
For more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul;
From the beginning, I’ve stressed that home is something internal, invisible, portable, especially for those of us with roots in many physical places; we have to root ourselves in our passions, our values and our deepest friends’.
There is a growing global mobility of professionals in various sectors, most visible in cities with large expatriate populations such as Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and London. One estimate says there are over 50 million global expatriates working in countries other than of their origin. It is a demographic that has attracted a range of services and international links, as they not only create new homes in new places, but also re-create some of the conditions of their home countries in their new environs, such as food, festivals, community events and media.
In areas in Britain with large population of south Asian origin, it is common for people from elsewhere to visit them to pick up culture-specific food and other items, but also to feel at home. Hasnat Siddiqui, an IT engineer from Lucknow based in Milton Keynes, says: “Southall feels like home, you don’t have to pretend here about who you are, you can be yourself. Even if I don’t need to buy anything, I come here with some friends on weekends just to walk along Broadway, to feel the same vibes from home. You can even speak in Hindi here. The time we spend here is refreshing”. There are many like him, long-term residents in Britain, who no longer have strong links with their countries of origin, who make nostalgic trips to towns such as Leicester, Birmingham and Bradford if only to rehearse a sense of feeling at home.
Says Sumit Pathak, senior Dubai-based finance professional: “I started my professional career almost 25 years back and have been on the move ever since. I have lived in differed parts of India, Africa, and moved to Dubai in 2014. I was single then and a bit apprehensive about finding my footing here. But a great employer and a team of colleagues ensured that I settled pretty quickly. The efficient infrastructure and plenty of food and entertainment options helped. I managed to ace the dreaded driving license test in the very first attempt, which was a pleasant surprise, and helped much to improve mobility to experience different hues of culture and history across the emirates.’
‘I started a family here over the years and the feeling of home away from home has got better. I must say the initial few months in a new place are not easy. You are without your old routines, circle of friends, colleagues and a familiar environment. Language can pose an additional challenge; for example, when I moved to Algeria, most people spoke French and initially social interaction was a challenge. So I learned to speak and write in French faster than I would otherwise have – the love affair with French literature still continues”.
Pathak agrees with Siddiqui and others that it takes nearly six months to settle and be comfortable in new environs. “Now with lots of resources on the internet, you can educate yourself very quickly about a new place, but they are not and hopefully will not be a substitute for real-world social experiences. A supportive employer and colleagues, a society that embraces newcomers with an open heart and lets them assimilate while also providing the required personal space, good infrastructure such as medical facilities and schooling for kids are important to settle down and feel at home in any new place”, adds Pathak.
Relocating to another city or country and creating a new home brings anxiety and a sense of initial loneliness. There are services and people who help make the transition easy. The faster the assimilation, the easier it is to develop a happier view of the new environs. The ground reality is that due to increased migration in recent decades, new arrivals can almost always find spaces in new cities and countries where earlier migrants have re-created conditions of their country and culture of origin. Connecting with such spaces and people helps faster integration that contributes to eventual feeling of creating a new home away from home. The instant, global movement of cultural items and the internet also enable continued connectivity with people, politics and places back home.
In academic research, the idea of home and the ‘myth of return’ are key themes in the discourse of diaspora studies. According to Homi K Bhabha, one of the foremost critical theorists based at Harvard, the idea of home has two aspects: ‘One – something to do with the normalised, the naturalised, the inevitable, the original… It is always there; this is my home. I understand this landscape. I know these people. I know the language, and so on. So that’s one important concept. And the other, it seems to me, is the kind of Conradian idea that home is what you return to. So, there are these two moments of temporality, these two narrative moments – coming out of the home and somehow allowing yourself to imagine, whether you can or you can’t, that you can go back: so emergence and return are complicit with the concept of home’, he says in his interview in the book (2015).
Those who move homes often, he says, follow a certain narrative structure that is unique to them: ‘There are reasons why I move; there are the losses of it, of where I moved from, and the gains of where I move to. So, it is part of a process of choice and judgment’.
There is already a degree of familiarity when professionals from Asia move with families to Britain, thanks to the long history of close engagement, which includes proficiency in English, growing up with English literature and other elements of British soft power. Home Office figures consistently show that in recent years over half of all annual work visas have been issued to Indian professionals. Says Ranjit Bhushan, a Maidenhead-based medical professional originally from Bihar: “It is actually possible to have a proper Indian or Asian life in London, without the daily aggravation that you have to deal with back home. Food, films, networks of family and friends here are such that you don’t really miss home, and then India is just eight hours away, it is always easy to hop on a flight at Heathrow, if needed. It was easy for us to move here in 2012. I am not sure about other cities in England, but in cosmopolitan London it is easy and safe to be an Indian and create a happy home away from home”.
Savyasaachi Jain, a senior academic at Cardiff University, says: “A new country, a different system, but also a new home. It takes time to settle in – it took us several years of semi-nomadic existence in rented accommodation before we began to feel settled in a place of our own. From pots and pans to mattresses and furniture, everything needs to be acquired afresh. It is a substantial reinvention of one’s lifestyle along with oneself and one’s relationships. Upping sticks and moving to another country is a huge step, even more so when one does it mid-life.”
“Mimmy and I moved to the UK from India when we were in our 40s. At first, I was pursuing a PhD as a full-time student in London but about halfway through, we moved to Wales where I was offered a job teaching journalism in a university. We first thought it might be for a few years, but we ended up staying. The whole experience has been, let us say… interesting! Leaving behind your professional and social networks and entering a different field is not for the faint of heart. It is a great uprooting, but it is also an opening of new vistas, both personal and professional. You discover new capabilities, and take up different activities, but you also leave behind many factors that define you and your identity. You abandon some old routines and patterns, find a new place in a new social order and make new friends – though it must be said one doesn’t make friends as easily or deeply as the younger you. Settling into a new place is not difficult – but one has to be prepared for life to take on a new path. It’s not necessarily better or worse, but it is different. Your whole world changes, as does your place in it. If you move as a couple, your relationship also changes. Ours certainly did – for the better, I think”.