The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

What the concept of home means for expats

My mother was the kind of woman who knew she wanted to be a journalist from the age of 12. She never stopped moving. Maybe that’s why I remember so clearly the one ambitious sewing project that she managed to finish. It was a sampler that lay over one of the chairs in our family home embroidered with the words “Home is where the heart is.”

I’ve often pictured my mother’s needlework as I wandered the globe, first as an expat in England, then as an expat in Japan. Where was my heart, and therefore my home: with my mother, my husband, my husband’s family, or in some of the places I’d visited and connected with? Hadn’t I left a piece of my heart in each of those places?

Then when I finally returned to my native land, having spent as many years abroad as I’d consciously lived in the United States, I was no longer sure if this country could be my home any more, as it appeared to have changed so much.

Misery loves company, especially when it includes Joanna Penn

Oh, why does life have to be so complicated? Why can’t it be summed up on a sampler?

Still, I have taken much solace in knowing I’m not alone in grappling with such questions. Just last week, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my expat-to-repat group now includes the extraordinary Joanna Penn, author, speaker, and business consultant.

I am a faithful subscriber to Joanna’s blog, The Creative Penn, which not for nothing has achieved the distinction of being one of the top ten blogs for writers. Recently, Joanna gave us the thrill of live-blogging the writing and self-publishing process for her very first novel, a fast-paced thriller called Pentacost.

Somehow, though, it hadn’t clicked with me that Joanna was an expat.

But then I read her 8 April 2011 post and watched the accompanying YouTube video, “What the Concept of Home Means for Writers.”

Joanna was prompted to talk about “home” because she’s repatriating to England after having spent the past 11 years in New Zealand and Australia. Not only that but it turns out that Joanna was a so-called third-culture kid. Her family moved all over the place when she was young, including to Africa for a while.

For Joanna, home is a spiritual bond

Joanna thinks outside the box when it comes to publishing, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that she thinks outside the box when it comes to being an expat. She seems to regard her displaced state as par for the course, as nothing particularly special. This is because she sees herself as a writer first and an expat second:

… for me the concept of home is not necessarily where I’m physically based at any one point but somewhere where I spiritually feel I belong…

We could say Joanna is out of the James Joyce mould, as described by Anthony Windram in his latest TDN article, “James Joyce’s Paris.”

This is not to say Joanna isn’t fond of the countries where she’s lived. She says she still has a soft spot for Malawi, where she went to school as a kid, and has enjoyed her more recent time Down Under.

That said, I sense she will be glad to see the back of Oz in some ways — judging by her response to one of the commenters on her “concept of home” post, that she is “looking forward to being without mosquitoes, huge spiders, sweltering heat and humidity.”

Joanna’s mention of the spiders gives her something in common with Robert Pickles, who has stirred up some controversy for his Daily Telegraph series on why he’s decided to ditch his dream of Australia and move back to Blighty — the “vast array of insects … with fizzing wings and frenzied little eyes” being at the top of his list of dislikes.

A tale of two cities that are now “home”

But that is where the similarity between Penn and Pickles ends. Unlike Robert Pickles, Joanna Penn never really thought of Australia as “home.” Right now she feels a spiritual kinship with two cities: Oxford, where she went to university and near where her father now lives, and Jerusalem, which she’s visited at least ten times because she loves it there so much.

What’s more, Joanna connects these two cities in her mind and has done so ever since reading the Thomas Hardy novel Jude the Obscure as a kid.

The novel’s tragic hero, Jude, is a working-class boy who tries to educate himself. He idealizes Oxford (known in the book as Christminster) as a “city of light,” where “the tree of knowledge grows.” Coming over a ridge and gazing at the city of his dreams for the first time, he refers to it as a “new Jerusalem.”

Joanna approves of Jude’s hypocatastasis. (“And did those feet in ancient time…” is now playing in my head.) Steeped in religious studies, she sees both Oxford and Jerusalem as holy cities, worthy of pilgrimages and therefore an intense romantic attachment.

Some parting spiritual reflections

In the week of Passover and Easter, I sometimes envy those people with strong spiritual ties, a pull that I’ve never especially felt.

In fact, the only time I’ve ever wanted to kiss the ground upon first discovering a place was when I landed in Taipei and my husband took me to a restaurant called Din Tai Fung. The dumplings were so delectable that I decided then and there that if ever I were told I had only a few days left to live, I’d demand to be transported to that restaurant for my final few hours.

Could a Taiwanese dumpling house really be my spiritual home? No doubt that explains why I’m writing about Jamie Oliver’s food revolution on this blog whereas Joanna Penn is working on her second in a series of religious thrillers set in Oxford and Jerusalem.

Still, fans of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman should understand how I feel… My mother would understand it: she was an excellent cook, when she had time for it…

But I digress.

Question: What do you think of Joanna’s notion of a spiritual home? Is “home” for you a place that has captured your heart, your imagination and your spirit? Or is it a place where you live with your nearest and dearest?

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9 responses to “What the concept of home means for expats

  1. Joanna Penn April 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Thanks so much for the deconstruction of my own post, and I think you have explored the issue much more than I did! I associate the word ‘ex-pat’ with living somewhere developing, so we were ‘ex-pats’ in Malawi. But in Australia I don’t feel the term applies – I’ve been here 4 years and in New Zealand for 7 years,both countries have a lot of similarity to England and the US. There aren’t the ex-pat clubs that take you away from the poverty of living in a developing country. Perhaps that is a false use of the term, but I feel more like an immigrant to NZ & Oz with everything that terminology implies. I am now a NZ citizen (dual with British) and feel a real sense of kinship with NZ particularly (less so with Oz) but I increasingly feel that itchy foot feeling which can be easily assuaged in Europe and less easily down under. I can fly for 6 hours and still be in Australia, still speak english. I’m very much looking forward to being back where I can be somewhere “foreign” within a few hours.
    Thanks so much for writing this – you have helped me consider this even more.

    • ML Awanohara April 21, 2011 at 10:44 pm

      Thanks, Joanna. I hadn’t realized I was deconstructing your post, but looking back, I can see that’s what I was doing, while adding a bit of personal spin.

      Soooo interesting what you say about associating “ex-pat” with situations that are vastly different from one’s own. While I’ve always had an aversion for the label, I did find it an appropriate descriptor for myself when living in Japan. Japan of course isn’t a developing country, but it was different enough that there was no way I could blend in, let alone contemplate becoming a citizen.

      In England, by contrast, I often felt like a stranger in a strange land — but never as an “ex-pat” nor even as an immigrant (though I’d married into the culture).

      I’m also interested in what you say about being excited to be near Europe and all the travel opportunities it offers. Perhaps I was in Japan too long (I’m sure I was), but in recent years, I’ve begun to see Europe (including UK) as more homogenous, despite the vast historical, cultural, and linguistic differences among the countries. I’ll be curious to hear how you find it upon your repatriation.

      Thanks once again for your stimulating comment!

  2. Nicole April 21, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I’ve moved enough times that I’m no longer sure how to define home either. But I do know that we now have a Din Tai Fung in the Seattle area, and those are some delicious dumplings! 🙂

    • ML Awanohara April 21, 2011 at 10:48 pm

      Thanks, Nicole. I’m so pleased someone else in this part of the world (albeit on the other coast!) understands this particular fetish of mine. I can see from your blog that you’re a fellow foodie. Perhaps people like us are meant to connect with the world thru food? It’s a good theory, anyway…not to mention a good excuse to dine out whenever the opportunity arises!

  3. saucytravels April 21, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    I think I’d had to go with the spiritual/state-of-being definition. Reading this made me decide to post a piece I had written on the subject a year or two ago, thank you. You can find my thoughts at

    • ML Awanohara April 21, 2011 at 10:56 pm

      Thanks, Alexandra. I took a look at your post, and your story of reminds me of another one I heard recently, from a young woman who is descended from circus families. She is the first generation not to be on the road, but has decided it would be worth writing a family history. Had you thought of writing a memoir some day? In any event, I can see why growing up on fairgrounds would make you embrace a spiritual definition of “home.”

  4. Joanna Masters-Maggs April 22, 2011 at 12:33 am

    I see I am at risk of spending my days posting to DN. These questions are foremost in my mind as I contemplate moving to my seventh country in 15 years and find myself ready to put down roots somewhere, but not, interestingly, England which is my home. For me, “home” is simply where I come from and where I go from time to time. Home does not necessarily have to be a place where I am happiest or most comfortable. It just is and it cannot be changed anymore than I can change my date of birth – as much as I may wish that. My feelings towards “home” have shifted wildly depending on my feelings towards my current base. Sometimes I love where I am living and dread the day when I must move on. During such times, I visit England less frequently and encourage family to come and share the experience of where I am living. Other places I cannot wait to leave and visit home as often as the travel allowance and ages of my four children will allow. None of the locations in which I have found myself can possibly be my home except in the broadest most practical sense. But then, I do feel, that expats survive by being practical and our life does not always lend itself to being overly intellectualised.

    • ML Awanohara April 22, 2011 at 12:56 am

      Joanna M-M, we’d be more than honored if you ended up spending your days at The Displaced Nation. We designed it as a home for rex-pats like you!

      I find it interesting what you say about home simply being where you come from and where you go from time to time. The other Joanna (Penn) talks about the “deep emotional pull” that we humans have “back to our tribes.” She mentions that she’s really looking forward to being back in England for Christmas — and also to wearing a coat and scarf again. At the same time, she knows it won’t take long for her “itchy foot feeling” to set in — which she hopes to soothe by making frequent excursions into Europe.

      I often think it’s the malcontents among us who do best with the expat life: we (I count myself as one!) enjoy longing for a place other than the one we’re in now. Thus Joanna P’s strategy seems quite sensible: make sure you always have a ready escape route!

  5. Lara Sterling April 26, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Where is home when you don’t feel like your home is where it’s supposed to be – where you grew up, where your parents live, the blank you fill in when prompted: “home town”? And why is it that we (or maybe just me) so often attempt to find that sense of home in the least reasonable place, in a part of the country, or in a different country for that matter, that has nothing to do with where we came from — where we should call home?

    While I was growing up in the most staid suburban situation imaginable, I never felt like I was at home. I didn’t even feel comfortable in my own body! Once I hit adolescence, this meant that I embarked on what would become a long journey of experimentation. Little did I know that what I was experimenting with was the search for that sensation of comfort when you can say, “I’ve come home.”

    What if your physical home does not elicit that feeling? I never felt like I was at home in my parents’ house. My father suffered from depression the majority of my childhood, creating a very uncomfortable environment on the home front.

    Growing up WASPy and in a setting steeped in unhappiness, I suppose that this is what pushed me to travel to the very unWASPy Mexico, and thus fall in love with that country. Was it the fact that people seemed so happy there, so loving, so open with their emotions, not trying to bury all of their feelings all of the time? I immediately felt at home in Mexico, even though I was not Mexican, spoke very little Spanish at the time and did not look like anyone who lived there.

    Ironically – or not so – when I would move to Spain later in life, I would never feel the same bond I felt with Mexico, perhaps because Spain is not so distinct from the United States. It’s still a first-world country, in Western Europe; things just aren’t so different so as to create a juxtaposition against where I had grown up.

    A spiritual home? I no longer feel like Mexico is that for me, although I feel like a little piece of my heart will always live there. Perhaps this is because, after many journeys, both physical and internal, I’ve finally found that “home” inside myself.

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