Just before Christmas, the question that every expat hears regularly popped up again. Chatting with a fellow traveller in Oman, sharing travel anecdotes and background stories, the conversation turned to my expat life – from childhood to the present day. Then, that question – friendly, casual and loaded with far greater weight than intended: “So, where’s home for you then?”.
Home. That idyllic notion of picket fences and apple pies, warm fires and close family, friends-for-life and roots extending through the generations. For third culture kids, like me, “home” isn’t like that. I gave my usual jovial answer: “Oh, I don’t know really (chuckle)”. But sometimes it isn’t funny. I left my country of birth aged two and, save for a brief return as I entered double digits, have never lived there since. Is it home? How about the countries and cities of my early childhood – though we never stayed for more than 2 or 3 years at a time. Or the village we moved to in my early teens where my parents now live? My University town? North London where I first lived in the big smoke or South West London where I last resided? My current home in Dubai?
These days most people travel for work or study whilst, of course, in a separate category altogether, many are forced to leave their homes due to conflict or persecution. However, in the majority of these cases, those leaving would still identify with the “home” left behind, to be returned to one day. That part of my identity is missing.
To be honest, it hasn’t often bothered me over the years. When the “where’s home” question comes up, various answers spring to mind depending on the situation and the interlocutor: “nowhere and everywhere”(the travelling hobo option); “the UK” (the easy passport-affirming option); or “wherever my husband and children are”(the trite but true option). Yet in the last year or so it’s started to prey on my mind – not for myself but for my now-expat kids – and the conversation I had in Oman has stayed with me because of them.
I am proud to be raising global citizens. Kids who travel the world and take it all in their stride, developing enquiring minds and empathy for those less fortunate than themselves. Discovering ancient temples and tropical seas, riding in tuk-tuks and trains and learning about ethical travel and the environment. With school friends from around 25 countries, an understanding of diverse religions and learning Arabic and French as regular subjects alongside maths and reading. They are experiencing an idyllic childhood and couldn’t be happier. But I still have those occasional expat parent doubts; the ones which are usually encountered in the darkest predawn hours. Where is “home” for them? Is their exciting but nomadic life, away from extended family and without the ability to put down roots in a particular area going to be detrimental to them? Or, given the current state of global politics and the socio-economic and environmental challenges that will face their generation in adulthood, will this life of flexibility, open-mindedness and wanderlust stand them in good stead? I wish I could know the answer to that.
Ultimately, wherever I have lived, without obvious roots tying me to a geographical location, “home” for this third culture kid was where my parents were and, as I got older, where my own growing family was based. I may not have been able to mark it on a map, but “home” was love, happiness, support and shared experience, wherever that happened to be. All I can hope is that as long as I instill that feeling in my own children, I will have done something right, no matter where the wind carries us.