It’s not the first time I’ve been homesick. When you initially move to a foreign place, the sense of displacement and loss is acute and specific: Why aren’t there any (_____)? How come stores are closed on Sunday and Monday? I have no friends. Everything is better back home.
Then you start building your life, roots are laid, and home is something different. It’s not back there, though it’s not fully here, either. That’s being an expat.
We’ve spent the past few summers in the US. There’s something reassuring about knowing I’ll have my feet on East Coast soil, that I’ll be surrounded by all things American once again. I already made one trip to New York this April and while it was fun, perhaps other longterm expats will understand the disconnect I experience—greater each year—when I return to the city I love, one that was home for a good part of my life and one that’s still home to many people I hold dear. New York has changed and so have I. We’ve lost our intimacy, our breaths are no longer in sync.
It seems I’m a foreigner everywhere now. My steps feel strange wherever I go. I am neither. I am both. That’s being an expat.
This year’s summer plans are to stay in France or Europe. We’re too exhausted to imagine, much less organize, the transatlantic flights, the accommodations, the jet-lagged kids. It felt right or at least, easy. One morning last week, in between brushing my teeth and toning my face, I felt a crumbling in my heart and had to steady my hand against the sink. I wasn’t going home this summer and I felt sick about it.
But really, what is home?
It’s one of those questions like, “Why are we here?” that you don’t ponder for too long because you don’t want to tumble down a black hole. For a long time, I was content with the answer that home is where my husband and children are. This is true. But it’s not and can’t be the whole answer. What about the place where I was a child? The one where I learned to move through the world, to become a woman with an identity I worked hard to be proud of? How do I let that go without losing parts of myself I want to hold onto?
Being an American is unusual when you think about it. It’s a country where a citizen’s nationality has nothing to do with her ethnicity. Nearly everyone is from elsewhere. The rest of the world is becoming more multicultural but the United States is centuries ahead on that point. Still, I grew up feeling other, not fully American because I wasn’t allowed to be. How could I when I heard almost daily, “No, where are you really from? Your English is so good.” Moving to Paris solidified one thing and that was my Americanness. Not being French smoothed over those potholes of not being American enough. Oddly, it also helped me embrace my Korean bits. In Paris, I rep third-cultureness—born in one place, raised in another, living in yet another. I am not meant to fit in and that’s alright in 2016.
Questioning your identity and your sense of place is the gift and burden of immigrants and expats. We don’t get to be comfortable because the essence of who we are isn’t tied to a particular patch of land. We anchor ourselves to other things, be it people or a career, but we know in our bones that nothing is immutable. Life is more Jello than concrete but being sure of uncertainty makes us steadier in some ways. We embrace the excitement and inevitability of change. Our cores are steelier.
There’s a profound sadness to being far from home, especially as the rituals of the everyday occur: Thanksgiving, New Year’s, summer vacation, a new baby, a sick parent, a presidential election. That’s when distance becomes painful. That’s when nostalgia and memory knock on your heart and the past whispers in your ear.
I wonder if my decision to finally apply for French nationality is making me feel especially homesick. Maybe it’s witnessing the chaos of the US election from thousands of miles away. Or how I’m invested in European news because, well, I live here. Kim Kardashian isn’t on my radar but Boris Johnson is? How strange…
I don’t lament my life in Paris. For the most part, it’s wonderful. It is full. I’ve made a family here, I own property. I’ve got cats! But every once in awhile, I’m pulled under by a wave of missing where I came from. And that’s ok. That’s being an expat.
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