Thursday, April 19, 2007

Home? What's that?

Wendy Wickham’s recent poignant video tribute to the Virginia Tech tragedy includes a line that is the latest is many things that have got me thinking about what the word “home” means. Another was a comment on one of my recent series of holiday-related posts.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I live in England as a foreigner. I was born in South Africa and I lived there for over three and a half decades before concern for my children’s safety and future prospects prompted us to move here. I don’t mean to imply that those who have not left are less concerned for their children, but there are many factors that influenced our decision.

One of the first thing people want to do when they hear me speak – often even in the most fleeting encounters, like at the supermarket checkout – is to identify my accent. “Where are you from?” they ask. And they don’t want to know where I live. They want to know where I’m from. Of course, it’s great that they’re interested. What they don’t realise is how the question says “you’re different, you don’t fit the model” and when you hear that question almost every day, the subliminal message is reinforced.

Quite often people follow up the question with others. Do you like it here? What made you come here? More than once I have been asked, “What made you decide to come back?” Back? What on earth does that mean? The first time I ever travelled outside of South Africa was when I emigrated. One of my great-grandfathers was from England, and one great-grandmother from Scotland. All my other greats (and everyone subsequent to them) were born in South Africa. But for the people who asked this question, there was the inconscious assumption that England remained “home” in the ex-colonies.

Recently, a woman insisted that I wasn’t foreign. I was puzzled. In every way, I am foreign. I was born abroad. I have a foreign passport. I speak with a foreign accent. I speak a few foreign languages – one of them with native fluency. I live by different mores. I have a different history. I support a different national team. I asked her why she thought that. She didn’t have a reason, but she was repeated that she couldn’t think of me as being foreign. It dawned on me that she was trying to pay me a compliment, and I was floored as to why anyone would think I would be flattered by this assertion… or insulted by its reverse.

After 8 years, England is still not home. So where is home? South Africa?

I have not been to South Africa since a visit in December 02/January 03, and by then, both it and I had changed. So yes, South Africa is home, but South Africa circa 1999 for Karyn circa the same time period. Neither of which exist any longer. In Wendy’s video, someone says that Blacksberg is where they feel safe – the place they go back to when they need to feel secure. This is often the way people describe home. In the light of that description, there are many countries no-one would ever call home, including the people indigenous to the area for countless generations. South Africa is arguably among them.

I think home is where you feel you belong. Whether you feel safe there or not. It’s the place where you don’t have to keep explaining yourself to people. In these terms I no longer have a home. I don’t belong here, and I no longer belong there.

My husband’s family emigrated to South Africa from Sweden when he was a child. He has lived much of his life in this state of not belonging. All the time we were in South Africa, he said he belonged in Sweden. When we visit there, he feels closer to belonging than he does anywhere else, probably because he has family there, but even there he is an anomaly. His Swedish is not 100% fluent and he speaks it with a South African accent. His life experience has been different. He has played different sports (Who ever heard of a Swedish cricketer? Yet he opened the batting for a first division side in Cape Town).

So how will it be for my children? They have a Swedish father, a South African mother and they’re growing up in England. Their accents are almost English. Their passports are Swedish. Their diet is largely South African – especially in the summer. I have asked them where they feel they belong. My younger son wants to stay in England, but feels he doesn’t belong here. My elder son wants to return to Africa for at least a year, but doesn’t think he belongs there. He doesn’t want to stay here, but doesn’t know where he does want to go. They both regard themselves as Swedish, although they have never lived there and neither of them speaks more than a few words of the language.

We own a house. We pay tax. We vote in elections. But in one sense we are homeless. Sojourners. We don’t really belong anywhere.

Most of the time we just get on with the business of living, but there are times when the sense of dispossession hits hard and deep. Seeing communities pull together the way folks have in Blacksberg makes me realise that, at some level we all want to belong. The way they have risen up and defiantly shouted to the skies that they are hokies-and-proud-of-it is reminiscent of the sense of national identity after 9/11 when, for a while, people stopped being Irish American, Latino, African American, Native American, Polish, whatever, and became American.

Afterthought: I noticed several apparently foreign names in the list of the Blacksberg deceased and I wonder whether in life they also felt “apart” as I do. In death, they are an integral part of the community, and mourned as such. I wonder whether this only applies to those brutally cut off in their prime.


Wendy said...

Karen: I've always wonder what "home" means as well. In my experience: there are places that never feel right (Kentucky), places that you outgrow (Baltimore, Blacksburg), places that are home for short periods because life pulls you away (Georgia).

I grew up in the Washington D.C. area. My family and college friends are here. So I guess, from a traditional definition, I've returned "home". But I've always been uneasy here. So is it truly home?

My friends have less ambivalence about their time at Tech than I do - which is why I let them speak. For many - despite the distance of time and place - Blacksburg is still "home".

And to have their home defiled like that......

Thank you so much for your support.

Claudia Ceraso said...

Your post vividly reminds me of my first -so far only- visit to England. People kept asking "Where are you from?" When I answered "Buenos Aires, Argentina", they echoed my words in a tone that I thought meant "awesome". Apparently, my accent was too good to have been entirely learnt abroad. Now you make me reflect... they probably meant a compliment, not on my efforts to study English, but on sounding from home!
Being Argentinian means simply that you were born there. Being English requires an article in the Britannica to explain...
Have you read How to be an Alien by George Mikes? Throughs light on this subject through humour.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for commenting, ladies.

Wendy: Your multimedia tribute was great. And you're right about the defilement of one's home - it affects you on a profound level that you never quite get over. Anger and defiance seem to be two of the tools of choice under those circumstances.

Claudia: I suspect that the tone you heard probably did mean "awesome". Your accent would seem very exotic to people accustomed to European, South African and antipodean. I haven't encountered the book before - it sounds interesting - I shall have to look for it.

Claudia Ceraso said...

Look no further. You can have a taste of it here:
How to be an Alien (1946)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Claudia!