(Paula May)

On Their Home, Not Mine

“So, where is home? Where do you call home?” 

“Where do I call home? Hmm. Interesting question . . . . My parents own a flat in Scotland.” 

Often, as a TCK (third culture kid), this is my default answer. I don’t have a particular hometown. There is no one house or one place that’s hoarding all my childhood memories in boxes, waiting for my return for the holidays. No, there are footlockers on three different continents, each guarding some things I deemed important enough to store for who knows how long. There are long-awaited airplane trips to see family and friends. 

They always ask me where I call home. I am not sure why. Would it make a difference to other people if I offered a secure answer? It must because I consciously choose my answer depending on who is in the room. In a group of Americans, I will without fault say, “My parents live in Scotland, but they are originally from Texas.” It gives Americans a tangible note, something they can understand, relate to. They feel more comfortable. 

With the British, I will be more specific: “My parents live in Crieff, but they travel a fair bit and they’re originally from Texas. I grew up mostly overseas.” They have a town, a name they can pin on a map, and associations they can group with it. They have a reason for my accent, which is a far cry from Scottish, and they have a reason for my name, which is most definitely not American. They have all they need. 

In a group of internationals, I can be selectively specific, “I grew up in Angola. My parents are American and live in Scotland.” A global context, an understanding that I grew up elsewhere, but it stays within the three country limit. Most people are not seriously interested in the cultural nuances surrounding your upbringing. They want you to provide context for who you are so they can better understand you. 

[Read “Stereotypes Are Like Sediment”]

With those with whom I’m pursuing a friendship, or relatives, I try to be more thorough: “I was born in Scotland, to American parents living there. They now own a home in Crieff. When I was very young we moved to Angola. We lived there until I was nearly finished with school, then my parents moved to the Middle East. I went to university in the States and now I live in Cambridge with my husband.” But, even with my “in-depth” explanation, I leave out the year we spent in Portugal between Scotland and Angola. I omit boarding school in Kenya—partially because it is another story altogether and because it is difficult to explain that I left home at thirteen, flew across the continent every few months, lived in a dorm with other teenage girls who were also far away from home, and didn’t see my parents often. I don’t mention that my husband and I spent a year apart last year while I lived in Laurel, Mississippi to work and he lived here, in Cambridge. It’s a little overwhelming for others to hear and it’s not quite fair on them. 

As a naturalized TCK, I adopt someone else’s home whenever it’s convenient for me and for the conversation. I am not alone in this task. There are plenty of us homeless wandering in and out of the most accessible abode. Nearly every individual has a story of “home” that they’re holding on to, behind closed doors and carefully worded explanations. If you were to look around your contemporaries, you would find the girl who says “home” through gritted teeth, because she never felt completely safe in her brick and mortar address. You would hear the young veteran claim that he no longer recognizes home after his tours overseas have left him drastically changed. They no longer fit into the characters who once lived in their home, and now they, just like TCKs, have to learn to assimilate into someone else’s reality. The easiest home to adopt is my parents’—Scotland. They own a flat there. The flat in Crieff is dependable. It’s not changing anytime soon. The highland town itself, despite what the facade of the Drummond Arms suggests, is not going anywhere. It’s a place I’ve worked, shopped, met friends, made new friends, run, walked, spent holidays. For all intents and purposes, it is a home. It’s just not mine. And saying it is, is a lie.

This past year, while in Mississippi, homesickness overwhelmed me. It would be easy to say I was homesick for Cambridge, as my husband was there, but I wasn’t. It would be easy to say I was homesick for Texas, which was close enough for me to touch and holds almost all my extended family, but I wasn’t. I was homesick for a place I have not seen for nearly ten years. The same place I immediately think of when someone says, “Where is home?” 

As I lived and worked in my husband’s hometown, it was easy to be envious of his steady background. Almost every visit to Kroger I would run into someone from his church, someone who knew him as a child and could now talk to his wife in between the El Paso Fajita seasoning and the WooHoo deals. The doctor who delivered my husband was delivering the babies of my co-workers. It was surreal. It was as if I had stepped into those towns I’d read about or seen in movies, where people live continuously in a humdrum of happy community. It was my husband’s home, now it belongs to his parents. It is their home. Graciously, it was also mine for a year and now it’s returned to being their home, not ours, not mine. 

I started following a Scottish Instagram page one night in Mississippi. They post photos of walks, scenery, animals, camping trips all over Scotland. Some are taken by their team and others submitted by the wider Instagram population. I joined it believing I missed Scotland—and I do, in a way. It is my place of birth. It is my parents’ home. My sister and brother-in-law live there. I love the familiar walks, the wistful scenes, the dramatic landscape whispering of fairy tales. From the traipsing heather to the misty clouds, Scotland is a magical home—but it is not mine.

[Read “Saudade: Happy Melancholy, Nostalgia for What Is Absent”]

I’m not homesick for oatcakes and cheddar cheese. I’m not homesick for Ribena or Millions. Those are holiday moments. Holiday home. I wish I was. I really do. As I scroll frantically through pictures of islands and Monroe’s and glens and woods, I yearn for a deep homesickness to take root. I long to be infected with a desire to see and be in this tangible, available country. I can visit Scotland. It’s a train ride away from my husbands’ home. I can walk on Skye, eat on the pier of Anstruther, ride a ferry from Oban—I can do all of this again and again in a wild attempt to feel at home. But I won’t, and I know that. I know, even as I am desperately following every Scottish wilderness account I can find, I am only substituting countries. I am forcing Scotland to be a stand-in home because the home my heart aches for is gone—the cinder block house, painted cream, in a red dirt slum, with a guard dog and guns, a fridge with pineapple Fanta and a freezer with a lock. That home has no Instagram page. It no longer exists in time, possibly no longer in space either, so I’m forced to find another place, forced to make my heart attach itself and lie, saying, “No, I’m homesick for here.” 

But I’m not. Scotland belongs to my parents, not me. It is their home, not mine. 

And that’s a terrible reality as a TCK. The world is overflowing with other people’s homes while ours are trapped in memories. We try to share as much as we can and then feel just as lost and empty as before because we’re looking for the wrong thing. We’re waiting for our homes to be validated by others, to be recreated in our current situations. That is not going to happen. We can celebrate our past homes, all that they meant to us, we can carry on with our traditions, we can explain ourselves over and over to others, but we also have to realize the undeniable truth. We are living in a world that will not be our home. 

It will not be a home for me, for my TCK friends, for those changed by PTSD, or for those who are running from the childhood tragedies associated with their families’ homes. When a drastic change occurs, it rearranges us on a molecular level. The young veteran can no longer return home because he does not recognize it, and he does not recognize himself in that context any more. Instead, he’s forced to find his new normal to drown out the incessant reminder that everything is different and always will be. For those who have lost a parent or a sibling as a child, the structure of their home and family shifted monumentally. It will never return to the nostalgic, blurry warmth they remember in dazy flashbacks. Their reality, their home, disappeared before they were fully acquainted with it. We are all trying to reinvent that feeling of home within ourselves, the pre-war, pre-trauma, pre-tragedy place of safety in which we find our childhood selves residing. 

This is not a plight unique to TCKs, I think it’s just easier to talk about as a TCK as the moves from country to country highlight the difficulty of finding home. In reality, there are people in every town who have never moved and who have not felt at home in an excruciatingly long time. There are people whose lives have been uprooted by events other than leaving a country behind, they experience their own Angolas, their own Crieffs, without the TCK identity to justify it. 

I have written excessively about Angola. In part, maybe I write to explain it to others. I know my family and friends will never visit, so it is my responsibility to illuminate the muddy, rubbish-strewn street I called home. Perhaps, more truthfully, I write about Angola to say good-bye. With each carefully remembered paragraph, I am able to transport myself. Once again, I smell the burning piles. I feel the humidity swell and break with buckets of water from a yellow sky. I hear the calling mama’s, the playing children, the singing church. I can create, in time, an Angola that never changes from my perception and I can safely enjoy it in my far-removed living room.

It is an illusion. And it is an illusion that hinders me from moving forward into reality. With each time I write about Angola, I am really hoping I’ll be able to say good-bye, fully and concisely, as difficult as it may be. I am hoping every word I write on Angola will soothe the gaping wound left in sixteen-year-old Iona as she flew away for the last time. Maybe, if I am lucky, thoughtfully-crafted sentences will provide relief from burning homesickness. Then I would be free to enjoy the present day, the present homes in my life, the new ones on their way. 

[Read “Wanderlust Is a Vice, Not a Virtue”]

Perhaps that is an impossibility. I will never not have grown up in Angola (excuse the poor grammar). It will always be a part of my story. When mentioned, it will always lead to an exhausting plight of questions. Angola is a certain part of my past, but it does not have to be a source of pining in my future. Angola will remain where I grew up, just as Laurel will remain where my husband grew up. But the Angola of my childhood has grown, changed, moved on, just as the Laurel of my husband’s childhood will continue to grow, change, move on—though in different ways. We both have to make a conscious decision to close the screened door, to turn and look fiercely toward our future. 

We will both go back, in our own ways. For him, we really will visit Laurel, as often as we are able. We’ll walk past the old houses enjoying the waft of sweet olive blossoms on warm spring days. We’ll sit in the basement eating popcorn and watching What About Bob, just as he did when he was younger. We’ll eat the best buttermilk fried chicken in his mom’s kitchen. We’ll laugh with his siblings and their spouses about stories, relationships, and the strange nuances of family life. 

For me, visiting will look different. I will visit Angola when I read what I have written, when I find books on it, when I recreate old recipes, when I speak to my parents about my home. I will visit when I retell stories to my husband so I can make sense of my out-of-reach country. I will visit. But I cannot return. In writing, I hope to be able to fold up the mosquito net and close that door with some finality. I can safely leave childhood Iona there, playing in the red dirt with her dog, reading Harry Potter by lantern light when the power is out, eating Portuguese bread and South African cheese. She’s fine. And wishing I was her again is only disabling me from moving forward—to new, unwritten adventures. Angola is her home, not mine. 

We waste so much time worrying and waiting for the ideal home, a place filled with child-like nostalgia, that we forget to be adults. We’re waiting to recreate our Angolas or our Crieffs or our Laurels, and we forget to be present in our moving world. We forget to look around us and see others—broken and hurting just as we are. We become obsessed with finding the same feeling from the past. We forget to extend our hand into tomorrow. My hope, my very great and mighty hope, is that by writing, maybe even by writing this piece, I will be able to grow up and say goodbye. I hope I will hold on to the treasures home gave me, but let them rest in their proper place. I hope I will cultivate space in my life for others, for new homes, for new experiences, for new stories and new identities. I hope I will let the homes be what they are, in their own time and in their own place. And I hope the same for others, whether they’re TCKs struggling to find a place in a new country or simply someone caught between the cusp of growing up and the safety of turning back. We cannot go back, but we can be grateful and move forward in faith.

Iona McHaney

Iona is a nurse, barista, writer, and wife currently living with her husband in Cambridge, England. She volunteers with the Cambridge Refugee Centre and works part-time with Wolfson College. Born in Scotland and raised in Angola, she enjoys connecting with the global community in Cambridge. She writes to evoke human compassion. By drawing on her own life experience, she attempts to unveil the loneliness in all of us and to incite needed kindness and humility. She values poetry, long walks, and authenticity.

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