I can remember it plain as day. I was walking along the street in my relatively new hometown of Nagoya, Japan, casting furtive glances in the general direction of the people walking by me. No one looked back. No one met my gaze. I couldn’t read a single expression on anyone’s face. Something clenched in my heart, and I had a yearning so deep I was sure it would dig a hole through the earth and back to Canada:
I would do anything to look at a face and understand what it’s saying.
Not even telling me. Just saying.
An emptiness engulfed me, so vast that I could feel my identity oozing out and disintegrating on the immaculate sidewalk beneath my feet. This wasn’t about being able to guess if a complete stranger had had her heart broken recently, or about trying to gauge a personality based on an outfit or hairstyle—things, as a lifelong people observer, I admittedly love doing. In this case, there was the distinct realization of how very much of ourselves is culturally-coded, how I lacked knowledge of even a basic framework to set the tone for the emotional landscape of the people in my midst.
This is a jarring feeling to have for someone who has long pinned her identity on being a nomad at heart. I haven’t lived in Canada, my home country, in over seven years now. Canada is not where my parents were born (my dad’s from Hungary and my mom, of Polish descent, was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany just after WWII). I’m one of many for whom the concept of home is among other things, challenging, thought-provoking, and also enticing.
The idea of home tugs at me, but home is also an entity carved out of absence. Home did exist once, that’s sure. Yet it inspires a feeling of nostalgia . . . it’s where we can never return to. Our first home was the womb, forever in the past. Each successive home, too, recedes from us as we configure them in our imagination. The question then becomes: How much and to what extent are we the end result of where we come from?
Home is a story, I feel, that needs to be written over and over, since no matter how far we fling ourselves across this wondrous, diverse planet, it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t feel in their bones that they would like to belong somewhere, to be a native of a place that will always embrace them.
I also believe that we often overlook the potentially devastating impact uprooting ourselves has on our sense of mental, emotional and even physical wellbeing. We may have been forced to flee and resettle. We may have chosen a wayward path of journeying to the other side of the world, falling in love, and landing in our lover’s native country, like I did. It would benefit all of us, including those who still live where they were born, to carefully and mindfully sift through the stories we have lived through, that tell us about ourselves, and understand how much we are made up of where we’ve been, so that we can honor this part of ourselves as we shift into new parts of our constantly changing selves.
One unshakable truth is that home is where the body has been.
No matter how much we aim to be at home within ourselves—and I believe this is possible—we can’t skip the step of confronting, knowing and embracing our physical, geographical roots. I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for several years now, and I’ve experienced how much our jam-packed minds are filled with bits and pieces of our past selves, and how much we need to observe this jumble of self-bits if there is a hope of taming the mind. I’ve experienced how forcefully the mind—itself one of our homes, as a melting pot of thoughts and emotions—dictates the shape of the world around us. I’ve learned the zeal with which the mind can wrest us from a welcoming home of peace and calm, and how much the heart, if we let it speak, can bring us back.
Our cumulative experiences, internal and external, mean we can never return to a home that will be unchanged, because neither it nor we are unchanged. This idea recalls for me one of the Buddhist principles that guides me in my meditation practice. Anicca: everything changes, all the time. There is no sense in attaching to things, either painful or pleasurable, as nothing lasts forever. The only home, by extension, can be a kind of seat of pure consciousness from which we rest peacefully and regard the ever fluctuating world with equanimity and compassion.
Yet we move, we age, and we look back to an idyllic past hoping we can build our nest somewhere nearby, an impossible dream. We can’t let go of this nostalgia-induced utopia because in a very literal, tangible way, our early homes follow us on our life adventures, and I think this is worth acknowledging. I think it is imperative we acknowledge this.
Our upbringing is part of our tapestry. I grew up eating cereal for breakfast; my husband, rice. Maybe it’s not such a big deal. I grew up in a new country with an enormous landscape in which what you see is what you get; my husband grew up in a tiny and ancient country respectful of its ghosts and ancestors. I was raised to prize individuality; my husband, the group before the self. I can’t remember my parents ever marveling at the trees in our midst, and we ate the same food year-round; my husband was taught to revere the fleeting cherry blossoms and the flowers of each season, and to appreciate the seasonal ingredients that nourish body and soul just when they’re needed the most.
I grew up in an environment of show and tell. My husband was raised to neither show nor tell unless in the most intimate of situations. I grew up making fast friendships and also fleeting or circumstantial ones. My husband grew up in an environment where it can take months or years to get to know someone, but where hard-won friendships and deep bonds last a lifetime. I came to Japan expecting to learn so much about my husband’s family by asking them a million questions (translated by my husband) about their background, as I’m accustomed to doing in new situations. Instead, I found that we don’t ask such questions, but develop kinship by quietly respecting the other person’s presence over time. Without my usual armor—my ability to express myself, to know and be known through language —I felt entirely invisible.
Coming off a three-year trip through India and Southeast Asia, where I never felt invisible, and I delighted in filling myself with the colors, sounds and experiences of my host environments, I now had to confront feeling homesick for the first time in my life. I allowed myself to miss the sounds and smells of Canada, to miss knowing what people’s hopes and dreams might be and what kind of memories they might have of their youth, to miss hearing an old song and knowing there are many of us living in the same sentimental place the song has transported us to. To miss looking at people’s faces and finding in them a shared history.
In a way, Japan has brought me back to myself. I see things in me that that I don’t love mirrored in aspects of Japan I don’t love: a penchant for solitude and avoidance, a fear of interaction with others, an unintended but ever present ignorance of the particularities of certain aspects of the outside world. I can see these qualities in myself more clearly now, and work on improving them. I also see parts of myself that I do love reflected in those parts of Japan that I love: a respect for quiet and for nature, gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given, and curiosity about the world.
Making a home wherever we are will always involve just that: a making, a willful formation, a cultivation, a persistent effort on virtually all levels. We can’t leap across worlds pain-free. We have an obligation to know and understand ourselves better so that we can begin to bridge cultures, and this is true for everyone, no matter where they are, how they ended up there, and where they are going, because things are always changing, and knowing ourselves, beginning to fill in the glaring gaps, is the brightest and shiniest key there is.