Making a new home in a new place is hard sometimes
Change what you need to change, keep what you need to keep, and leave behind what grows too heavy
‘You miss your culture. You miss those things you’ve dropped along the way. You suddenly feel like a large tree that’s lost all its leaves.’
Whenever my five-year-old son plays with his army men, we always have the same conversation.
He stares at me blankly, clearly unsure if I’m messing with him. He gestures across the self-explanatory rows of army men.
“Armies,” he says.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” I say. “Who are they over there?”
“Ireland, ” he says. He pauses, and then adds with a certain relish, “The good guys.”
My heart sinks-I know where this is going. But I muster every bit of enthusiasm I can and I forge ahead.
“And who are here?”
“America.” He smiles.”The bad guys.”
I can never tell if he’s messing with me.
I mean, he’s not wrong. But he doesn’t know that. He just knows that I’m American, and if I annoy him by interrupting his games with inane and seemingly pointless questions, he knows it’s a button he can push. Sometimes he forgets who pays for the wifi.
I want him to be proud of being American. Just like I am. (As proud as I can be about something I have no choice in.) It’s an incredibly complex pride, one that unfortunately comes with equal measures of pride and shame, due to America’s global reputation and internal strife. But America was my home for 24 years. The people that raised me, my hometown-they’re good people.
But I left home. I left behind the culture that raised me to believe it was the best, and I moved to a foreign country.
These days, to find a new home in a strange land, I work hard at fitting in with the strange accompanying culture.
The more I fit in, the prouder I am, because I love it here in Ireland. And everybody, wherever they are, wants to feel like a part of their surrounding community. The more I want to fit in, the more I shed the things that make me stand out-my mannerisms, my accent, my knowledge of how to survive a nor’easter (abject panic and a firm belief in milk shortages) or how to use social media to beg for basic medical care. And it’s working; I’ve fit in more and more, and I’m happy. I’m really happy.
But every expat will hit a crossroads, culturally speaking. You have to fully commit. To shed the last of your twang and your Levi’s and your standards of coffee. Or, you have to turn back and giddyup back to the land of y’all.
And, you realise, you kind of like standing out. There’s a certain pleasure that comes from being a novelty. You always have a conversation starter. You can say, apropos of nothing, “we don’t have electric kettles”, and be guaranteed a response.
What’s more, you miss your culture. You miss those things you’ve dropped along the way. You suddenly feel like a large tree that’s lost all its leaves.
Your first reaction is to panic. You start to gather up the scattered shaking leaves, your American memories, frantically piling them in to your arms before the wind carries them off: here’s iced coffee, here’s air conditioning, here’s football and baseball and yellow school buses and main street and feck it, even high school. Here’s how to spell color.
But then you slow down. You come to your senses. With an armful of damp and musty leaves, you wonder what the hell you’re doing exactly. Sure, you don’t want to pull a Madonna and start talking with a brogue after two weeks-but this is your home now. You live here now.
And you look at the tree again. A bit slower this time. Sure it’s lost its leaves, but there are a million memories carved on the branches, the memories you made in your new home; there’s the trunk you and your partner carved your names into, the branch you made a swing from, the branch you can see the Old Head of Kinsale from, the branch your son fell off of and he cried for a whole day and only you could comfort him and make him laugh again, and you encouraged him and cheered him on until he climbed back up the tree and this time he didn’t fall and he wasn’t scared and you’ve never been so proud in your whole life. It’s all there.
No, it’s all here.
So, you walk home, slow and conflicted, with an armful of leaves you’re not sure what to do with. You spread them out on the kitchen table. Your partner comes in and she’s about to yell about the state of the table but she sees you and she knows you and she puts her hand on your shoulder and you feel seen and you feel known and she quietly puts the kettle on.
And over a cup of tea, with her quietly rubbing your back, you get some scissors and a bit of sellotape and you stick the leaves, every single one of those American memories, into a scrapbook that one day you’ll give to your son, or your daughter, or you might even send back to your parents as a comfort for them.
And you’ll quietly watch the night’s paint dry, first across the hills and the meadows, chasing your son into the warm hearth and the couch. It will reach the windowsill as you read him the stories you grew up with and watch his quiet mind fall asleep. You’ll go into the next room and listen to the spirals of your not-yet-born daughter’s heart, as she looks out from your partner’s womb into the fog she doesn’t see, but she sees you and you see her.
And finally, as you tuck into bed with your partner, your love, with all those whispered words, somehow form angels between the sheets.
But you’ll be still and warm and your sleep will be violet and gorse.
The specifics of your circumstances don’t matter; you can be a stranger in any place, or in any way.
Maybe you’re like me, an American moved to Europe. Maybe you’re Irish, and moved to America. Maybe you’re just in a new state, or a new county or a new town. Maybe sometimes you just miss your mom, or your dad or your grandma and grandpa or your siblings or your guardian or whoever. You might be a wanderer; you might be a homebody. You might not have a partner or a child and maybe you don’t mind being alone. Maybe you just miss something deeper, somewhere.
Maybe you’re like me, and sometimes, being a stranger can be overwhelming.
It’s hard to miss home, whatever that is. And that’s what makes losing your native identity so hard; it’s your last bit of home.
You have to go forward. You can’t put leaves back on a tree. The minute you leave home, time only moves in one direction.
But you can still enjoy that scrapbook. If you’re lucky, like I am, you can make another home. Not an entirely new home, but a continuation of your first home. You won’t lose your past, your old identity, altogether. I’ll never spell it colour, for example. You’ll always have that bit of home to take with you.
I’m at that cultural crossroads now, trying to make that scrapbook. So, I keep saying to myself, almost like a mantra:
Change what you need to change, keep what you need to keep, and leave behind what grows too heavy.
You might be a stranger there, and you might be a stranger here, but you can always make a home.
I keep saying to myself:
I’m home. Home at last. And still leaves shake. I am home.