In my previous Fact or Fiction entry I asked whether ‘Highly mobile expatriates attach any sense of home to the different places they travel to’.
Here is some evidence:
The statement that ‘highly mobile expatriates don’t attach any sense of home to the different places they travel to’ is neither fact nor fiction.
Whether expatriates do not feel ‘at home’ in the host country and refer to their country of origin as their home can be true for some expats and false for others, as it depends on many factors. However, the notion that expatriates overall lose a feeling of home and become ‘placeless’ needs to be contested. Although increased globalism and cosmopolitanism emphasize the change towards belonging ‘everywhere’, which indicates a higher degree of flexibility and fluidity of what expatriated people may call ‘home’, the need for identifying ‘home’ is still apparent.
A recent paper by Melissa Butcher, examining issues of belonging and identity in transnational mobility, states that highly mobile expatriates still need to fix home by attaching a particular meaning to a particular place.
In 2010, Dr Butcher carried out an in-depth qualitative study of experiences of five relocated professionals and concluded that the question of place and identity is far more complex than simply differentiating between ‘attached’ or ‘detached’, and always includes a ‘but’: a person-specific context, a personal affective dimension. The paper argues that ‘it must feel like home’ is critical for fixing a place as home, with ‘familiarity’ and ‘comfort’ being the two recurring words used by the expatriates to describe this feeling. While there is coherence in how it should feel, the material and social practices leading to the feeling can be very different:
…Home is where my parents are…I think it’s expressing yourself, doing something you really like to do…The place is familiar, it’s comfortable, I’ve got some friends here…To me, see, home is where my house is…
(Comments by study participants, Butcher, 2010: 27-32)
While the tangible and intangible qualities of home can be defined, the answer to a question ‘where is home’ can be quite ambiguous. For the interviewed expatriates country of origin remained their ‘home’ from a cultural perspective, because of the relationship ties, and as a place where one was born and has spent a lot of time, which is now embedded in memories and imagination.
…Only because I was born there, so it can never not be home. Yeah, it is, because it defines me…
(Comments by a study participant, Butcher, 2010: 29)
However, after relocating expatriates found it challenging to keep to the former reference points of home, while not yet feeling home in the new place. As the study implies, at times there could be a concomitant feeling of not quite being at home in either place, feeling like ‘a fish out of the water’. To avoid feeling out of place, and re-establish points of familiarity and comfort, a new place will be assessed in terms of how it compares with one’s original home, which leads to identifying a place for ‘fitting in’.
As the study results show, most of the expatriates were able to re-place bits of their home in the host country, and feel a sense of fitting-in there. In fact, with time spent abroad the ‘fitting in’ in the host country became even stronger than in the home country, as feelings of familiarity and comfort increased over time. In the end, the number of home qualities associated with either host or home country may outweigh the other and thus give a sense of better fitting in to one of them. At the same time, the complex belonging to ‘bits’ of multiple homes was also evident.
Dr Butcher (2010:34) concludes that ‘in either case there was still an expressed need in this study to embed home as a space of comfort and cultural ﬁt within a speciﬁc place that offered security and familiarity’. These attempts to embed home within a place can be explained by several factors, such as alleviating perceptions of differences; maintaining a link between home and expressions of identity; and the need to manage one’s mental and physical resources of relocation.
Finally, the narratives of these relocated professionals lead Butcher (2010: 34) to acknowledge that ‘re-placing home was a difﬁcult process involving feelings of being ‘lost’, and the surrender of ‘bits’ of former homes and associated practices’.
Butcher, M. (2010). From “Fish Out of Water” to “Fitting In”: The Challenge of Finding Home in a Mobile World. In Special Issue: Embodied Transnationalism: Bodies in Transnational Spaces, Population, Space and Place, Vol. 16, No 1., pp 23-36.