Highly mobile expatriates don’t attach any sense of home to the different places they travel to? Some evidence.

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 areI think it’s expressing yourself, doing something you really like to doThe place is familiar, it’s comfortable, I’ve got some friends hereTo 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’.

Further reading:

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.

10 thoughts on “Highly mobile expatriates don’t attach any sense of home to the different places they travel to? Some evidence.

  1. I had the experience of being an expat in Houston-Texas, I spent there 5 years being spanish, I must say that I started feeling somehow a bit texan not at the beginning, when everything is a bit weird but, once you get used to a new culture and a new way to do things, you feel comfortable with it and start feeling part of it and a bit of being at home..

  2. I just moved to Sydney, Australia, one month ago from Germany. I have to say: first, it’s really different. The biggest change it the seasoning, because it’s winter now in germany and here in Sydney it’s (supposed to be) summer. and it’s going to be Christmas soon. In Summer? I thought. Wierd. I’m kind of patriotic in one way, that keep up to date with our home soccer Team (Cologne, 1. FC Koeln), buy german bread here and I just recieved a package from my mum yesterday with some german chocolate, 2 kg of very good german bread (yummy!) and christmas decoration. So that makes me feel a little more like home here.
    But to be honest, I like it here. Most of the people are really nice. I lived half a year in England as well, so it’s not my first time away from germany.

  3. I am sure that they would be able to bring some elements of home to the new place of living.

    Often this is also done through close communities in the new place of residence, bringing together several expatriates into the one place.

    One of the problems that this then presents is that in the long run have they really experienced everything that the new homeland has to offer if they are trying to live somewhere too similar to their original country?

  4. Usually relocation is a difficult decision. How someone feels in a different country mainly depend on that persons character and where did he relocate. I moved from Europe to Asia – which was a cultural shock. Now after 5 years I can say that whenever I visit Europe I start missing Asia. After spending 5 years here I can confirm that this place feels like home, even that sometimes I miss a proper European sandwich 🙂

  5. It is very interesting to me. Please also carry on. Thanks. How someone feels in a different country mainly depend on that persons character and where did he relocate. I moved from Europe to Asia – which was a cultural shock.

  6. I moved from Ireland to Australia twenty years ago (about) it was a relatively smooth move because the cultures were fairly similar. I can’t help but feel people from Asian or Middle Eastern countries would find it much harder to adjust and it requires much patience from the host and much effort from the migrants to work.

  7. Yu need to get used to. Then you will feel that is a part of you. I’m not a native English speaker living in the UK, it was completely different at first but you eventually get used to it, and then you start calling your new place “home”.

  8. Being an expatriate means doing a road of no return, with the passing of the years you lose your identity, you are not in your country, nor the host country. Although you to integrate into society of new country is never equal to the land where nasiste.

  9. I feel that ‘home’ is where I go. It seems the sense of place became more psychological than physical. It is a stage of mind. After living for so long in the U.S., I went back to Brazil and did not adapt there anymore. Now, I live between them both. When I am in the U.S. I miss Brazil, when in Brazil, I miss the U.S.

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