Exploring Identity: the challenges of going ‘home’
Going home, back to where you were born, or where your parents were born can have one of the biggest impacts on your sense of identity and belonging.
Many immigrants, refugees and expats living abroad do not identify fully with the culture of their adopted country, identifying more strongly with the culture of their country of birth, or that of their parents’.
An extended visit, or permanent return to their country of origin or that of their parents, can shatter any idealised pictures formed during years away. While we are overseas, our home country is changing and will not be the exact same place when we return, just as we are not the same people when we come back after two or three or ten years. It can cause the person to realise that their new ‘home’ or ‘homes’ are becoming a larger part of their identity, sometimes leading to a sense of not belonging fully anywhere.
Yesterday as I was re-reading Geert Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, I came across a paragraph that summed up my thoughts perfectly:
“A common experience for second-generation immigrants is to identify with their country of origin while they live in the adoptive country of their parents but, in contrast, to feel that they belong to their new country when they visit their parents’ country of origin. This is because they are likely to live by a mix of cultural (hidden) rules from both societies while emotionally needing a primary group with which to identify. To no surprise, they often seek comfort with one another.”
Seeking comfort with people who share similar experiences was one of the main traits I mentioned in my discussion of Third Culture Kids – feeling a sense of belonging to those who have a similar experience of life across cultures, even for those who do not share countries in common.
One of the best examples I have read of this experience is that of Lisa, a girl living in Sweden, but originally from Yugoslavia in Paradoxes of Multiculturalism: Essays on Swedish Society:
“One young girl, Lisa, travels to Yugoslavia to find her ‘real’ homeland. Yugoslavia, often referred to as the homeland, is perceived of in terms of challenges associated with the search for belonging and identity, for one’s own home. For immigrant youth, ‘home’ is a multifaceted metaphor. Lisa travels back home every year with her parents … One year, when Lisa spent a prolonged period in the homeland (Yugoslavia). on her own, she found herself only partly at home. She identified homelessness there with similar forms of homelessness in Sweden.
Eventually she found her path crossed by and resembling that of fellow travellers in her multicultural circle of friends in the Stockholm suburbs from where the trip home had begun. This circle of friends consisted of an ethnically mixed group of girls and boys with shared ongoing journeys ‘home’. Among Serbian Lisa’s best friends were a Turkish boy, an Italian-Swedish girl and a wholly Swedish girl. The rest of her circle included about a dozen youth, mostly boys from the Muslim Meditteranean area.
To retain their identities in the multi-ethnic suburban tenements they actively had to create a cultural consciousness that was more comprehensive than that of their parents. Through its ethnic mix, this circle of friends not only represented most of what could be found in the local community, but also constituted a new kind of community, one which questioned and reworked both the traditional values of the new (Swedish) world, and the established attitudes about masculinity/femininity, friendship/ emnity, etc. of the ‘old’ world.”
We can see that it wasn’t until Lisa spent a prolonged period of time in her homeland, or rather the homeland of her parents, that she realized she didn’t belong fully in Sweden or in Serbia. But she found a sense of belonging with her friends who had shared similar experiences, who were third culture kids, like her.
Tesfay, a refugee living in London explored his sense of rootlessness in the book Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees by Caroline Moorehead:
“If I were to play with words, I would say that I was homeless. Even if I go back to Eritraya now, I will not belong there. I will be strange to people, and they will be strange to me. I have acquired new habits and manners. But here, I lack what I need to feel at home. Wherever I am, for the rest of my life, I will never be entirely at home again.”
It is clear that many adults who live outside of their country of birth often feel as though their identity shifts, that they assimilate parts of the new culture into that of their past, some developing a more cosmopolitan outlook, others feeling rootless, and lost.
These issues of identity will only continue to grow, as migration does.
In Third Culture Kids, Pollock and van Reken predict that “growing up among cultural differences is already, or soon will be, the rule rather than the exception – even for those who never physically leave their home country”. The Schengen Agreement is making it easier for Europeans to relocate and find work in countries not previously as open to them in the past, for work, study, and love. Asylum seekers will continue to arrive in Europe in search of protection and family reunification and immigrants will come to build a better life for their families. This human movement is encouraging a cosmopolitan ethos of interconnectedness and multiculturalism within the European Union, on a scale never seen before.
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