“Where do you call home?”

do people just have one "home"? what does home even mean? reflections and unlearnings on "home"

“Where do you call home?”
the most common way i used to draw “home” or a “house” when i was growing up

My first piece for the “(Un)learning things in my Twenties” series starts with the concept of “home”. This ended up floating to the top of my things-to-write-about because I guess “home” was one of the first things I had to learn and unlearn in my twenties and was something that came up over and over again, and will continue to for the rest of my life.

Most frequently when I hear a question regarding “home”, is when I don’t have a straightforward answer for where I am from, then the person will ask “where do you call home?” My head spins when I’m asked this question, as if it’s supposed to be easier to answer than where I am from. I guess technically it should be, because “home” might just be where you are currently residing? Or where you grew up? What does “home” even mean?

It is through the asking of “where do you call home” that has me wondering if most people expect 1 place as an answer, or if most people even think they can only call one place home. But when I think just a little bit more about it, I think there are a lot of people who do not have one home. Even people who ask “where do you call home” probably have a mini identity crisis when they think about answering that question. Or maybe not, maybe it’s just really straightforward that “home” is where you’re currently residing or where you grew up.

taken in my taipei neighborhood showing the trees and sky, consistent “homes” that can be seen no matter where you are in the world

What does “home” mean?

I’d assume most people are on the same page that “home” can mean a lot of different things. One can have a physical home, a place that you reside or live, or used to live. Or beyond the physical home, it’s the place or city or area you live or have lived in or are most familiar with. But “home” also exists in other ways. After all, “home” means a sense of belonging. To “come home” is to return somewhere where you can completely relax, where you feel safe and sound, where you are familiar, where you are comfortable and able to recharge and nurture yourself. Home is all kinds of metaphor, not just a physical space.

When I take that full expanded definition into account, answering “where is home” becomes even more challenging. I spent the first 10 years of my life in South Africa, the next 8 in Taipei, Taiwan, then the next 10 moving around the U.S., traveling, and living with friends and loved ones in different parts of the globe. Home was in every physical building I lived in. Home was in every person I loved and cared for during those years and could be myself with. Home was also very much just in…me. Because when I realized there was no point in grasping into a physical attachment of home, and the people I found home in were coming and going, the only sense of consistent home I could return to…was myself.

classic taste of “home” in taipei is one of these simple sandwiches (crustless white bread, jam, cheese, mayo or some kind of cream)

When I was young, I would draw the same triangular home in all of my drawings (the feature photo of this piece). It was the only way I knew how to draw home. Or I guess, it was the only way I knew how to draw a house. Ironically, I actually grew up in a flat two story house (so the roof is flat) but my drawings of home was still a red triangular roof with 2 windows and a round arched door. I remember at some point when I was young, I realized that this drawing didn’t accurately reflect the house I grew up in, and that I should actually try to draw more realistically… It became harder to draw my “home” when we moved into an apartment in Taipei. (It did not occur to 11 year old me that I would draw a 9 story building and then circle the floor we lived in…).

upgraded drawing of a house that is not just a simple triangle. slightly more realistic?
probably an actual accurate drawing of the home i grew up in, but it’s kind of aesthetically boring to draw IMO

My “Home” Identity Crisis

If you asked me where is home when I was 8 years old, I would tell you about the literal house I lived in in the small town we were living in in South Africa. If you asked me at 15 years old, I would say Taipei, specifically the apartment I live in with my brother and mom in a specific neighborhood of Taipei. If you asked me at 21 years old while I was taking a gap semester traveling through India, I would still answer Taipei even though my residential address was with my college in rural Minnesota, US. If you asked me when I was 25 years old, I would mention Taipei “because that’s where my mom lives and I grew up-ish”, even though the apartment housing my belongings was in a tiny bedroom in a 2nd floor apartment in East Oakland. If you wanted me to tell you tips for traveling Taipei (the place I straightforwardly call “home”), where to go, what to see, and whether I had any friends still in Taipei…well, I wouldn’t be able to answer any of those and for the last question, “no, I don’t”. How dare I call Taipei my home then. What an imposter.

In my early and mid twenties, I had felt ashamed for not physically “belonging” anywhere. That unlike most of my colleagues and classmates, I could not call 1 place or 1 physical building my “home”. During most of the 4 years after college, I rented affordable rooms via Craigslist and lived with random strangers. My “home” each time was in a physical space with people I did not necessarily feel comfortable with, and at times felt genuinely unsafe around. In order to grasp onto a sense of home, I tried my best to make my room the most comfortable I could. Though, I had resisted making my room the “homiest” because I already knew that I would be moving in a couple of months, or that in the long term I wouldn’t be here anyway. So, was it really home, if I knew I wasn’t going to stick around?

my home in a room in Berkeley once upon a time with reminders of Taiwan and South Africa on my walls

Anytime I talked to someone who could answer fairly quickly where they call home, I’d have a lot of reactions internally. “Wow, really? I wonder if they lived there their whole life? Do they have another place they’d call home? Did this question trigger an identity crisis for them? Are they saying that just to move on to the next topic in conversation? Is it really just that simple for them?”

I learned, that it is indeed actually that simple for a lot of people. And it’s also not that simple for a lot of other people. Some might feel a similar “complex feeling” as me about the concept of home, and others might have their own understanding and definition of home that they don’t feel the need to articulate to anybody else.

I spent a long time thinking I had to spend the rest of my life looking for home. Or similarly in concept, but less limiting, is that I would spend the rest of my life building a home. If I didn’t have a home yet, and a lot of other people did, well then I better hurry up and find or build my home. Currently, I’m trying to embrace the fact that I don’t have 1 home, and even if I do call Taipei my home or the Bay Area where I “used to live”, I still feel like I was a visitor there, and with Taipei, I feel like I am a visitor here still. I can call it home too, and though it’s the same home I grew up in from the ages of 10 to 18, it also doesn’t feel like home to me, or at least, not a complete one. A place can once be a home, and no longer be, or always be some semblance of home.

Does a complete home exist? I don’t know. Maybe it varies person to person. Maybe no matter where I am, I will feel like a part of me is missing or a part of home is far away, due to my “home” belonging in many spaces and held by many people. Or maybe one day I do build a home, whether it be a physical house or a family or chosen family or community, that becomes home? And maybe the true answer here is that “home” is a fluid concept, and it is ever changing, just like us.

another craigslist bedroom home, this time in east oakland

My current concept of “home”

I’ve decided home isn’t 1 place and it probably isn’t just 1 place for most of the people in this world. Home is not a physical space, but a concept that can belong to an object, a thing, a person, a place, or not even be a tangible material. Home is whatever we want it to be. And for me, home just isn’t in 1 place, and it isn’t solely found in a physical place. It is found in the things and people that I have loved and I have given a part of me to. These parts of home may not be accessible outside of me in the present or in the future, so there will always be a form of nostalgia for a home that doesn’t exist anymore.

Where the past homes do exist in though, is within me. And when there is no external sense of home or when I am in a perpetual state of transition, at least I can return to myself, where there is always a home. To actively cultivate and nurture ourselves so that we feel safe coming home to ourselves? That in itself is a lifelong endeavor.

“Home” is a concept that is fluid for me, and can mean many different things. And what I may think of as home, may change any moment and could be constantly ever-changing and shifting.

So in the future, when someone asks me “where is home?” I’ll just answer “it’s complicated”.

In the next issue, I’ll be discussing the question “where are you from?” and my (un)learnings around that.

Coco (2007-2020) a forever piece of my home that is no longer on this plane of existence anymore
Coming Home
by Mary Oliver

When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place--
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

To my readers: where are the places and spaces you call home? what are your reflections and thoughts on “home”? what does home mean to you?