Published 2006-10-14

We’ve been back in Xiamen for a week now. This set me to thinking about my own peculiar notions of what constitutes “home.”

First (and this is kind of obvious), we went away on a vacation, and while we were on vacation, we were thinking and talking about “back home,” meaning Xiamen.

The second thing is a little harder to pin down. It occurred to me while I was talking to Peter, a British expat, at the bar on Friday night. He’s from Manchester and proudly so. He’s the kind of person who, when talking about where he comes from, lights up. His whole demeanor kind of rose when speaking about Manchester. Simultaneously, he has a kind of adventurous attitude about Xiamen. I said something like “I think that knowing where you come from makes it easier to move somewhere else.” I know that, no matter where I live, or how long I live there, I will always be an American. Specifically, a Western American, with frontier notions of individuality, anti-snobbery, and self-sufficiency. I could live the rest of my life in China and those parts of my personality will never disappear.

Third, I have always kind of carried a homelike mental space around with me. Maybe I get this from my parents. For example, when I was a kid and we’d take vacations, my parents were in the habit of calling whatever hotel we were staying at “home.” So we’d be out looking at museums or waterfalls or whatever, and when we started to get tired, Mom would say “are you ready to go home?” which we understood to mean “the hotel.” I took this attitude with me in the two years before I started graduate school, when I was doing archaeology and living out of a backpack.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying I simultaneously have many “homes,” and I love them differently.

So maybe it’s like this:

I come from Nebraska, but I haven’t lived there for 11 years. I love Nebraska the same way I love my parents. I don’t live with my parents any more, and I wouldn’t want to again, but I always feel at home when I’m visiting them. Furthermore, if something happened that I couldn’t ever return to Nebraska, that would excise a major piece of my identity. I would be really sad, but I don’t know that it would destroy me emotionally.

I also come from Oregon, but it’s not the land of my birth. I chose to be from Oregon. I love Oregon the way I love my wife. In the long view, I cannot imagine ever not living in Oregon. Being separated from Oregon generates a kind of romantic longing for me. If I never returned to Oregon, it wouldn’t shred my self-identity (as with Nebraska), but it would exact a really heavy emotional price.

In Singapore and Malaysia we found ourselves saying we are “from Xiamen.” No one took this to mean anything other than what it was: Xiamen is where we are living, but not where we’re from. I love Xiamen the way I love a really great co-worker, or maybe a friend I’ve had for a few months. It’s a relationship with potential, but I don’t have a lot of myself invested there.

p.s. I bought a bike today for about 1800元 (US$220). It’s a Giant mountain bike, with what would be bottom shelf components in the U.S. Still, I reckon this bike would cost around $300 or more in the States. I rode about two hours today and covered a lot of ground. I saw about 3 new neighborhoods. I really regret not buying a bike sooner.