After 21 Moves, I've Finally Found Home

Photo: Spaces Images/Getty Images.
Back in the early 1990s, while on vacation in London, my family and I found ourselves in the ritzy British department store Harrods dropping jaws over the pure opulence. We were in the toy section alongside another family of three children who were roughhousing with the life-size stuffed animals. My sisters and I, ranging in ages 8 to 12, had strict instructions not to touch a thing, so we were fascinated.

A Harrods employee sidled over and, in a hushed voice, told us that we were looking at a famous celebrity’s family.

Then the employee asked, “Where are you from?”

We didn’t answer. We looked at each other and then at our mother. We lived in Germany where our dad was stationed with the U.S. Army, but we were not German. Before that, we had lived in Korea, but we were not Korean. We had just been touring sights my dad had been reminisced about from his childhood spent in England, but he was not British. My mom was from the Midwest, but we had never lived there. The answer was complicated, so we said nothing.

The puzzled employee looked up at my mom and asked, “Do they speak English?”

In today’s globalized world, growing up third-culture and spending your adulthood between countries is more common than ever. But as a thirtysomething who recently repatriated to the U.S. after 10 years in the U.K., I still find myself struggling with the idea of home. When you’ve lived and worked around the world, where you claim to be from is more complicated than ever.

As a kid, home was where the Army sent us. I spent much of my childhood living overseas, and the time I did spend in the U.S. was mostly among communities of people who moved as much as we did. I knew very few people who had grown up in the same house or who had gone to school with the same group of friends. I prided myself on adaptability, and treasured my broader outlook of the world, but I was envious of friends who had a permanent address. I remember asking for return address labels one Christmas, desperate to have something that defined me to affix to pen-pal letters. (Santa Claus delivered, but the labels were out of date by the following Christmas.)

While at college in a small town in Ohio, I continued to search for a place to call home, thinking the slower pace and friendly Midwesterners might do the trick. But I never found it there, and after graduation, I married an Englishman and moved to the U.K. That move was trying in the beginning, like so many are, while I found my feet, but then, suddenly, it was as if the next decade sailed by. I had a job I loved. I had a full social life. I became a citizen. I paid taxes and voted in parliamentary elections. I was now American-British.

But England hadn’t really ever felt like the forever home I'd had in my mind, so when my husband announced that there was an opportunity for him in Seattle — a city I knew only from TV shows — no one was more surprised than I was at how heartbroken I was to leave it.

On more occasions than I can count, my British friends remarked on how nice it must be that I was moving back home. I could not say the same, because I did not know where “home” was, but back to the U.S. I went anyway.

There was so much to adulthood in the U.S. that I hadn’t experienced even though my passport — and my accent — reflected my Americanness. In the early days of repatriating, I was overwhelmed with the little (and not so little) aspects of everyday life, like negotiating with the cable company and navigating the health insurance landscape.

While I hadn’t adopted a British accent during my time in England, I had adopted words, phrases, and pronunciations that raised eyebrows and cocked heads in the U.S. Often I found myself hesitating before speaking, trying to remember how I pronounced certain words.

“How do I say ‘patronize’ again?” I’d ask my husband.

He’d reply, “Do you mean how you used to say it before moving to England, or do you mean how you say it now that you’ve lived in England? Or do you mean how you should say it now that you live back in America?”

It wasn’t just the British phraseology I had adopted. It was also the way of life. I rarely drove in the U.K.; public transportation is popular and reliable. Restaurants and shops have less options on their menus and on their shelves, and over time, you appreciate that there are less choices to overwhelm you. Going to the pub is both a social outing and a family affair. On average, the homes are smaller and more modest, so I cherished experiences far more than material objects. While my friends in the U.S. were looking for homes with granite countertops, I was happy if my bedroom could hold a bed and a nightstand.

I had grown accustomed to having Europe at my fingertips, and I valued the exposure to other cultures, foreign languages, and interesting traditions. It’s easy to assume the U.K. is similar to the U.S., because we share a common language. But I can assure you the differences are real and significant, especially in social situations. Americans tend to be chatty and open, where Brits are more reserved and keep to themselves. And just as I had to get used to the silence in Britain, I had to learn to loosen back up for the noise in the U.S.

My first few months back in the States were fraught with fumbled conversations. I missed the transactional nature of interactions with strangers in Britain, something that once upon a time I used to wish was more friendly, more American-like. While at a local coffee shop, the barista asked what I had planned for the rest of the day. For a split second, I was weirded out by her interest in me, but then I warmed up, offering a polite reply.

I was quickly getting back into the groove of American chitchat, but there was one question I continued to struggle with. During introductions at dinner parties or small talk at checkout lines in the U.S., I found myself tongue-tied at the very question of where I’m from, just like I had been decades ago in Harrods. And when I could find the words, I often found too many: I am American, but the longest I have lived anywhere was Britain. Home is where my parents live, where I went to high school, but home is also London, and sometimes home feels like airports and airplanes. Home is in transit — literally and figuratively, mentally and physically.

Whether I’m trying to make new friends or just trying to make conversation, that sort of long-winded answer doesn’t go over very well. The reply is supposed to be easy, quick, short. But when are you no longer from somewhere else? When does a place start to feel like home? The question of where I’m from led to more questions than answers.

I could not nail down why I felt so homesick in my homeland, so I sought friendship within the British expat community, looking to others who were experiencing some of the same cultural shock as I was. But over time, I found myself answering the question of where I was from more often in that circle of friends than ever before (in hindsight, I should have adopted the Madonna transatlantic accent), and the longer I was living stateside, the more out of touch I felt with the expat groups.

I had to come to terms with the fact that I was not an expat like I had been in the U.K. We weren’t planning to relocate again anytime soon. We wanted to settle; that was part of why we transferred to the U.S. The only thing stopping us was me.

After 21 moves, I was finally beginning to understand that part of the process of feeling settled is to actually settle. It’s much more than hanging pictures and registering with a new doctor. It’s accepting where you are and making the best of it. It’s putting down roots — not to tie you down, but to help you grow. And I’ve realized the older you are, the deeper you must dig.

Moving consistently tops surveys for the most stressful event in a person’s life, and yet on my worst days, I beat myself up that I wasn’t settling in fast enough; after all, I have had plenty of experience. On my best days, I told myself that without all that moving experience, this particular relocation might have been even harder. On all the days in between, I chalked it up to a rare strain of homesickness and looked to relieve the symptoms. I kept digging.

One recent summer day, while ordering at a deli in a bougie supermarket in the suburbs of Seattle, I was asked the perfunctory question, “Where are you from?”

If this had happened earlier on in my repatriation, I would have launched into my usual spiel. But this time, I answered the woman behind the counter differently. I wanted to try out a new answer.

I replied, “I’m from here.”

It felt strange, but not wrong. I was laying down roots. My husband and I had bought a house. We had gotten Washington driver’s licenses, and I'd bought myself a fancy return address stamp. This was home. For now, forever, who knows. But I was letting myself "stay" for the first time in a long time.

As she tightened her apron, the woman explained the reason she asked was because the cut I requested was very popular in Denmark, where she had emigrated from 40 years ago.

“I thought you might be from Europe,” she said, pulling the joint of ham from behind the glass.

“Well…” I began, and in the middle of a busy deli in the middle of the day, the supermarket employee and I bonded over our numerous identities, swapping stories about moving continents, finding friends, learning to drive in foreign countries, and applying for multiple citizenships.

When another customer approached the counter for service, the woman passed me the wrapped parcels of deli meats, completing our transaction. I raised the parcel in her direction and said, “Thank you for this.”

She smiled widely and said, “Thank you for this, too.”

As I steered my shopping cart away, she called out, “Welcome home.”

No exclamation point in her voice. No question mark either. Just the reminder that the definition — and the feeling — of home moves with us. Even if, sometimes, it takes longer to unpack and find a good spot for it.

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