01 September, 2015

Where Is Home?

Even though I've traveled a lot and lived in two foreign countries, I never used to understand what people meant when they talked about culture shock. In theory I know that people are talking about the adjustment period after moving to (or visiting) a new place with different cultural expectations, but I never associated that phenomenon with myself. As I've traveled and lived in new places I've noticed that aspects of the "foreign" culture are different from my own (in fact most of my blog posts talk about exactly that) but I never felt that the "shock" of a new culture was something I had ever personally experienced.

That is, until last week, during the first few days of my visit to Florida. Even though I've been to Florida several times before and I've lived in the United States for most of my life, I found myself feeling uneasy with the four-lane highways, strip malls, parking lots and barrage of fast food places I've been bombarded with. I definitely noticed all this the last time I was here, and I already wrote more extensively about all that in this post that I wrote last December. But last time I didn't think of my irritation as culture shock. This time, that's what it feels like; since I've spent the majority of the last two years in Germany, the German way of doing things has slowly become my default, and things in America that used to be normal for me have become strange.

The "Hi, how are you?" exchange that happens with every cashier and waitress doesn't feel like a friendly pleasantry, it feels like a falsely friendly hassle. Driving everywhere doesn't feel liberating, it feels frustrating and limiting. Throwing away things that can be recycled in Germany feels wrong. The chlorinated water tastes weird. The radio DJs and the obnoxious low-budget commercials make me irritated and stressed. Call it reverse culture shock if you want, but whatever it is it's making me miss Germany.

And when I start to miss my adopted home even when I'm in my native one, what does that mean about where my home is? Is "home" here in the United States, or back in Germany? As I've grown to love Germany and foresee myself living there in the future, this question becomes increasingly more complicated. I've moved so many times within both countries that I can't call any one place my true home base. Both of my parents have long since moved out of the house in Vermont that I considered my most recent American home, giving me two new American "homes" to choose from, neither of which is very familiar to me; and the place where I lived the longest in Germany -- with my au pair family -- was never really my home. The feeling of rootlessness that I now experience is certainly not helped by the fact that, when I head back to Germany for the start of the next semester, I will be moving into a new apartment in a new dorm.

When I was a kid I was awed by and sometimes envious of kids who had lived in the same house their entire lives. I had already moved multiple times by the time I was ten, so I assumed that moving was the norm and couldn't imagine life in one place. When I left for college I saw my multiple moves as a help, because it made leaving home so much easier. But now the envy I felt as a child is beginning to creep back. How much less complicated this question of home would be if I could come back to the same familiar childhood home! (Although, granted, this wouldn't solve the problem completely.)

The pull of both the U.S. and Germany will always be there, regardless of where I end up living. This phenomenon is by no means limited to me. I've read stories from many expats, American and otherwise, who have expressed similar sentiments (most recently this one from an American in Italy). It's simply one of the challenges that immigrants everywhere have to deal with, and I am no exception. One way in which I am an exception, though, is that I am able to come back and visit my homeland. I'm grateful for that, even if many things about America drive me crazy.

In the long run, the question of where home is can only be answered with time. I don't think this is a dilemma I can think myself out of, but hopefully someday, when time has worked its magic, the answer will seem as clear as day.

If you are an expat (and even if you aren't), have you experienced this feeling? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to share this post!


  1. I've done fair shares of growing up in 2 countries and I know the feeling. Whenever I return to the first place, I feel at home, but I also feel like a foreigner because I've been gone so long. Another problem is getting asked where I'm from, or which place I would rather be in, because there's no clear answer I can give. I consider both places home and love them for very different reasons. It can be a daunting feeling!


    1. I know what you mean! "Where are you from?" has become a really hard question for me to answer. When I'm in Germany I always say I'm from the U.S., but when I'm in the U.S. I never really know what to say.

  2. I agree 100%! I feel the same way. I wrote about this too if you'd like to read http://eclecticalu.blogspot.com.ar/2015/10/living-abroad-changes-you-forever.html Loved your post and your blog!


    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I just read yours and I completely agree with what you said. After living in Germany I will never look at the world the same way.