by Emily Rotthaler – The question “Where is home?” is a supposedly straightforward one. The most basic definition of home is the place where one lives permanently. In more detail, people may think of the place they grew up or the location where they spent the majority of their lives. Others might consider their home to be certain people or even a feeling.
While the question of home can in fact be an easy one to answer for people who spend their entire lives in one or two places, for those who move a lot there is no harder question to answer than “Where is home?” or “Where are you from?” Especially for expatriates, those who left their country to move abroad, the concept of home is most often fluid and goes beyond the scope of a singular place or person.
Rena Ketelsen, 22, is one of those who have uprooted their lives to try their luck in another country. The urge to leave her home country had been living in her heart for as long as she could remember. While most of her high school classmates remained in Germany after graduation, she didn’t feel the need to stay. She decided to enroll in Morningside University in the United States and start a new adventure as an international student.
“The reason why I came to the US is just because I wanted to try something completely different,” Rena recalled, adding that another big part of her decision was to get away from home. Further reminiscing about her decision, she said, “I think everybody at some point wants to get away from their family. I just went as far away as I could.”
Rena’s move to the US was not the first time she had changed her address. She was born in Birmingham, England, but at the age of three, her family moved to Germany. There, the Ketelsens changed cities another two times and finally ended up in Wrestedt a year before Rena came to the US. This has made 15 years the longest period that Rena has ever lived in the same place.
What does home mean to Rena, whose location of home has changed more than just once?
Lounging on the couch in the living room of her on-campus apartment in the US, Rena reached a conclusion. “I don’t really have one home. My home is here at Morningside University. I’ve lived here for over three years. But at the same time, obviously, my parents, my parents’ house, my siblings, just Germany in general, is also home because I’ve lived there all my life.” Home to her, she found, “is mostly the people” rather than a specific place.
Answering the question of home becomes an even more complicated task when one considers factors like the feeling of national belonging or geographical technicalities such as borders. One who knows that struggle is Annemiek Goedhart, who is from a German town called Emmerich right on the border between Germany and the Netherlands.
Despite having lived at her parent’s house in Germany almost her entire life, she said, “I usually say I’m from the Netherlands because it’s easier.” Thinking about it more deeply she added that she considers herself Dutch, mainly because of her family’s origins, but also because she spent the majority of her time in a Dutch city near the border. Both her school and her soccer club were in the Netherlands, which resulted in most of her social contacts being Dutch as well.
No matter her national identity, until she moved to the US for college she had always considered her home the place where she lived with her family. “The first semester, the US definitely felt just as kind of a second home,” Annemiek contemplated how her concept of home changed with her move. “But then after that, I realized that I was like, ‘Oh, can we go home?’ and it’d be Dimmitt.” Sitting in the formal lounge of said residence hall on Morningside University’s campus, she added, “I feel like this is my home right now. But then whenever I go home, it never really feels like I left.”
Like Rena, Annemiek thinks of home as more than just one place or person. “I think it’s more the people I’m surrounded with,” she said, explaining that while being in the US, she misses her family; but when going home for break, she finds herself missing her friends from college.
In the end, Annemiek, Rena, and the rest of the 272 million expatriates worldwide have one tool that enables them to stay in touch with whatever their definition of home is – video chatting. For Annemiek, this tool has made it easier to cope with being away from home for so long. “I think especially because of FaceTime and all the other technology we have right now it’s really easy to stay in touch.” Annemiek added that she just calls her parents whenever she wants to connect to her German/Dutch home.
Video chatting may not provide a more straightforward answer to the question of where a person’s home is. However, it certainly gives national and international migrants the possibility to connect and combine their several concepts of home into their own unique and fluid version of it.
The result? A personalized concept of home that shifts with them wherever they go and is in a constant state of change.