by Helen Bannigan
At my age, I don’t often hear that at the checkout counter. Apparently, in the USA nowadays, you need to look under the age of 50 to be able to buy your basic cough syrup.
When did my “home” country start feeling like such an alien place?
There are water fountains everywhere in public places, when so many countries don’t have safe running water to drink. The grocery stores are filled with an insane abundance of every product you could possibly imagine…. and many that you couldn’t ( PB&J swirled Goober spread, I’m looking at you ).
America is one of the few places in the world where you can stand next to a stranger waiting in line for the bus, strike up a conversation, and end up learning intimate details of decades of their personal lives. Then, never see them again. And that’s totally ok.
“Home” is a curious thing, after all. It evolves over the years and can mean very different things to different people.
Our family has 4 “homes”, though we’ve never actually owned a house: The USA, where my husband and I were born and raised but where we left not long after our teen years; Italy, where our two kids were born and raised; Hong Kong, where our kids spent their teen years; and the UK, where we currently live and thrive. I lived previously in Spain, Portugal, and France and enjoy heartfelt memories of each, but none of them reached the “Home” status.
The USA is our original place of reference, where we were educated and reared and hold on to so many childhood memories. Most importantly these days, it’s where our original family resides, and the friends we grew up with who know us best.
Italy is where we gave birth to and raised two beautiful children. Rome and is where I fulfilled my greatest dream of becoming a mother: I could never express my gratitude enough for that life-altering gift. The nearby Medieval stone village of Monteleone is where our children spent so many carefree, healthy, joyous moments together with their childhood friends; running naked in the gardens, eating fruit off the trees, building forts, exploring the countryside, cultivating a love of natural, locally-sourced food that was cooked and shared with the local community, learning about life and love and friendship.
This will always be my soul spot, Monteleone, one that feeds me in every way. Hong Kong was our home for 6 wonderful years, where we lived and thrived throughout the high school years. There, we enjoyed the adventure of discovering greater Asia as a family and each of us having our own journeys, exploring countries on our own with school, work, or for pleasure. As my mother was born in China (my grandparents had been academics there, and my great grandparents went over as missionaries), it’s been exceptionally meaningful to understand more deeply this part of the world, and how it fits into several generations of my extended family story.
Finally, we just moved to London a few weeks ago, with our hearts filled with the excitement and breathless expectation of a new adventure – and all the unknowns that come with it. We were musing the other day that this is the first English-speaking country we’ve lived in since the 1980’s! And yet, walking down the street, you hear dozens of different languages spoken, see an array of different ethnicities and marvel at the rainbow of backgrounds all blending into one celebratory statement on human connection. I believe I have discovered a new “home”.
The thing about being a long-term expat or foreigner is that we recognise that we will never be 100% at ease in our host foreign country. What we come to learn is that we will never be 100% “at ease” in our original home country either.
The trick is achieving the wisdom to be at peace with that.
Home, sweet homes.
Helen Bannigan is a contributor for Third Culture:
My Dad was a passionate Europhile who died when I was just out of my teens. I was devastated as we were very close and I shared his passion for languages, travel, and cultural exploration. I ended up traveling throughout Europe for over a year to honor his legacy and living in Europe for 2 decades, thriving in 4 different countries.
My Mom was born in China, as was my grandfather, who was born into an American missionary family living in Beijing. After my parents’ divorce when I was about 10, I lived with my Dad and didn’t see my mom for a decade. It was only when my grandfather died that I reconnected with that side of the family.
Life’s twists and turns then took me to Asia and I spent 6 years living in Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China. It was a time of exploring that side of my family’s history, and I even took a trip with my mother to Beijing, her birthplace, where our family was honored for the academic and historical contributions my ancestors made to the country.
Full circle, I’m now moving back to Europe. I’m grateful that life has given me the opportunity to grow through travel, connection with other cultures, and deepening my understanding of what matters.
My work as a cultural consultant / coach and writer aims to guide others to tap into their own experiences and life stories and gain insight into the cultures with which they interact, both professionally and personally. The more we connect with people of other cultures the more we nurture compassion and understanding for the belief systems of the people in it.
The world could use a little more compassion and understanding, don’t you think?
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