I only have about a month and a half left here in Mexico, so my thoughts recently have returned to home. Even the just thinking about the word gives a warm feeling that reminds me of sleepy weekends, familiar meals, friends, family, and comfort. Norman Rockwell-esque scenes also accompany this word, but that’s just my American indoctrination showing. Home means so much more than that. But what exactly?
In my sophomore year at college, I noticed a curious phenomenon. About half way through the year, my schoolmates and I started using the word home to describe our dorms. Some had done this sooner, around the end of the last school year, and I am sure others never could quite call college home. It also happened here in Mexico, about a nine months into my experience I began to refer to Tehuixtla as home. This usage is casual and not premeditated. I did not sit down on the beginning of the ninth month and say to myself “OK, I guess this is home now, and I had better start telling people”. It happens spontaneously, like saying “I can’t wait to be home” after a meeting, or telling someone you left something ‘at home’. What is the impulse to regard a place as home? It isn’t the proximity of family, as I have no blood relations close to Tehuixtla. Neither is it where the bulk of my possessions are, nor where I sleep at night, even if for an extended period. I never considered my freshman dorm room home, but my sophomore year, the entire dormitory seemed to be home.
I think that many would agree that home has more to do with familiarity and comfort than with any actual physical being. That may be the origin of the phrase ‘at home’, like saying “he is at home in the woods”. We don’t mean that a persons things are their, or that they live there. We mean that they are comfortable, in their element, at ease. So maybe a better definition of home is a space a person is familiar with and is comfortable operating in. These can be physical or mental spaces, for example your house versus being ‘at home’ in a situation. With this definition in mind, where is my home now?
I can tell you that it will still not be Mexico. There are still a thousand things I don’t understand or feel comfortable doing, not to mention the innumerable things I don’t even know. But neither will it be The Woodlands, TX. There are many things that will appear odd to me, for instance everyone has cars and there is no public transportation. Or that every product imaginable is easily available, that everyone is in an eternal haste to check things off their lists, that the television is on every waking hour. I don’t know how long it will take me to adjust but adjust I will, or forever be an outsider in my own society. This is the dilemma of all returning voyagers, and will vary, depending on if they are returning from a business contract in Dubai or a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Little things that we don’t even pick up consciously will be missing and make us feel out of place, and some things we will miss, like the food or the time to relax. Also, depending on the time we have been gone, things will have changed. It may be small things, like your friends haircut or a new gas station on the corner. Or it may be large, like a family member passing away or friends that have moved away. People in our lives have also had the time pass, and will not be the same person as we remember leaving, with new experiences, stories, and concentrations. How will we relate to them on return?
Making it sound really miserable, aren’t I? But there are a significant bonuses about coming back. One, there will be ample supplies of Dr. Pepper and Hershey’s bars in the grocery store. And two, most travelers return being more adept at dealing with uncomfortable situations. This is one of the amazing things about long travel, it erases one part of the definition of home! If I am comfortable in uncomfortable spaces, then I can virtually be at home anywhere. There is definitely a scale of comfort, though, I probably still won’t feel comfortable doing public speaking, but many other situations, such as the ridiculousness of The Woodlands Mall, will be uncomfortable me, but I will be ok with it. So while I may not have a secure place to always feel comfortable and familiar in, I will have gained the wider world as home.