“Home has less to do with a piece of soil and more to do with a piece of soul.”
International schools represent the “salad bowl” model of cultural integration. The children of expatriate families, who often bounce between continents at the mercy of employment relocation, converge at elementary and secondary schools designed to provide Western education in foreign countries. These expat kids experience a range of cultural climates growing up, and as a result, they form communities free of the entrenched prejudices and deeply-held convictions that are common in more rooted societies. Their greatest similarity is a lack of allegiance to any single country — as well as the values inherent to that country — and, most importantly, their constantly evolving notion of “home”.
The “floating tribe” of humans who don’t belong to a single country is growing. While frequent migration was rare a few generations ago, there are now more children of mixed race and citizenship than ever before. In his fascinating 2013 TED Talk, titled “Where is Home?”, travel writer Pico Iyer explores the intricacies of cultural mashups in our increasingly connected world. Like students of international schools, his identity, shaped by his unique background, transcends geographical and political borders.
Iyer perfectly illustrates how the simple question, “Where are you from?” can have a complicated and increasingly irrelevant answer. As he describes in his example, a half-Korean, half-German woman living in Paris will recognize a half-Canadian, half-Thai man living in Edinburgh as kin, more than she would a person entirely of Korea or Germany. Their future daughter, born in America, will be “a wonderful and constantly evolving mix of all of those places,” and will view the world differently because she “comes out of this almost unprecedented blend of cultures.”
Iyer’s underlying message — that “home” is an abstraction — is backed by powerful and convincing anecdotes. After losing all of his worldly possessions in a wildfire, he turned inward to establish himself. He eventually came to the understanding that his “home” wasn’t a physical location, but a collection of whatever he carried around inside. This realization — that he wasn’t tied to any fixed point on the map — enabled him to roam freely and find reflections of himself in the places he traveled, bringing his always accessible “home” along for the ride. As he says of wanderers who have experienced this liberation, “home for them is really a work in progress — it’s like a project on which they’re constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections.”
We don’t choose our birthplace, yet the vast majority of us cling to it without ever exploring beyond what’s familiar. In doing so, we fail to truly grasp the reality that “home” isn’t a place, but a construct rooted in experience. Much like our relationships, it’s always evolving.
“Where you come from now is much less important than where you’re going”
A recent study published in Management International Review found that only about 20% of variation in cultural values can be explained by differences between nations, suggesting we’re very misguided when we generalize based on country of origin. More significant than our birthplace is the path we choose to walk from it.
For hundreds of years, writers and intellectuals have contemplated the benefits of international travel. More recently, studies have shown that these benefits are not just anecdotal, but could be supported by science. “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” said Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky, who studies the connection between international travel and creativity. Exposure to new sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and sensations can stimulate different synapses and actually influence brain chemistry, he contends.
The more you’re exposed to new ideas and stimuli, the more your preconceptions are threatened. “Being surrounded by the foreign slaps you awake,” says Iyer. “You can’t take anything for granted.” Living in a foreign country — especially one with unfamiliar norms and a language you can’t speak — is eye-opening and humbling. It will knock you off your feet and force you to appreciate how little you know about the world.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.”
Though I’ve only been living in China for a year, my perspective on the world has done a series of backflips. Issues that seemed monumental in my North American bubble have been dwarfed by the raw magnitude of modern China. Volatile, breathtaking, and full of contradictions, this country has sent me spiralling into the pits of despair and lifted me into elation. Without a doubt, I will leave China a changed person.
It’s difficult to explain the living-abroad phenomenon, and talking about it risks pretension. But it’s something that everyone should try, if only to open their eyes to the world beyond their own borders. Feeling empathy for people different from yourself is something that can’t be taught or simply understood. It must be learned through experience. And it’s clear — especially now, as anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric becomes a norm in global politics — that the world could use more empathy.
Revolutionizing the concept of home will water the seeds of global-mindedness and weaken the barriers of nationalism. While political forces are still nation-centric even in an age of globalization, one can only hope that the “global citizenship” movement, which recognizes the human race as a single interdependent community, will eventually gain acceptance. The “our country-vs-everyone-else” mentality, driven by a darker face of nationalism, is just as damaging as any other exclusionary “us-vs-them” mentality. It’s past its expiry date.
Look back only a few decades and we find a generation that almost entirely had their sense of home, community, and enmity assigned to them at birth, with little chance to step outside that. Now, at least some of us have the privilege to fashion our sense of self through choices of our own. Let’s take advantage of it. In doing so, Iyer explains we can, “step a little beyond the black and white divisions of our grandparents’ age,” and overcome the petty differences that separate us.
This post might appear to be dripping with idealism, but the world is changing rapidly. We’re more connected than ever and some of the social impossibilities of the previous century have already been realized. The first step to a more integrated global community is to let go of our rigid identities and recognize that many of us are privileged enough to roam free of our birthplace. “Home” is an abstraction that can be molded and refined based on new discoveries — why stifle it?