You can't go home, you can't go back
As long as I have lived in Germany, I have been asked a particular question; “When are you going back home?”. Sometimes it is simply an innocent enquiry from an acquaintance, other times an exclamation from a weary bartender. The question of home is confusing for most immigrants. My friends will talk about “going home for a week” or will start a story with “When I was back home...”. For some, the move to a different country is still discussed as a temporary decision, even those who have lived in Germany for over ten years may still refer to their countries of origin as home. Early on, I made a conscious decision to refer to Germany as home. I did not intend on returning, I made a decision that I wanted to stick to. This was not to say I could never go back, just a personal promise to myself not to quit when things got tough.
As soon as I came to that decision, I began to encounter the conflicting views other people have of home. German colleagues, friends and my wife’s family will still refer to the UK as my home and Newcastle as my home city, which makes some sense when you realise that Heimatland or Heimatstadt directly translates to Homeland and Home city. I have never thought to ask if they still see the UK as my home in any other way than a direct translation. My family back in the UK initially asked “Is it nice to be back home?” whenever I visited. Whether due to my own insistence or due to their own visits to Germany, this has changed over the years. What has now evolved is a qualified question of “Is it nice to be back home, well, you know, not home home, but back in Britain?...You know what I mean.” The question highlights the conflict people have when they live abroad, namely that they can no longer identify where home is.
This is of course a cliché, the expat who neither relates to their birth country nor their country of residence, but within the cliché is a kernel of truth. Expats can experience a crisis of identity when they go back to see family and friends, as if the country of their birth has somehow become more foreign than the country they chose to move to. In my experience, I have found that I spend a vast amount of time actively looking for the differences between my old home and my new home, other times the differences are simply too obvious to ignore. This is exactly the same process that I followed when I first moved to Germany, by discovering the differences I was able to better understand the place I now called home. The problem I now seem to face is that while I was discovering Germany, the UK kept evolving.
And why should it not? It would be unrealistic to imagine that the UK of 2011 would still exist in 2018. This constant state of flux serves to highlight the differences, between the place I left and the place I now live . It is not that the UK I remember has been eradicated, even after the Brexit vote, but like the frog in a boiling pot, the incremental changes often go unnoticed by the people left behind. What appeared to be small changes (new shops opening, old pubs closing, new fashion trends beginning) seem like dramatic shifts to the outsider returning to old haunts; more obvious, more significant and perhaps more alarming.
The expat, faced by these changes, has to walk a precarious tight rope. More than anything, people just want to fit in, especially when they return to places they once called home. However, the expat instinct is to constantly highlight the differences, either between the idealised past or comparisons with their country of residence. I am overly conscious of starting sentences with “In Germany...” or “In Germany we do it differently...” and I silently curse myself whenever these phrases inadvertently escape from my mouth. I do not want to be thought of as the know-it-all or the Mr. Negativity, the guy who always says the grass is greener on the other side. Germany is not perfect, just different, but when the main thing people know about you is that you live in Germany, when you are introduced with “he lives in Germany” then it comes as no surprise that often you are called upon to compare your two homes.
These requests to compare one home to another are familiar, because it is often the same type of conversation I have when I am back in Germany. “How do they do it in England?” is a general topic of conversation with German colleagues and friends. People like to know the differences, to see the variance in approaches or to simply laugh about the peculiarities. What they definitely do not want is to hear that they do it better. When I am back in the UK I miss Germany’s definitive decisions, clarity of plans, the speed of autobahn and the fact that quality of service or product is not a key indicator of how expensive it must be. Then again, when I am in Germany, no one wants to hear that the UK is more convenient, the music is better, there seems to be more choice available to the consumer or that people are more easy going.
It is hard to fit in, if the only thing people really know about you is your nationality or which country you live in, but is that really a problem? I like the fact I am different, I prefer it in fact. Perhaps it is a misplaced sense of status, the British expat who is not living in some sun drenched location such as Spain or Portugal, but instead in the presumably difficult land of Germany. Maybe it is the fact that being British still holds some currency outside the UK, despite attempts by various factions and politicians to sever those bonds.
Regardless of what I like about being different, at some point I think expats must appreciate that they are a bridge between the divide of their own culture and their adoptive culture, the embodiment of the difference for the people that know them, even in the most superficial of ways. Being the bridge for other people can be a difficult role to play. No one person is representative of the whole of their home culture, but neither can an expat be wholly representative of the culture they choose to adopt. Culture, whether national or personal is full of nuance and complexity and is rarely explained succinctly, but often that is how people want it. Expats must grow comfortable with the grey area, if only to help others understand the home they were born into and the one they eventually chose.