Here And Home – How Expats Can Feel At Home Anywhere

Occasionally, even the most global-savvy among us might feel displaced - geographically or culturally. And this imbalance can affect all facets of our lives, from personal relationships to career performance. Our coach Kalaivani Mattern believes that there are myriad ways to turn that unease around. Read about her approach "Here and Home" when supporting her expat clients.
feel at home expats

Home – a short simple word with mere four letters, but it is hard to find a more evocative or controversial word than this, except perhaps the other four-lettered word ‘love’. The word ‘Home’ evokes the sense of comfort, safety, and a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Cambridge dictionary defines home as “someone’s or something’s place of origin, or the place where a person feels they belong”. There in lies the controversy – is it someone’s place of origin, or the place where they live? Which is it? What about the word belong? And are they all really different?

In my experience, for some people ‘home’ is where they currently live, for some it is where they want to be. Some times ‘home’ is a solid building that we can touch and some times it is a feeling or a memory.

Whether we define ‘home’ as a place or a state of mind, we are at equilibrium at home – it is a sense of balance and familiarity, and we are confident in those surroundings. When the going gets tough, we would all like to go back home to recoup.

But what if we do not feel at home at the place we live?

When we are displaced geographically/culturally whether by choice or by circumstance, it could be disconcerting – the equilibrium gets disturbed.

This dissonance might affect all facets of one’s life – personal relationships, career performance and could even hinder crucial decision-making capabilities. Even the most global savvy among us might feel displaced occasionally. As a coach, I would like to support my clients in re-establishing this sense of balance. To this end, I developed an idea that I call “Here and Home” which is based on my own experiences with this complicated and contradictory topic.

Looking Back

My life has meandered around the world. I was born in Sri Lanka during a civil war. My family had to flee to India, our ancestral land. I grew up in a small town in South India with all its charm and quirks. Then I moved to Chennai to study at the prestigious IITM university – and that was the second biggest disruption in my life. I had not only left my family’s comforting presence for the first time, but to a dazzling and disconcerting metropolis. I had to find my way through friendships, demanding course work, and an entirely alien lifestyle of living in a dorm. As soon as I had sorted that out and settled down to a predictable rhythm, my life was “disrupted” again by the second controversial word “love”. This caused me to follow my now husband to Germany. Geographically and culturally the biggest move of my life. That was twenty years ago. Between then and now, I have moved twice again – Germany to Goa in India, then back to Germany. I currently live in a small town in southern Germany.

Here Is My Home

Every time I am asked “where is home” my answer has always been “here, here is my home”. This answer flabbergasts the person asking the question. “But you have lived here only for a few years, don’t you miss the other place?”

I try to explain, how all those places where I have lived before were also my homes. But this here, here is my home now. Some times it comes across as a cryptic or mystical statement, but it is not. My home has always been the people that are my family and friends – it has never been a place.

This is almost always followed up by the next question – “but parts of your family and friends live all over the world, so how does this place here, become home?” This is where I explain my foolproof plan of turning every physical space I am live in, into a home.

How To Feel At Home At Any Place

My strategy to feel at home at any place, is two-fold:

a) keep in touch with people that matter to me wherever they live
b) find a way to contribute to the new community that I am part of (and thus create a new home)

I have always kept in touch with people in my life – even in pre-internet, email days. I would write long letters to friends and family, would wait at the phone booth at university to call people and make it a point to visit them when I was in the area. To touch base, as they say, is essential to my well-being. The second point is as important, if not more so, to make a home at a new place. I need a tribe to flourish.

When I came to Germany twenty years ago, I did not know anyone except my husband and also did not speak the language. It was daunting to say the least – I did not know where to start. The first step was to learn the language. The first language school I tried, had only one-on-one lesson. That did not help me. So I joined a language course at the local community college. That was the big breakthrough – I made my first friend. She was from Turkey and was my classmate. We started chatting in German as that was the common language we had. We would go to Cafes together with our respective dictionaries and try and practise our German. This friendship has lasted us through all my various geographical moving around in the last 20 years.

When we moved to Goa (India) for my husband’s expat assignment, the first thing I did was, to look for a class or course to join so that I could meet people. I took up Zumba and made a whole bunch of friends who have become my extended family. Thanks for the Internet, we are present in each other’s lives in every meaningful way.

It also helps that I am a parent – schools and Kindergartens are great places to meet similar minded people. I met and made friends at my children’s school and after-school activities. We have worried together through stomach flus, broken bones and hospital stays. Nothing makes you more grateful for a tribe than when you are sitting at the hospital, at the bed-side of one of your kids and a friend not only takes your other child home, keeps the child calm and safe but also brings you food and comforting words. That creates an unbreakable bond.

The “Here And Home” Tool

Of course, these are just some of the resources that I had and some of the ideas that work for me. It might not work for others. I wanted to expand on this idea of “how to feel at home” to a more general tool that would help anyone. That is how “Here and Home” came into being.

I designed this exercise based on the core value of mindfulness: “being present in the now”. The essence is to reflect on one’s needs and choices. This self-reflection should ideally support my clients to create a game plan of their own, to explore what would help them make the “here” their “home”. It should help them see the choices they have and feel empowered to take the steps necessary to feel at ease in the new environment.

There are myriad reasons why one may not feel at home. My belief is, that there are equally myriad ways to turn that unease around. I hope to support people in finding some of those (hidden) pathways to a happy and harmonious home.

“I have arrived, I am home, in the here, in the now, I am solid, I am free”. (Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh)

Kalaivani Mattern

Picture of Kalaivani Mattern

Kalaivani Mattern

I am Vani, an intercultural trainer and coach. As an optimist, I strongly believe in cultures being complementary and my wish is to promote dialog, appreciation and productivity. The core of my intercultural philosophy is, that diversity with all its multitude of challenges, is our ultimate strength. I invite you to explore and leverage this unique capability of humanity - to cooperate and work across such vast distances in time, space, experiences and lifestyles.

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