Finding “Home” Abroad

In this blog entry, Carol Kelley, author of Accidental Immigrants and the Search for Home, explains how women immigrating to foreign countries find a sense of belonging in their new homes.

A surprising story in the news last week concerned a Norwegian television program about, of all things, wood. Not just how to chop and stack wood, but how to burn it. Eight straight hours of this twelve-hour program consisted of nothing more than watching a fire burn. Broadcast on Norway’s primary television station, NRK, the show was popular – twenty percent of the Norwegian population watched at least part of the broadcast. The Norwegian interest in wood astounded American media outlets. The New York Times ran an in depth article, there was at least one mention on NPR, and Steven Colbert had a field day.

Cultural quirks and differences are fascinating, and many of us dream of travel and adventure in order to experience them first hand. Imagine, however, that you are Anna, a young Maori woman who has never experienced winter. You arrive in a small Norwegian town with your Norwegian husband where you will live, very possibly for the rest of your life. You look different, speak differently and cannot begin to engage in a conversation about wood fires, not to mention lutefisk or skiing. How will you learn to belong in this culture, and how long will it take? Will you ever truly feel “at home” here? Or will you forever be an “outsider”?

I first became interested in how immigrants find a sense of belonging and home in middle school. I became friends with Susan, who with her parents had escaped from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968. I remember how confused Susan’s mother was about how to raise her adolescent daughter in the suburban Mid-west. While Susan was getting ready to leave the house, her mother would often pull me aside and ask questions: “Do your parents let you date? What time do you have to be home? How much time do you spend studying?” Even as a teenager I understood how eager my friend’s mother was to fit-in in her new American home.

I will never forget the beaming faces of this family on the day they became American citizens. The joy and pride they found in creating a new home for themselves radiated across the room. Years later own my sister immigrated to Norway, where she has now lived for nearly 30 years. Over time her feelings about living in Norway have fluctuated. Sometimes she seemed to love her life there, enjoying Norwegian culture and appreciating their commitment to social equality. At other times the weather, food and social rules felt oppressive. Eventually she realized that her search for a sense of belonging would not end, but would be a life-long process.

When I began to study anthropology, I pursued my growing interest in immigration, home and belonging. I worked with immigrant populations, researching the effect of social policies and exploring how effective programs can be created for their health care and education. My interest in the emotional, as well as the practical, aspects of immigration continued, and I began to research immigrant’s life histories. My sister’s experience had taught me that to understand issues of belonging and home, I would need to learn how immigrants’ feelings evolve over a long period of time.

Accidental Immigrants_smFor Accidental Immigrants and the Search for Home, I conducted in-depth interviews with four women, all of whom have lived in adopted countries for many years, including Anna. The results of the research surprised me. While all of the participants struggled with issues of belonging, not all faced that struggle abroad: two left home in the first place because they knew they would never belong in their country of origin. They discovered that a totally different culture could better support their values and worldviews.

Belonging is complicated. For some, it feels immediate in a new place, but never exists in their first home. For others it takes a lifetime to adjust to living away from early roots. The commonality is the striving to find a place to belong, and in the tension between commitments to two places. Arriving in the Turks and Caicos Islands a few years ago, I looked for the correct line to have my passport stamped. I expected to see designated lines for citizens and non-citizens. Instead, the signs read “Belongers” and “Visitors.” Despite my knowledge of Anna’s life and her feelings, I wondered: if the same signs existed in the Norwegian immigration line, which would she feel comfortable choosing? I suspect that her choice would be something she still had to contemplate, even after living away from New Zealand for most of her life. But one thing I am sure of – even though she loves Norway, and in many ways feels herself to be Norwegian – she wouldn’t be watching an eight-hour film of a wood fire.

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