When Home Becomes a Foreign Place
(How) can a place where I grew up in feel so foreign?
Home is a place of general security and relative comfort. It’s a cushion against the backdrop of a chaotic world, or a home town usually far away from the hustle and bustle, and stings of life.
Going home at the end of my second year of studying abroad, I realized that I had lost touch with the utopian humble abode which — if hadn’t shaped my entire upbringing — framed most of my formative experiences. Home seemed even more foreign than the foreign country in which I was continuing my higher education.
The first couple of weeks back home were the most challenging. I couldn’t help but realize that something was different even if I didn’t have enough words to attach it to. At first, I attributed this feeling to a rapidly changing accent, a myriad of evolving world views, and newly found preferences. But these things weren’t enough to explain the strange feeling of home.
Struggling to grapple with this difference, I set out to find mementos — pictures, journals, old scratched CDs; scathing through the puzzle to see where I could fit in, and find a sense of belonging. I needed to convince myself that home hadn’t reached a stage of irreversible strangeness to my eyes. I needed to find what had been missing to validate my claim to the place where I grew up. After all, this place was my Pride Rock, the place in whose light ground I found my roar and whose dark places I found bravery.
To my realization, a few things had changed at home. My favorite restaurant had been swallowed up by various upcoming competitor s— diminishing its popularity and distorting its prestige to many loyal customers. The public library which took years of construction had finally been built and was running. And many houses in my neighborhood were renovated with extra rooms, surrounded by the latest design of brick wall and electric fence, and wore a different colored paint.
Apart from these few changes, however, nothing significant had changed.
People still woke up early hoping to get the earliest spot in the minibus taxi station to go to work. Hustlers still plotted daily schemes to take advantage of unnoticing eyes; waiting to yank off carelessly placed wallets and phones hanging from back-pockets. Religious people still woke up every Sunday to go to church in a comical gesture to forget day-before versions of themselves. Teenage pregnancies were still as much a norm among girls as drugs and crime were among teenage boys. And walking down the street at night was still as uncomfortable and scary as ever.
Whenever you refer to a place as a home a sense of entitlement usually accompanies it. It is the right you feel to define it: its perimeters and limitations.
Against the backdrop of an evolving home, suddenly it hit me. I finally realized that it was the things that had remained the same that bothered me more than what had changed. It was the smell of the familiar evening red dust and sweat which characterized the ongoing life in the hood. It was the layer of unbothered air hovering in the atmosphere — the contentedness that overshadowed curiosity, the people too satisfied with the smallness of their lives — that got to me.
It was the realization that as soon as I left home, the pieces of the puzzle had somehow managed to arrange themselves and command a new harmony regardless.
It is the smell of betrayal from a city you love dearly. That everything somehow managed to stay in place; and survive without you.
The clogged water pipe had been unclogged and slowly started flowing. The abused street dog was still alive. All the service delivery strikes decrying electricity shortages, and high electricity bills, had still been a norm.
Suddenly, I had become the stranger in a familiar place, and home was a foreign place of familiar roaming strangers.
To this end, I realized that I could no longer call this place home. It was simply a place that I grew up in and a place that had generously supplied me with ground enough to experience countless firsts. But home and I could no longer claim each other.
So it became clear that whenever I returned, I would no longer be “going back home” because even in its sameness, home wasn’t the same anymore.