Expats and migrants: at what point is life here home?

Greenland-nationalday-nuuk-10

Greenland National Day 2013 Photo: Leiff Josefsen. Source: Sermitsiaq.ag

If you’ve lived somewhere your whole life, it’s easy to have a connection with a place. To the people who are expats, life travellers, and global citizens, I ask this question: at what point does a place where you are based become home? To everyone else, what keeps you from leaving home?

I started thinking about this the other month when Greenlanders celebrated their National Day with flair by proudly flying flags, blasting canons, holding kaffemiks and just having a good time. On that day especially, it was easy to see that they loved their country, and were proud to call Greenland theirs. The festivity prompted me to ponder what made people love a place enough to call it their own.

On National Day I put some thoughts to paper, but refrained from publishing the post because I didn’t think enough people would find the topic interesting. Then a few weeks ago an Aussie living in Denmark blogged my thoughts exactly in a post called ‘At what point is life here? (great title). I was finally convinced to publish the post when a few days ago my sweet cousin wrote that she didn’t know if she could ever call Australia home. She’s lived there about 5 years.

Even if you’re living away from the place where you were born, ‘home’ can probably happen easily enough with the right conditions. Obviously, liking the place helps. In Greenland’s case, you have to enjoy the nature, not mind the cold and be prepared for a somewhat slower-paced lifestyle in a tiny ecosystem. Add to that some true friends, a fulfilling job or past-time, good food, access to social and cultural activities and I think many people would be content. In my mind, Nuuk is probably the easiest place for an outsider to build a life here, because of the cosmopolitan nature of the city and locals, and of course job opportunities.

The idea of a future is also important. You could almost analyse it as if you were in a relationship with a partner – are you serious about this place, or is it just for fun? Can you see a life together, that will fulfil your personal, social, familial and professional aspirations? Are the conditions possible? Can you contribute back to the community?

Well, that was one way to view the concept of ‘home’, let’s look at this from another perspective.

I’ve been told that although many Greenlanders move within the country a lot and beyond, many stay put in the place where they grew up. To those people, that place, and that place only is THEIR HOME.

A significant number of public sector officials will tell you that the bane of many problems in Greenland is that there are just too many unsustainable and tiny settlements in this vast country. The government has actively attempted to close some settlements down in the past so that they can maximise resources in a smaller amount of larger settlements. Attempt have been with strong resistance. It’s unsurprising, as any HR or business consultant will tell you that it’s in human nature to reject risky change (and acquisitions and mergers).

The case that highlights the extremity of the resistance is the settlement which refused to close down, even though their population was three. Yes, no joke, THREE. They refused to move away from their home for a long time, but eventually one person moved away, and three became two. Then one of the two died, and suddenly two became one. Despite protest, that lonely person really didn’t have much of a choice and the government was finally able to shut the settlement down.

Two huge events from the 1950s make this topic touchy: The first is the forcible relocation of the residents who lived in the vicinity of the United States Army’s Thule Airbase. The Greenlanders who lived there resent that they were forced to move away and blame the Danes (although there are arguments that the Americans didn’t really give them a choice in the matter). The second is that in the past the Danes forced 22 Greenlandic kids between 5 and 8 years old to live in Denmark to train them in the Danish ways. It was hoped that they would one day go back to Greenland to lead the country. None of the children from the ‘stolen generation’ ever saw their homes again. Although it was done with good intentions, it’s widely recognised as a huge mistake. There’s a movie called The Experiment, based on this history…

You can probably guess that since I’m in Greenland and grew up in Australia, I don’t really have any problems moving around. I can’t properly imagine desiring to stay put in a settlement where I’m probably related to everyone, but I can only think that it’s the deep bond to the place and the other people that is keeping the people who want to stay there. It could also be the fear of being displaced, which I can totally understand. Because although they might move, they may never call another place home again. Not, at least in the same way.

I would love to hear the perspectives of people who have more knowledge and experience about this than me. Thoughts?

8 thoughts on “Expats and migrants: at what point is life here home?

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  4. Tanny:
    An excellent post, and I echo the earlier comments. August marks one year that I moved from Atlantic Canada to Virginia. Within those 12 months, I have reckoned with the same issues, i.e., where is home? Is home with my Virginia family, my friend, or on a fishing boat, where I spend about one week to 10 days each trip. Perhaps the ocean is my home, and my location on it changes as work and life require. The saying, “Home is where the heart is” has special meaning for me, as I have recently elected to stay on in Virginia because of relationship(s) as much as for work. Regards, Fran

    • Hi Fran, your life sounds so interesting and with the ocean being your home, you can go anywhere! Relationships definitely make you hang around, hey? I think maybe one may have many relationships and many homes, making a spiderweb of love and friendship.

  5. A few thoughts:
    I think the mental journey from here to there is life-long. Sure there are moments where the trip goes faster (getting married, buying a house, having a kid…) but even after 2, 3 or even 4 decades of life “somewhere else” there are still moments of mental schism; when you fight the behaviour of your new home. With time (a lot of time) those fights more often end in enlightenment and acceptance. You can embrace the duality and be happy with it. But my God it can take a while. It’s not 6 months. It’s not even 2 years. It’s measured in decades and life experiences.

    The more countries you live in the more “homeless” you become and it’s a two-edge sword. You see the world as “a place”. Home is less and less any single destination but rather a growing feeling of attachment to this planet as an abstract whole. Your horizons expand, literally and metaphorically. It is a wonderful luxury that will give you a different perspective on many issues compared to those rooted in one place, one culture. On the other hand you will never be an expert on how things are done locally. You won’t be the women that “knows everyone”, carries the local village history or feels entirely content just watching life from the verandah. You also will have no idea who to root for in sports events – and if you think you do it will have less parochial certainty for every year that goes.

    As for the Greenlandic resistance to change, I suspect it’s hard for us wealthy international nomads to fully understand. In the same way as men have trouble truly understanding feminism, WASPs understanding racism or women enjoying progressive jazz. Some things are so far outside our experience that even a good intellectual understanding doesn’t give much emotional empathy. The logic that today compels societies to grow larger (the more efficient use of common, community and state led services) is the opposite of what created the tiny communities that dot the coast of Greenland.The extended family is their “community led service”. With family being at the centre, it can’t be replaced by a post office or health care centre or social services office. Yet that is what’s on offer. And so, it is resisted and often fails. Experience in older attempts at relocation suggests that city life will eventually lure away most of the younger adults and change will happen from within.

    Thanks for a really interesting post!

    • Thanks for your eye-opening reflections as always, Mark, you have many valuable inputs there. You would be interested in a film that they have made about Blok P, it’s a documentary with mainly a bunch of middle-aged women laughing over memories from when Blok P was brand new. It was so much hope, and in a way brought people who were living apart in the city together. including those who had felt alienated since they had moved from the settlements into the capital. It also showed another side of Blok P that you don’t hear too often – the good that came from the new apartment housing.

      It’s true I will never be able to emotionally empathise with people living in the settlements. I hope one day to some how understand more, though!

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