Left: My home-town, La Paz (Bolivia) at dusk, 2012. Right: My adopted home, Sydney (Australia) on a stormy night, 2014 (both images taken by the author - click to enlarge)
According to Peter Read, in his book Returning to Nothing (1996), 'home' can be a city, a suburb, a house, a room in a house, or a single plant in a garden.
Home can be a physical or geographical place, but it is also a place inside our hearts and our minds. It could be a person, an object, or a collection of memories, individual or shared.
During my first years as a migrant, whilst I still lived with one foot on the vast island known as Australia and the other firmly placed on the soil of landlocked Bolivia, I remember finding myself continuously exploring the concept of home, perhaps as a way to understand and overcome my feelings of dislocation.
When I was studying the subject of Australian History at university, as a mature student, I wrote an essay exploring the concept of ‘home’ from three different perspectives: Home ownership, Home country, and Home land. To my delight, the essay received a high distinction. In this blog I revisit those ideas more succinctly and subjectively, as well as bringing them up to date. The fully referenced essay (1998) can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.
Home-ownership: The Great Australian Dream
The Great Australian Dream of owning a detached house in the suburbs, on a quarter acre block, has its origins in colonial times, when British colonists arrived here escaping the poor and overcrowded conditions of the cities in Britain. They were pursuing the ‘agrarian myth’ of owning a cottage and a bit of land in the vast Australian countryside. When the agrarian myth failed, and people had to leave the land to move back into the cities, they brought with them their ‘rural arcadia’ ideal, which reached its height in the post-war years.
By the 1960s, Australia became one of the nations with the highest rate of home ownership in the world. This however, had consequences: young families became committed to debts for most of their working life; there was a growth in inequality between those who could afford the dream and those who could not; suburbia began to sprawl, and Australians developed a culture of home centeredness.
In recent years, ‘the dream’ has been cut short for many, particularly in Sydney which in 2015 has officially become the most expensive city in the world, due to the skyrocketing of property prices. The size and composition of Australian households has changed dramatically since the post-war years. Younger generations have a busier lifestyle, are more focused on having a career than on having a family, they don't have the time to care for a house with a garden, nor do they have the means to buy said house.
Despite of all this, the Australian Housing Survey conducted by the ABS 1 at the start of the millennium, demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of Australians still prefer to own a detached house on a plot of land – regardless of the material, social or emotional costs that this might bring.
Home-country: stories of migration
In April 2013, my family and I celebrated a quarter of a century in Australia. Reflecting upon this milestone, I realised that most of the time, I no longer feel painfully divided between two cultures. The transition has taken a long time, but I have embraced this country, its language and its people, and they have embraced me back. And yet… when I speak about my country of origin, Bolivia, I still find myself calling it ‘home’.
In the almost three decades that I have been living in Sydney, I tackled the subject of ‘belonging’ with many fellow migrants from a variety of backgrounds. The metaphors of reincarnation, of living two parallel lives, of having been forever divided into two halves (before and after leaving our countries of birth), of being perpetually trapped in a kind of limbo, illustrate some of the ways we express ourselves when we think about belonging or feeling 'at home'.
Many migrants hope that their Australian-born children, still referred to as ‘migrants’, (second generation migrants) will finally establish roots in their parents’ adopted home. But for some of these children, ‘belonging’ is even more complex. Many years ago I spoke with one of my mother’s colleagues who had been born in Sydney in the 1950s to an Orthodox Greek family. She said she never felt at home growing up in Australia, and still had memories of being called a ‘WOG” at school; but when she visited Greece for holidays she didn’t feel at home there either. She looked at me, almost with envy, and said, 'at least you know where you come from; you have roots.'
When you put it that way, perhaps home is where your roots are, or as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘Home is where one starts from’. What happens then, when your roots are taken away from under your feet, in your own country?
Home-land: Indigenous Australians, migrants in their own home
The concept that indigenous Australians have of ‘home’ is not easy to explain, not only because of cultural barriers but also because of language limitations. Perhaps the words of W.H. Stanner express this language difficulty more adequately:
“There are no English words good enough to give a sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word 'home', warm and suggestive though it be, does not match the Aboriginal word that may mean 'camp', 'hearth', 'country', 'everlasting home', 'totem place', 'life source', 'spirit centre' and much else all in one. Our word 'land' is too sparse and meagre...To put our words 'home' and ‘land’ together in 'homeland' is a little better but not much”. 2
Without pretending to understand the multifaceted meanings of home in Aboriginal culture, as a migrant I found myself comparing some of the indigenous people’s experiences to that of unwilling migrants: the dispossession of their land meant the dispossession of their identity, and they became displaced persons, strangers and exiles. The difference is that they experienced, and continue to experience, all of these whilst they are still in their own home.
The story of Aboriginal families that had to leave the town camps to move to the cities is also a story of forced migration. Similarly to overseas migrants, aboriginal people who emigrate to the city tend to "identify themselves with their country of origin, choosing places to live and work where they can relate to kin and homeplace." 3 Many return to their home country after decades of living in the city; others finally identify themselves with their new home, as in the case of many migrants, only when their children are born in their new land.
1 Australian Bureau of statistics, 1999
2 Cunnen, C. and Libesman P. Indigenous people and the Law in Australia, Buttersworths, Sydney 1995
3 Goodall, Heather Invasion to Embassy – Land in Aboriginal Politics in NSW, 1770-1982, Allen & Unwin, 1996
TO DOWNLOAD THE FULL, REFERENCED ESSAY, CLICK ON THE BOTTOM RIGHT CORNER OF THE PDF BELOW
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,