Home is a place we have never been, but we will know when we arrive. Perhaps this a saying for someone like me, who has always felt a misfit, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
Why a misfit? It may be due to an idea that does not fit, or a hope that has little hope of being realised, or a sense of life that others find odd, or indeed a politics that many dismiss as wayward. Above all, I have never quite felt at home.
I have wondered whether this sense is due to being a child of immigrants. I was born in the adopted country of my parents. On the one hand, this country was far better than the place of their birth, for otherwise they would not have immigrated. On the other hand, the new country failed time and again to match the standards of the old. The result is that I grew up familiar with two places, but at home in neither. I know intimately the country of my parents’ birth, but could not live there. And I know intimately the country to which they immigrated, but feel restless there too.
I have tried to find a home. Some decades ago I found myself in Montreal, the second largest French-speaking city in the world. I threw myself into life there, relishing the sharp demarcation of the seasons with 70 degree (Celsius) variations between summer and winter, the political and cultural tensions between a francophone and anglophone, the militancy of the local Indigenous peoples, the rediscovery of cycling everywhere, and the busy life of an increasing family (two of my children were born there). Above all, I felt I had found myself and gained clarity about what I loved to do and that I wanted to so it for the rest of my life – to write and think and set my own agenda. I was ready to adopt the place and live there forever.
But there was a catch: the possibility of imagining I could do so was predicated on the knowledge that my time there was limited. We had gone to Montreal for a fixed period, so I always knew it would come to an end. So I lived as though I was leaving, sinking into the place and relishing each moment and each experience, knowing that I might not have the opportunity of doing so again. In this case, home could only be imagined on the premise of departure.
More recently, I have come to spend some time each year in China. At times I speak of China as my second home, for it can feel that way. Why? For some it may be the language, with its unique system of writing characters rather than a phonetic script. Language, it is felt, is the door to a people and its ‘culture’ (whatever that word means). For some the appeal lies in a long history, going back millennia. Indeed, many Chinese are proud of that history, feeling that it is the oldest continuous history in the world (it is not). For some it is the philosophical heritage, embodied in the traditional ‘four classics and five books’ which come from the time before the first unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE). Here Confucius looms large, so much so that his legacy is always reinterpreted in each generation, especially when rapid change is under way.
Nevertheless, none of these provide the core reason why China has the potential to be a home. For me, it is the utterly intriguing history of Marxism and its practice in socialism. Understanding Chairman Mao and then the second crucial phase of ‘opening up’ since Deng Xiaoping is of extreme importance. Above all, I seek to understand and experience socialism in power, especially how the many challenges are met. So I read, study, travel to revolutionary places (‘red tourism’), ask many questions and try to listen.
Yet I know that my sense of China being a potential second home is predicated on a particular lack: it can only be a home because I am a foreigner who will never live there permanently.
It seems that this misfit will never find a home, that I am bound forever to seek one. How should one understand this reality, beyond a process of marginalisation from the majority? Let me return to Ernst Bloch’s insight: home is a place we have never been, yet we will know it is home when we arrive. Bloch speaks of utopia, by which he means the desire called socialism as a constitutive feature of human existence. Yet he draws this insight from a biblical if not theological awareness of our necessary homelessness in this world. In this respect, our perpetual wandering, searching for a home, is an implicit recognition that the home we seek is not to be found where we might expect.