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Lost Between Cultures: The Struggle of Defining Home in a Foreign Land

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 1st June, 2023

Ask me where I’m from and it would not be a straight answer. It would also depend on who is asking. Defining home and all its sub elements will forever be a complex conversation. Where is your home? Is it a fixed address? Who makes it up? Do you have more than one in fact? I say this as a proud British Somali woman who was born and raised in England. I’m as Somali as they come, and yet, I am not proud to say that I’ve never set foot in my homeland – or back home as they say. Raised by two Somali parents who fled to the UK due to war, this part of my dual identity was in reality imposed, not biological as many others may claim. If anything, if I consider it for a moment, my identity was chosen for me.

As written by poet Warsan Shire, we all know “you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” It was not by choice that Somalis fled their homes while simultaneously adopting new identities along with most importantly our newfound freedom.

Having a dual identity can often make the most dominant culture, the overbearing, identifying one. By default, this can become the home by which a person distinguishes who they are at their core as it’s the consistent place in our lives. You see it every day. You feel loyal to this land, this nation and its ethos. Maybe one culture is more civil and has more money. Perhaps it’s less harmful, less toxic. There’s a chance that this host country has damaged you in its own way. That it hasn’t accepted you after all this time and it berates you daily. It may be that you never really feel like you fit in, and yet you feel bad about feeling all this because this country you criticise has taken care of you more than your original home has. It has taught you about life, who you are, and the mechanics of you.

Your less dominant culture (‘back home’) may be the culture you spend less time with. It becomes a culture as backdrop, or simply, a culture misunderstood. A culture masquerading as a stranger. The thought I’m examining here is one I’ve pondered for years now: why do we feel homesick for a place we’ve never known? A place that has never met us. A place we have only heard about, seen pictures and videos of. Many first generation people with dual identities in the west have written candidly about this infection that plagues their minds; the place from which they originate, where their beginnings lie, oceans away from where they currently exist. Derek Owusu, author of ‘That Reminds Me’ (2019) considers “history, folklore, and culture gives you pride and happiness through a sense of connection.” I agree with this notion, I do. But does wanting that connection deem us defective in the only country we may have ever known?

The organiser of a book club I’m part of, Bashayer, is a Yemeni woman living in the UK, who has never lived where she is ‘originally’ from. Still, she would classify Yemen as ‘home.’ Raised in Jeddah and London, her ethnicity in such a melting pot of culture and spanning countries was always of interest to her from a young age.

“I’ve had to defend my belonging to one culture or another. My otherness was always so apparent and constantly mentioned that as a defence mechanism (very early on). I’ve always just simply identified as Yemeni. I found that was a place my parents are from and one that welcomed me without question.” 

As much as Bashayer identifies as Yemeni, defining home for her is tricky. Home has never been a place, as in a country, it has always been the family home of which growing up I had three in three different countries. All three hold memories and attachments that I would describe as home.” But there’s a caveat in her life, similar to mine which is, “there are many Yemeni diasporas all over the world and one thing that has always connected us is our food and culture (humour, stories and music).” 

The migrant experience is validated through transporting the home culture to the new host country. But this doesn’t stop one from dreaming of what home could be if they visited, lived there or even felt closer to it.

“I am not connected to any particular city in Yemen and I actually know nothing about the country. But due to the fact that my identity and belonging was always something that was questioned, it was easy to fantasise about this place that will always be my ‘home’ because it is where my grandparents have lived and where my parents were from. Almost a mythical place, a fairy-tale that confirms my existence.” 

“Speaking English allows me to connect to more people and understand my surroundings but not necessarily belong.” A language like English, which is supposed to be universal, is telling when spoken in different accents. Unlike other European languages, it is a language that exposes its host via communication. Interesting how an accent never lies or lets go.

Many of us may speak our mother tongue, we may also engage in and observe cultural pastimes but all these are elements of us that we have learnt anywhere but ‘back home’ due to being raised in the west. Does that make us less than, culturally? Does the lack of a trip to the motherland reduce our cultural completion? Does it minimise our DNA, the detail in our features, the automation of our naturality? I’m sure many of those who have visited their homelands have still returned to their host country confused about their identities. The dominant culture we cling to is often the one we know better, the one we are closer to, the one we first spoke to. 

There remains a varied catalogue of books that reflect this kinship to a displaced identity. They house first generation adults who reach out into the ether, yearning for their heritage, while struggling to feel connected to their homelands, who question their current locations and the places their origins lie.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belongingby Afua Hirsch (2018) discusses the author’s identity crisis of being British and Ghanaian.

Hirsch analyses what it means to be black and to be British, and how a person with such an identity typically retreats to Africa to look for answers on who they are. She argues with Britain, claiming that British history is the multiracial, interracial story of a nation interdependent on trade, cultural influence and immigration.” This is true, yet ignored when Britain rejects others. Not only does Hirsch take note of racism in the UK throughout, she also constantly questions her identity, repeating that she feels neither British nor Ghanaian. She feels split between two nations, two languages, the book itself going through its own identity crisis – is it a memoir or leaning more toward a history of race in Britain? Even the cover is split into two colours. The split in opinion continues as Hirsch describes London as “the relief of familiarity, of home” but also describes Ghana as back home” as well as not home.” The author reiterates these glaring explanations to unearth the fact that she defines home by the fusion of the cultures she associates her identity with. This confusion is so relatable, because for many of us there’s chaos in where home is, or who home is even – why doesn’t it make itself known once and for all?

Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” 

Michelle Zauner’s ‘Crying in H Mart’ (2021) explores the death of the protagonist’s mother, but it also explores the dual identity of the Korean American author.

Zauner’s displaced identity in this book is as apparent as her looks, for example, which are appreciated in Korea but not as valued in America. The Korean food she eats with her mother, which is alien to a lot of Americans, also reflects difference in a foreign land. Throughout her life, Zauner’s Koreanness is alive through her trips to Seoul, her intense relationship with her mother who sadly dies and the pair’s incredible bond over Korean food. Korean food is used by the author as expression to communicate with her mother’s memory. Zauner learns to cook and her mother’s old recipes become roots by which she stands firm on. Her grief is rife and confusing as the shock of losing her mother makes her question herself. This is further exercised via H mart, a North American supermarket specialising in Korean products, in which she shops for Korean food while she grieves for her mother, each product unlocking a memory, each aisle made for crying. Zauner lists Korean food throughout the book as she attempts to learn and understand her culture, still without believing she knows enough. 

The idea of two cultures living within you and one culture perhaps seeming more authentic than the other, is well and truly alive here. Yet there may also be an innate connection with one culture over another, an attachment beyond understanding or reason which makes you feel at home. For example, though an English speaker raised in the US, Zauner yearns for and grips onto her Korean side in order to keep her mother’s memory alive. “There are Korean words I inherently understand without ever having learned their definition. There is no momentary translation that mediates the transition from one language to another. Parts of Korean just exist somewhere as part of my psyche – words imbued with their pure meaning, not their English substitutes.”

Having a dual identity, does not deter your inner workings from affixing to bedrock elements of you, perhaps as signals to remind, or simply small gestures to ensure you never forget. 

In 2020, I wrote a short fictional story about a Somali bride as she enters her Somali wedding. I wrote it simply because I had never read anything like it and was afraid it would never be written. I wrote in detail about our traditional Somali clothing, the gold the bride wears, the scents, the food and yet the very Englishness of it all. My experience as the child of immigrants means that I am split between two worlds; lovingly embracing my culture, vehemently exploring it at peak times in life, but also unable to forget the English in me. Sometimes I question if exploring my Somali culture makes me ‘good.’ 

The Good Immigrant’ (2017) written by twenty-one contributing writers, though focused on race in Britain, traverses the idea of what native language is, about going ‘home’ when your home is in fact the UK.

It also explores being named the ‘other’ in a country that may not want you, but one which you have no choice but to need. “To be an immigrant, good or bad, is about straddling two homes, whilst knowing you don’t really belong to either.” This collection brings forth the heightened sensitivity that many immigrants feel, that they must conform to being ‘good’ in order to assimilate, by adopting the stronger culture, and identifying as a member of the place in which they reside. “I do think it’s interesting that this idea of being a model minority is tied up with essentially being quiet, just sitting back, not complaining about stuff, and getting on with making money. Being quiet is considered a really good quality.” 

Grappling with your identities can be devastating, especially if you reside in spaces that don’t feel like home. Being constantly attacked or questioned is unlikely to make you feel at peace in a place you are reminded time and time again, may not want you.

Maybe I Don’t Belong Here: A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown and Recovery’ by David Harewood (2021) questions whether it is possible to be black and British, as well as to feel whole and welcome.

In his memoir, Harewood relives being sectioned and labelled in his hospital notes as a ‘large black man’ often. He describes at length, being black in the UK as being difficult, and he further explains the hardship of racism in the UK as a result of owning two identities. Harewood interprets this as akin to malfunctioning, and being in need of repair. He describes England as a far more hostile environment, one in which I will always be othered, limited by the imagination and presumption of some.”

In Harewood’s analysis of race relations in the UK,  he questions why his existence as a black man is psychologically debilitating, suggesting why a significant proportion of black people in the UK suffer with mental health issues. He described the roots of his psychotic episode as “a gradual build-up of stress and questions of identity around my race.” Attempting to assimilate can often lead to disordered thinking; questioning ourselves and what we are made up of. Harewood recalls a racist encounter that quite literally made him split in half.

“There was now a Black half and an English half and I could feel myself slowly coming apart.” Harewood echoes what most of us live through, a split identity, an unwavering yearning to be both, and a lifelong bewilderment that often leaves us depleted.

In a world which rejects difference or deems it unworthy, these spirited writers aptly reflect the frustration this causes. Having a dual identity means we all have a shared conscious connection to others in the diaspora living with a continuous battle against dehumanisation and belonging. Being British and Somali myself, I feel a strong union with these authors. Having never been to Somalia, I know what it is to feel lost, to be overly labelled, yet constantly mislabelled. This lingering tension seems to be born from the incessant feeling of negotiating with a country you will never feel fully accepted in and from ironically, not being labelled correctly. And so I ask the question again – where is home? Better still, where do you run to when all is said and done?  Which country is the foreign land if the place you ran to and now call home, denies you? Where do you belong? Is the whole city running, or just you?

Idman Omar

Idman Omar

Idman Omar is a new mother and recent MA Creative Writing graduate from London, England. She has previously been published in Stylist Magazine, Black Ballad, The Good Journal, Entropy, Gal-Dem, and Litro Online. IG: littleladyiddy IG: littleladyiddy