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When Home Isn’t Home Anymore

Does living abroad change your concept of home?

By 4 min read 19

Living in a foreign country displaces you, it forces you to find and create for yourself a brand new home, somewhere else. For some, it is a thrilling new adventure while for others it can be their greatest fear. No matter how much you have become accustomed to your new country, there’s always a slice of home you will miss because it is not easy to say goodbye.

Each time I went back to Singapore I would be excited to return to where I had grown up, nostalgia tugging at my heart strings each time I heard the roar of an airplane engine – I was going home!

But what happens when home is no longer home? When instead of warmth and nostalgia all you feel is displacement and loss?

I’ve only been in Japan for three years and I return to Singapore rather often and yet each time I feel this dilemma. Happiness yet melancholy and longing, an emptiness that somehow cannot be fulfilled by any one place.

Having lived abroad and thrown myself head first into having to adapt, learn and appreciate a whole new culture changed me and my perspective on the world. There is just so much out there to see and experience.

But traveling and living, settling down somewhere are two different things. When traveling you know you’re returning home at some point, where you’re presently at is temporary, a journey toward a goal. I feel torn now, to think I have two home bases and facing the possible decision to have to choose between the two.

I am Singaporean by nationality and I fiercely love my country and sing her praises, but when I return I don’t feel like I belong any longer, the once familiar words do not roll off my tongue as fluently as they used to. I find myself unable to comprehend the local trends and I get lost at the landmarks that have changed.

I feel like a foreigner in my own country.

I feel like a foreigner in my own country. There is an echoing bitter aftertaste that I cannot quite identify at the end of each day. I am living there, but each time it grows ever more distant like the best friend you used to have that you’re drifting apart from and it frightens me.

On the other hand, there is Japan which I have called home, created a new place of existence for myself and where I have developed as a person. I made new friends, joined new communities and found a new family.

These years where I had to fend for myself, learning through experience and having to prove my worth all over again to new people and survive, I hold dear. Yet there are still customs, actions, words I do not fully grasp. Inside jokes I am not and will not be privy to. Part of me cannot truly call Japan home and longs for the comfort of familiarity.

Some days I feel like there are two separate versions of me, two personas I have created for each home base. Japan Bernie and Singapore Bernie, two very different yet similar people who carry themselves differently because they feel the environment calls for it. I have two different accents when I speak – an “International” one (which ends up somewhat American) and my natural Singlish accent. Like switches I turn them on and off as I see fit but more often than not they start to overlap.

How do people make the decision between two places, two personas, two homes? As I move closer to graduation from university the question of where I will choose to live constantly surfaces and honestly I do not know the answer. I love both countries and it will pain me to have to say goodbye to either one of them.

But “goodbye is not a sad word, it’s a yell that connects our respective dreams” and each time I sing the words I mull over the consequences of either action. No matter the choice I know that there is a piece of my heart I will leave behind in the place that will become my home away from home.

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  • Matd says:

    Hello Bernie. I really enjoy your blogposts and I am an aspiring teen looking to study in Japan after serving my national service, which I will be entering in about a month from now. I have some really important questions that I’d like to be answered by someone who comes form such a similar background as I do. Your twitter link seems to be outdated, is there any other form of communication method which I could utilize to talk to you? I’d really appreciate it!

  • Marcus Aurelius says:

    A very honest heartfelt and well written article. I have read this article numerous times. While the countries are different the sentiments are the same.

    Look forward to reading your other articles!

  • disqus_7SOh19uVSv says:

    Hi Bernie, I too am a Singaporean who left Singapore 18 years ago to live in the UK. For many of my contemporaries in the UK, when they return to their hometown, things have not changed much. Their old school is still there, same landmarks remain so they can get all nostalgic and reminisce about the good ole times. However, for us Singaporeans, our country is changing rapidly. For me, my old primary and secondary schools either don’t exist any more or have moved location. The road system, public transport routes round my parents flat have changed. Regular teenage haunts like McDonalds East Coast has closed and so have many other establishments I frequented in my youth. Where there used to be a park may now have a high rise condominium standing on top of it. In my opinion, it is awful that so much of our history is wiped out in a blink of an eye. The need for urbanisation and growth has meant that many historical sites and venues are bulldozed to build characterless apartments and shopping complexes. Also, it is very hard to find a true blue Singaporean amongst the huge influx of foreigners. Most of my peers have left for Australia, US, leaving behind only the older folk. So yes, I too feel like a foreigner in my own homeland. The irony is I get home-sick for the UK when I come out to Singapore to visit. I don’t find Singapore to be my home any longer, like you said, it is like an old friend that has grown cold and distant. I don’t recognise it anymore.

  • Kristen E says:

    I can totally relate!! I had the privilege of living in Japan for 4 wonderful years. It wasn’t long before I identified Japan as my home. And each time I returned to the US (my home country), I felt out of place. I am now living in the States again, but long for my beloved Japan. Living abroad has certainly changed my perspective on Americans, foreigners, food, customs — just about everything. But I would move back to Japan in a heart beat, if the opportunity presented itself.

  • maulinator says:

    I do not feel the same way. Maybe it is an American thing. But I do not feel the same longing or sense of loss.

    I tihkn maybe you are sad and displaced since you know and miss the country you left in the first place. You ahve a snapshot of your homeland as you left it. But that does not exist anymore. You have evolved and so has the country while you were away. Locations change. People get older and move away or pass along. You are not the same person and the country is not the same. If you accept that, then you probably wont feel as melancholy or feel like a foreigner. Remember the saying “you can never go home.” That is because the home you left and the person you were do not exist anymore.
    I don’t feel like a foreigner back in the US. Of course I miss out on new trends and openings, and friends get older and priorities change. But that is a part of life. I accepted that fact long ago so I do not feel ou tof place back home. More like- cool new places to check out and things to do.
    As for your choice of place to live after university: go where the job you will do is most interesting to you. Where you live will not matter since you will be working most of the time anyway. More important is that you are doing something worthwhile jobwise. Work eat sleep and party when you can. So long as those things are fulfilled it wont matter much where you decide to live.

    • Bernie Low says:

      Thank you for your comment! I guess my current conflict is that I cannot envision staying in one country for the rest of my life or having to “give up” the other one completely. And you’re right about work! Hopefully things will work out in the end.

      • Kristen E says:

        You don’t need to commit to one country for the rest of your life, though. Go where good work is, first. Then once you’ve gained experience in your field, and feel like you’ve accomplished something at your job, you can move on to a new job, and possibly a completely different country! 🙂 Be open to possibility and let things flow naturally. Who knows what adventure awaits you! 🙂 But most importantly, go where you can be happy.

      • Meee toooo! I know I’ll love living in Japan but I also know I won’t stay there–or in America– forever! Because I wanna see the worrlddd but I’ll also NEVER say goodbye to Japan!
        Also, you don’t have to give either one up either. It sounds like you aren’t ready to say goodbye yet! If you live in Japan, you can still always visit Singapore until the day you decide you want a change of scenery 🙂

  • I know the feeling, I am living back in my come country and I feel like a foreigner here as well.

  • I feel you, Bernie. I have been studying in China for almost 3 years now and every time I go back to my home in Indonesia…it’s just…feels different. My friends started getting married, so we could hang out less often. My family, seems to irritate me more than ever. I don’t like it when people tell what to do, because I feel that all this time I spent abroad, I can manage myself just fine. I guess I’m addicted to adventures, to freedom, to solitude, to challenge. I will graduate in one year and after that, I don’t know where should I live. It feels like, home is not a place anymore, it’s wherever my heart is.

  • Mervyn Kwan says:

    Thankyou for your sharing and your great journal . I’m feeling exactly the same way an
    d thoughts with you where I belong to Hong Kong ,but now finishing my degree in Taipei

  • Perdomot .One says:

    I’ve never lived in Japan but have visited it for 2-3 weeks at a time for vacation and get the same feeling now. I’m an American and fiercely love my country but I long for Japan when I’m waiting to go on vacation there again. I don’t think I could live in Japan because of the super hard work culture but I so miss the feeling of walking around Tokyo and exploring the backstreets and non tourist places which have their own unique charm. I feel really torn between the two countries and plan on living in Hawaii someday so I can be close to Japan and still be in the USA. Best solution I have come up with so far, unless I win the lottery. LOL

  • Nirai says:

    We have the blessing of more than one home. I’m turkish but i was born and grew up in germany. Now I’m studying in Turkey. Although i feel like a foreigner in both countries I try to enjoy this situation. I have the opportunity to benefit from both worlds. I think this leads to developing a more open mind and makes me fight against prejudices and misunderstandings. I want to visit Japan too and maybe even live there…
    Let’s do our best no matter where we are. I don’t need a piece of paper which categorizes me in a nationality I’m human and that’s enough.

  • Amber Asami Mae says:

    OMG what you wrote is EXACTLY what I’ve been feeling all this time! I’ve also been living in Kansai for three years! I didn’t know there would be another Singaporean in the same situation as me in Kansai!

  • Taya says:

    I was only in Japan for 4 months or so, and this happened to me. I was suffering from Culture Shock, so I returned home. But after a few days back, I hit “Reverse Culture Shock”. Things that used to be familiar no longer were. After only 4 months abroad!! I’ve been back for a while now, and have re-integrated, but I still miss some of the things I got used to in Japan.

    Maybe I’ll return to Japan someday. Even though Culture Shock got the better of me, I don’t regret going. The experiences I had while living there have forever changed me as a person, as well as the way I look at the world. Now I’m itching to go see other places!

  • Seadaddy66 says:

    I am thinking you, like many of us, see Japan as wayyy better than the places we come from! I too, find myself a complete tourist when I go back to the place of my childhood, that I usually can’t wait to get back to where I live now, and I’ve longed to get back to Japan ever since I left many years ago… 😉

  • Max says:

    The thing about two personas echoed with me too 🙂 I started to realize it after only six months or so. Going back home was kind of like putting on a different mask. A one that hadn’t been used for a long time.

  • zoomingjapan says:

    I know exactly how you feel. Same happens to me.
    I’ve been in Japan for 7 years and haven’t gone back home to Germany very often.
    But each time I go back, it feels less than my home country and more like something I might not fit in anymore. I guess we all struggle with this.

    And well said with the two personas. I guess it’s pretty much the same for me. I couldn’t have described it any better. ^^;

    • Bernie Low says:

      My friends like to point out my two personas a lot, they find it really amusing xD
      I’m actually rather surprised that I feel so strongly about this even though I’ve been back to Singapore quite often. It’s kind of also how you feel like you don’t really belong in either country, too, which is a common struggle many people face now – be it having lived overseas or having mixed heritage etc.



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