Editor’s note: Simina Mistreanu is a Romanian journalist I had the pleasure of knowing when we worked together for more than a year at the Hillsboro Argus, a suburban newspaper owned by the Oregonian Media Group. Sitting alongside each other, she covered Washington County government while I wrote editorials — often on people and issues that were central to her beat. Simina brought a gentle demeanor, a great work ethic and rich international experience to the newsroom.
By Simina Mistreanu
I had planned on writing this post last summer and then again in late fall (Thank you, George, for the extensions!) Had I written it at any of those times – as I was being reunited with my family in Romania, or settling into my new life in China, respectively –the results would have been different than today.
So what makes a place a home? We each have personal images associated with this concept: it could be the house where we grew up, our family around the table for a special dinner, or the long-awaited hugs after we’ve been away. We also have media-constructed images that we might or might not aspire to: the house, the perfect family, and maybe a level of wealth and social acceptance that we imagine will rid us of all future worries.
Home are the special groups of friends who have been tremendously important, close and constant to us in different periods of our lives. Home could be one person, in particular, or a pet.
The bottom line is that “home” is an umbrella for a sense of security, familiarity, the faces of people you love, and the chance to unwind and shed your work and socializing skins.
It used to be that people could have all these things physically close throughout their lives. Even today, an American lives on average no further than 18 miles from his or her mother. That is a gift afforded to most of us in the Western world by the way we’ve built our communities: we can learn, work and play close to where we live, if that’s what we want. (I think I used to take this for granted until I came to China and realized that the hundreds of millions of migrant workers have little choice but to leave their homes and work in big cities hundreds of miles away, with the possibility to visit once or twice a year, on national holidays.)
But we also increasingly have the privilege of living in different cities, countries and continents from where we grew up. As we become more global, what does that do to our sense of home?
(Click on photos to view captions.)
I’ll tell you a bit about my trajectory. I grew up in a village in western Transylvania. When I was 7 years old, our parents decided to send my sister and me to a nearby city to attend better schools. Our grandmother moved to live with us. When I started high school, my sister moved away for college, my grandma returned to her village, and I lived by myself in the city, with frequent visits from family and friends.
I moved to Bucharest, Romania’s capital, for college and worked there as a journalist for almost five years. Then I got a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Missouri-Columbia for my master’s program. I interned in Wichita, Kan., on my first summer and in Portland, Ore., on my second. I ended up staying to work in Portland for almost 1 1/2 years.
After three years in the United States, I had to leave the country (Thanks, Obama!) I returned to Romania for a few months then followed my partner to Beijing, where I now live and work.
So where is home to me? I would say it’s everywhere I’ve lived. I feel at home in my mom’s house, and I certainly love all the cities where I’ve lived. And for some strange reason, I always feel at home when I’m by the ocean. But I don’t think the place matters that much. The place is just the end result of the thoughts and emotions we associate with it. A house, a street or a city is not intrinsically home. We instill in them those qualities based on what we’ve experienced there.
There are three elements that I think help to make a home:
Friends. I think friends are God’s solution to almost everything. They can appear anywhere and for no apparent reason. I think I’m not great at making friends – I’m sometimes nervous about building new relationships – but I’m pretty good at being a friend. What I know for sure is that when I’m trying to adapt to a new place, everything starts to change once I’ve made my first true friend there.
Friendship can make a place like Beijing feel like home because it all of a sudden creates a space of familiarity, trust and care. But I’m talking about friendships that go together through the days. These are not friendships that exist just for partying or work. So these true friendships are rare and take time to build. But they make all the difference.
The bittersweet part about moving around is that you make new friends but leave old ones behind. You constantly miss someone, even if you stay in touch, and you realize there’s little chance you’ll be able to have all of your friends in the same place again. Which brings me to:
Family. We sometimes talk about how technology, including Skype and Whatsapp, helps us stay in touch with our families. That’s true but on a superficial level. I think we’re trying to minimize, to ourselves, the enormous fact that we live thousands of miles away from our families and visit once or twice a year, in some cases.
There’s no real substitute for spending A LOT of time with your family. I’ve realized that this summer, when while waiting for my Chinese visa to process, I spent about six weeks in my mother’s village – the longest I had been there since middle school. Nothing compares to spending day after day with your loved ones and being there beyond special events and Christmas dinners. Only time will allow you to see your loved ones blossom slowly in your presence, which is one of the most rewarding feelings you can have.
In a nice opinion piece in the New York Times, Frank Bruni explained why he and his family insist on spending no less than seven days and seven nights for their annual family reunion. He says people open up in unplanned moments, and you just have to be there for it.
Tim Urban of WaitButWhy.com wrote this post about how we’ve most likely already used more than 90 percent of the time we had with some of the most important people in our lives, including our parents. Freaky, right? It makes considering new arrangements that allow you to live closer or together worthwhile.
Which leads me to the most essential part of this list:
Yourself. This globalized world comes with incredible gifts and with aches. On one side, many of us have the possibility to explore, live and work in many different places in the country and the world. These are experiences too exciting and too valuable to pass. But in order to do it, we need to pull our roots out of whatever ground they were initially planted in. We’ll likely never replant them in the exact same spot.
Does that mean we are rootless?
Having thought a lot about this, I’ve actually come to the conclusion that the main, if not the only, entity that can make us feel at home once we’re grown-ups is ourselves. Deepak Chopra talks about the “inner self”: consciousness, a field of unlimited potential, which we can connect to through gratitude and awareness, sometimes in meditation.
This sounds abstract, but I think it takes very concrete work to learn to listen to ourselves, check in regularly and lead our lives accordingly.
It’s perplexing but also kind of cool to realize that the sense of security, familiarity and comfort that we associate with “home” can and should come first from within ourselves.
So I think in this new world we carry our own roots. They are within us, not in some exterior place. And that’s fine because it allows us to make decisions that are true to ourselves and are not based on fear and outside expectations. It’s a great exercise in creativity to define our own home.
Simina Mistreanu has worked as a journalist in Romania, the U.S. and China for the past nine years. She loves dogs, stories and being in nature. She now lives in Beijing, where she wants to tell stories — and eventually learn to carry a basic conversation in Mandarin.