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Home for the holidays? A tough question for expatriates

When you're an expatriate, which "home" is your real home?

In these post-holiday weeks, as I re-encounter friends and colleagues, the typical question is "did you go home for the holidays?" I never know quite how to answer. I've lived here with my family for more than a year, so isn't this home? Or is New York, where I lived for 20 years, still "home", even though I don't have an apartment there any longer?

Even though it's been a year, I'm still a relative beginner at being an expatriate. I'm realising that to be an expat is to be, simultaneously, both home and not home.

This city bustles with people who live with multiple ideas of "home", from those who go "back home" only once a year, to those who return "home" to visit relatives every other month. There are even those for whom "home" might refer to any one of the last three countries in which they've lived. It makes me wonder if there is a limit to how many "homes" you can have before the word ceases to have any meaning.

Or is "home" a word like "love", infinitely divisible but never diminished?

A few weeks before we travelled to New York last month, I had a dream. In it I woke up in New York and longed to be back home in Abu Dhabi. My dream-self felt relieved that Abu Dhabi had become home, but when I woke up I felt guilty: it had taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make New York feel like home, and now I was just going to toss it aside for some upstart Gulf cosmopolis? And when I made the mistake of telling my stateside mother about this dream, she muttered something about flying to Abu Dhabi to kidnap her grandchildren and bring them "home".

Like most New Yorkers, I came from somewhere else and stayed much longer than I had planned. When I first moved to New York as a graduate student, in the mid-1980s, I hated it. I planned to stay only long enough to finish my doctorate. Some two decades later though, as the working mother of two and a veteran of navigating narrow grocery store aisles with a stroller and a toddler in tow, I would laugh at my graduate-student plans. Manhattan had become home and I had no intention of leaving - despite my occasional longing gaze at Brooklyn's bucolic shores. But instead of Brooklyn, we moved to Abu Dhabi. Now I negotiate traffic (with minor cursing and white knuckles on the steering wheel) and also the produce counter at Lulu.

The thronging traffic hides an Abu Dhabi secret: life here moves more slowly than life in New York. I love the Friday morning stillness here, and the Saturday hubbub of picnicking families along the Corniche. I don't even mind the sand and grit that filter into everything: it reminds me that Abu Dhabi as a city exists through sheer acts of human will - in much the same way, in fact, as does Manhattan. That rocky island, barely 59 square kilometres, was surely never intended to be home to millions of people, and neither was this sweep of desert coastline.

And yet, here we all are.

Living here has stripped away my urban-dweller callouses: when I was in New York this winter, I sounded like a tourist, whining about the noise, the crowds, the weather, the endless concrete. It all felt like too much - and it no longer felt quite like home. But when I'm in Abu Dhabi, I miss New York's energy, its street musicians and public art, the libraries and museums, the endless array of restaurants.

Maybe that's what it means to be an expat: to be always half in love with the place you left behind even as the new place works its way into your affections. When I got off the plane in Abu Dhabi this January and breathed in the warm night air (warm, that is, by Manhattan-in-January standards), I thought "it's good to be home". And it is.


Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Online: mannahattamamma.com

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