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At home abroad?

International mobility has become a way of life for many academics. How do they feel about their homeland and foreign countries when they go abroad to research and teach? We asked two women in academia.

At home abroad?Dr. Eva-Jasmin Freyschmidt is Instructor in Pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital in Boston
Forschung & Lehre: What were your expectations when you went to the USA?

Eva-Jasmin Freyschmidt: When I arrived in Boston in 2004, I was unbelievably curious and excited about the country, its people, the city and the academic community. Naturally, the success of my research project was important to me and I wanted to move forward with it, not just with new results and new findings, but also by playing a small part in the "Harvard myth". I wanted to learn and find out about new academic problems and methods, research institutes, people, culture, and of course to improve my English. I knew I was going to be the only German in my department among Americans, French and many other nationalities and was really looking forward to this multi-cultural environment. And indeed, this international setting has remained a huge source of enrichment in my life to this day. My stay was originally planned for just two to three years, but now I have been living in the USA for over six years. And I'm still curious and excited.

F&L: Have you felt like a foreigner for a long time, or do you feel at home there now?

Eva-Jasmin Freyschmidt: A diplomat's wife who had moved to different countries many times in her life once said to me that it takes 90 days to feel at home somewhere. Looking back, I can only agree with her. That was the time it took for pragmatic aspects to stabilise and to forge initial friendships. Of course, I missed my family and friends in Germany a lot, especially at the beginning, but actually I was much too busy to dwell on that. I felt foreign and homesick occasionally, but only when things weren't going well, and my love of being abroad always won the day in the end. Boston is packed with academic research institutions, so it is teeming with people with whom I share similar motivations, spontaneity and spirit of adventure. It is a place where you can make connections quickly and you can even build up something like a small substitute family. My circle of friends definitely played a very important part in my feeling at home here. When I go to Germany now, my family greet me by saying "Welcome home!", and the minute the plane touches down in Boston, the first text messages arrive saying "Welcome home!" too. So I feel at home in both places - but Germany will always be my real home.

F&L: Do you only find out what home means when you are abroad?

Eva-Jasmin Freyschmidt: Home is associated with familiarity and security, and these concepts often only become real when they are absent. Places, situations or even objects can make you feel at home if they feel familiar or offer a certain security. As well as obvious factors, these can also be very trivial things which you never before thought could evoke feelings of home. For instance, it always amuses me how Germans' eyes (including mine) light up here when anyone mentions Christmas markets or the TV series "Tatort". More complex things only become apparent after a certain period of time, and some aspects can only be identified through direct comparison. Home to me also means authenticity, which is something that I strongly associate with Germany.

F&L: Is home a fixed geographical point, or is it more the people or the language that convey a feeling of home?

Eva-Jasmin Freyschmidt: It's probably a mixture of everything. There are lots of things you aren't aware of, even though they're always there, like background music. As well as friendships, people you don't know very well but who share your outlook or values can also convey a feeling of home because you feel completely at home in their presence. The importance of language was something I personally underestimated in my first years in the USA. My English was certainly not good enough at the start to express everything I wanted to communicate. Naturally, this inability sometimes made me feel disadvantaged and foreign. Now, I think, dream and speak in English, and often even speak it with German friends who live in the USA. That is certainly a major step towards feeling at home. Nonetheless, German will always be more familiar to me, as I have a better grasp of the subtleties of the language. Incidentally, in English there is no word-for-word equivalent for the German word "Heimat". Of course, when I go to Germany, my heart always beats faster when I see Heidelberg Castle, the Old Bridge or the landscapes on the train journey between Frankfurt and Berlin. But I feel the same when I first see the Boston skyline on my return. Buildings or landscapes leave visual impressions that are memorised as familiar and can evoke feelings of home.

Forschung & Lehre: What were your expectations when you went to Japan?

Ulrike Nennstiel: When I accepted the sociology professorship in Sapporo, my expectations were based on my own experiences of spending several years as a graduate student and doctoral student at a Japanese university. During my Master's and doctoral studies in Tokyo, my impressions were that Japanese professors (male professors, that is, because I came into contact with female professors extremely rarely at that time) maintained a lively academic, collegial and in many cases private exchange with each other. Among doctoral students too, the atmosphere was characterised by academic discussions and shared social activities. Outside the university, however, I was mostly treated as a "gaijin" (foreigner), envied rather than discriminated against, but not regarded as belonging. Because of these experiences from my many years as a student, I expected exciting academic discussions and wide-ranging exchange with colleagues. However, at the same time I also expected to encounter rejection by students and to be confronted every day with the typical questions that people living abroad often hear ("Where do you come from?", "Why are you here?", "When are you going back?" etc.).

F&L: Have you felt like a foreigner for a long time, or do you feel at home there now?

Ulrike Nennstiel: Thanks to the extremely accepting and open attitude of most of the students, I felt at home surprisingly quickly. The fact that I do not speak Japanese as well as my native language made me feel "foreign" from time to time, for instance when I was unable to follow the students' conversations with each other on the fringes of seminars. But whenever I asked questions in these situations and received a serious answer, the feeling of "foreignness" was largely overcome. Now, this type of "foreign" feeling has disappeared completely. But the feeling of being "foreign" still comes back again when I feel excluded by people from my own milieu in everyday situations, even when the exclusion is not primarily because of my origins but due to criteria such as gender, status or unfamiliar role combinations, for example.

F&L: Do you only find out what home means when you are abroad?

Ulrike Nennstiel: Yes and no. I would say it's more about becoming more clearly aware that the concept of "home" is relative. "Home" is not necessarily something unchanging, a particular place, environment or language. I would describe "home" as the place where one "feels at home", and that can just as easily be abroad. For me personally however, the importance of home has increased while "abroad" inasmuch as I have come to recognise the ambivalence of the concept of "home". During my studies of social and cultural science subjects, I explored the concept of "home" from a very wide variety of perspectives. In the end however, "home" at that time always seemed to me to be like emotional "cotton wool", and a concept that was politically suspect. "Abroad" however (or should I say, in Japan?), I learned to also see "home" in a positive light, in the sense of "feeling at home", "belonging" - though "home" had never been something I left behind in Germany.

F&L: Is home a fixed geographical point, or is it more the people or the language that convey a feeling of home?

Ulrike Nennstiel: That probably varies widely from person to person. I think that not only places, people or language, but also smells, sounds, food or something else altogether can convey a feeling of home. I'm sure that comparatively few people feel at home in an environment where they do not understand the language, or when they are alone with people they don't know. On the other hand, there are no general criteria that apply to all or even most people. The factors already stated seem to me, at any rate, to have certain relevance. The thing I have realised above all else about home during my time abroad is that everyone can certainly have more than just one home.

From Forschung und Lehre :: February 2011