I anxiously wait my turn among the circle of strangers on our first day of class, unconsciously bouncing my leg while my least favourite question effortlessly jumps from seat to seat, from voice to voice. I go through my possible options, deciding which answer I will choose to give this time, when the sound of my own name calls my attention.
“Where is home for you, Ana?”
I shake my thoughts, take a deep breath, swallow the rushing memories, and begin with my generic, almost memorized response: “It’s complicated...”
And what an understatement that is.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when home became an abstract notion. Perhaps it was a night late in 2008, in Toluca, Mexico, when my parents sat their 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son down and told us that home had to fit into two packed suitcases addressed to Canada.
Until that moment home was a white house with a small kitchen, bathrooms finished with cracked pink tiles, mismatched pins perched like birds on our homemade clothes line and western-style swinging doors in the living room. Home was Saturday bickering-filled afternoon car rides to grandma’s red brick house, and after-school lemon ice cream cones with grandpa. Home was the warm embrace of a familiar language and the routine exchanges with our lifelong neighbours. Then, home seemed like a simple concept.
Being uprooted out of familiarity isn’t easy, but coming to terms with the unfamiliarity of a new place is even harder. Home became a duplex in Richmond, air mattresses inside empty rooms and fingers searching for the words “Spanish subtitles” on DVD rentals at the public library. Home became twisted tongues and heavy accents; it became non-conversational neighbours and heavy-hearted Skype calls. Home became an estranged feeling, an unaccustomed reality.
Years later home became a Sold sticker on a realtor’s For Sale sign in Victoria. Vinyl exterior siding in a pale blue shade, overflowing flower baskets at the front door, and pictures under magnets stuck to the fridge. Home was jerking stops learning to drive and orange-coloured sunsets at the lagoon. Home became misspelling or forgetting words in mother tongues, less apparent accents and less connection to roots. Home became a balance of identities, a conjunction of two cultures.
At 17, home became a 110-square-foot eighth-floor dorm room a ferry ride away. Home had a big windowsill, exposed concrete walls and was a building full of strangers at the same point in their lives. Home became growing up, and some unwanted but much-needed life lessons.
Home now is a basement suite with hardwood floors and photo collages on the walls. I’ve found home can be a single person, waiting up for me to come back at night. It can be uncontrolled laughter, bumping elbows while cooking dinner and a connection grown from the decision to be somewhere new, to leave something behind.
It has taken me years to understand the multitude of meanings that the word can hold. Housing policy discussions focus on home as concrete and physical, but it can be difficult to connect those discussions with what home really means. For many, especially those whose roots begin elsewhere, we struggle to connect to place.
Our struggle is rooted in part with the notion derived from the endless Vancouver conversations about housing. The current discourse focuses on housing as capitalized, unaffordable and in crisis. But if home is a feeling, it cannot be compared, sold or unreachable; it cannot be reduced to a prime location or a set price.
Our crisis requires separating home from housing, beginning by understanding that home is not a matter of square footage, but found in people, communities, culture and language. It begins with re-strengthening our communities to help those who struggle to connect to place.
We would all benefit from restructuring our current narratives around housing and prioritizing the feeling of home over the physicality of a house, to draw those who crave that feeling of home they’ve long lost or have yet to find into the conversation.
How about we change the question?
What is home to you?