Curious About… Home

It hit me really hard about a year ago when I walked out of Changi Airport in Singapore: that particular combination of cloying orchids, dried fish, durian, drains and that peculiar acrid-yet-sweet smell of wet tarmac after the monsoon rain, all carried on a humid tropical breeze right up my nostrils to that most primal and limbic part of our brain: the olfactory system. The part of the body that is said to hold memory.

This memory was overwhelming. I was home.

I grew up in Singapore, a classic Army Brat, enjoying as many did in the sixties the halcyon days of equatorial colonialism, my parents spending their evenings playing canasta and drinking jugs of martinis, my mother swimming in an expat all-girls synchronized swimming troupe during the day. I spent my own days with hair tinted green from the heavily chlorinated pool, foraging for strange insects in the monsoon drains that surrounded our house. We left when I was in my early teens, to go back “home” to where my father grew up, in chilly Newcastle in the north of England, a culture shock to say the least.

Now here I was, having the most visceral and vivid sense memory almost thirty years later, smelling the wet monsoon drains as if I had never left. My knees buckled slightly as I walked to the taxi.

In my current job I travel relentlessly, priding myself as many of us today do on being nomadic, on having airmiles stacked up on every airline, on knowing the best udon restaurant to go to in Tokyo, the coolest bar in Copenhagen, the best hairdresser in New York, the quaintest small hotel in Paris. I am a walking Monocle magazine. Lest I come across as spoiled, I realize how privileged a job this is and am very grateful, believe me. However, it does come at a price: practical issues such as a doctor that knows my history or getting my copious bills forwarded to somewhere that I can open them is a challenge to say the least; I spend an inordinate amount of time convincing myself that it is worth the sacrifice. I am very lucky in that my partner, a photographer, travels with me most of the time and we get to have wonderful adventures together.

But something has started to nag. What and where is my home?

One of my closest work colleagues, Dana Cho, is Korean, and she turned me onto the construct of Third Culture Kids. We had a conversation about it with a group of designers at work and no surprise, many of them, like me, consider themselves nomadic, excited by pluralistic points of view, of being inspired by a multiplicity of things, drinking in cultures and reveling in the weird and the wonderful. We were all, it seems, TCK’s.

Wikipedia describes TCK’s well: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

I became obsessed with this topic, and started devouring media that related to it. Columnist Anne-Sophie Bolon nails it firmly on the head for me in a piece she penned for The New York Times: “To many sons and daughters of business executives, diplomats, military officials and missionaries, a passport is little more than a travel document, for it does not necessarily denote where “home” is.”

What Of It?  To be clear: I have a house, with stuff that we own in it, that we go to for Christmas. It’s in Montauk, at the windy and quiet far end of Long Island. We’ve been going there for twenty years and we come back after our elliptical global forays and usually say: “We’re home.” But then after a few weeks the itchiness kicks in and we’re off again. I am starting to think that home is less about where you live and more about nodes on a personal life journey, the same way I and my fellow TCK’s view our passports as interesting travel documents and less as signifiers of our cultural identity.

Better said: perhaps home is not a place but a process; if we have reconfigured the idea of the traditional family structure in favor of today’s ‘modern’ family – an assemblage of friends, colleagues, communities, siblings, some virtual, some actual, is the ‘modern’ concept of home the same – a process of dropping bookmark pins in a mental map and creating our own scrapbook, assembling a group of smells, places, things, memories, some real, some tangible, some completely imaginary? I wonder if home today is more akin to an ever-evolving digital scrapbook like Pinterest and less like a locked-in-stone leather-bound family album.

As I travel around the world I keep in touch with many people, see and do many things in many places, collect memories, some decidedly analog (I obsessively buy vinyl music wherever I go, for example) some virtual (nothing beats Instagram for romanticizing places and memories, making them instantly vintage and nostalgic) and assemble my own aggregate collage of home-ness. This sounds unbelievably corny, but I am starting to think that I am carrying home around with me, in my brain, on my back and on my laptop, and that ultimately home is a process that belongs inside me.

Having a house is not, for me, a home; having a happy life is. And inhaling Singapore’s air brings me as close to home as I can get, remembering as I do the smell of monsoon-wet concrete and the clink of martinis being stirred.

I Am Curious: What and Where is ‘home’ for you?

Paul Bennett is Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer of IDEO. Among his many contributions to the firm’s evolution into a global practice he’s worked on consumer experience design; helping to establish IDEO’s presence in China; and co-founding the New York office. Paul is based in Shanghai and is focused on bringing to market commercially viable, socially significant new businesses and consumer products, services, and experiences. He is responsible for company-wide content excellence, and he actively develops ideas (and publishes articles) related to the field of human-centered, design-led innovation.

Follow the link for Paul’s other Curiosity Chronicles.

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