Going home. Going home? The anthropologist is coming along

by Hannah Schwemin

Booking flights, getting train tickets, stuffing bags and guessing how much space we need for the food we will bring back with us from our visit home. But is it even possible to visit home?

December is that time of the year when many people go home to see their families. For some of us, that means catching the next train or trying to avoid the rush hour on the roads, for others, the trip home includes more planning and the crossing of a few international borders. No matter how far we travel to go home, one thing is the same for everyone: We visit a place which is qualified to be called home – for one reason or another. These reasons differ from person to person but are often linked to a certain sense of nostalgia and family, to people we are close with. Going home, visiting home. How can we visit home? Is home not meant to be a place where we feel welcomed and at home, unlike visitors no matter how much they might enjoy their stay? Is it not paradoxical to consider home a place we can visit?

These questions grow slowly in my mind, and I try badly to disregard them, whenever I fill the capacity of my hand luggage up to its limits.  Of course, I’m going home! What else would I call it when returning to the place where my family is, where I grew up and from where I started my journey to discover the world? But I cannot deny that something is different now. Did my home change? Yes, time doesn’t stand still, not even at home: People moved away, and new ones came; former schoolteachers are now retired and can be found in the supermarket on a Monday morning. But despite the changes, for me, it’s still home, and that doesn’t change. Instead, I’m the one who changed, who now is at home when not being at home. We establish our own homes, away from the one home – the visit-for-any-occasion-special-to-us-home.

home pic

When I go home, I cannot help seeing my home in a different light. It feels like turning into an anthropologist conducting participant observation à la Malinowski. Despite no language barriers, cultural unfamiliarity or the problem of being an outsider, I feel somehow strange. After five years and three countries, every visit home is a new attempt for my family and me to get used to each other again. And in addition to that comes my anthropologically trained brain that won’t stop analysing. I don’t want to think about research methods, ethnographies or qualitative data.

Nevertheless, I notice that the food symbolising the cosy wintertime in December for my brothers and me since childhood is far from the British mince pie. I find myself reminded of Turner’s rites of passages when my nephew has his first day in school, leaving the group of the non-schoolchildren and entering the group of the schoolchildren. These moments prove that I indeed learned something between all the essays and reports, but it also shows that the anthropologist in me will always be travelling along. I cannot go home without bringing with me the debates about culture and modernity, no matter how hard I try: As soon as someone in the radio explains that a technical achievement presents a new modernity that will replace the culture of communication, I ask immediately How does he define culture that it can be so easily replaced? How can he define such a controversial concept like modernity just on the base of one innovation? And my family needs to get used to me questioning and hence making things more complicated.

With the anthropologist as my shadow, am I even able to just go home? Or am I more a visitor, well-integrated but still a visitor to a place where I was once part of?

The possibility that I might have lost the ability to just go home scares me, and so I’m happy when noticing it’s not just me. My older brothers show the same signs of professionally trained brains which I, as the anthropologist, detect in the ways they behave and speak and how they differ from their younger selves. Likewise, our parents are influenced by what they engage with and show that through the topics they talk about and how they do it. However, we are still the same family: parents, children and each other’s siblings; the more time we spend together and remind ourselves of common memories, the more we get a break from thinking within the professional terms we embodied.

Going home is different now in many ways as we all change and develop ourselves continuously. But somehow, it’s also just like always. It is the uniqueness, the particular, undefinable aspect of the place that enables us to go home instead of merely visiting, as long as we acknowledge that it will always be a little bit different from the memory. We go home with the mindsets we need for our professional lives, but the more we allow ourselves to be taken in by this home, the more we get a break from thinking with that mindset. It is the home that allows us to go home, to let the anthropologist rest and instead of conducting participant observation, to participate fully.

At least for the time that we’re at home. Is this article not proof that the anthropologist, even when resting, never stops trying to make sense of what is happening?


Hannah Schwemin is a student on the MA in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex.

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