By James Hootsmans
Here I am, about to turn 25 in August, and eight months into my latest relocation. This time I’m in the Washington, D.C., area, where I started my first job out of graduate school.
But this isn’t the hardest transition I’ve ever had to make.
Born to a South African-American mother and Dutch-American father in Boston, my life was always going to be about moving, exploring, and planned and unplanned adventure. My father has a doctorate in engineering and my mother has a juris doctor degree; with both of them speaking multiple languages and wanting our family to spend time with relatives abroad, travel was inevitable.
My international living started with my father’s first job out of his doctoral program in Japan when I was less than a year old. From there I moved to other parts of Asia, Africa and Europe throughout my childhood, as well as college and graduate school.
Through all those moves, I’ve gradually learned what it takes to muster the energy to make a fresh start over and over again — and what it means to be “home.”
One of the stops on my journey was Shanghai, China, where I attended the English-speaking Shanghai American School from my freshman year through my junior year of high school. I was coming from having spent quite a few years in Glastonbury, Connecticut, a lovely New England town. Being a freshman in your own established community is hard enough, but being one in a brand new country, culture and environment was a whole different beast.
“I found it hard to adjust to life in a community where neighbors know just about everyone in town.”
That’s when I learned an important lesson that I’ve carried with me through subsequent moves: Getting involved in activities can be a key to making a new place feel like home.
Luckily, attending school allowed me to make friends, join sports teams, be in plays and participate in music groups. But the real adventures took place outside the school’s confines, as my family lived downtown, instead of in the typical international compounds on the outskirts of the city. (These privately-owned compounds, which feature large houses, swimming pools, tennis courts and other higher-end amenities, usually were filled with expatriates from the Americas and Europe. My parents, however, had little desire to live expensively as expats.) So, from taking bike taxi rides to staying up late at concerts — and trying to behave to the best of my young self’s ability — I slowly learned how to manage both the excitement and terror of a big, new city, then with a population of 18 million people.
We ended up moving back to Connecticut for my senior year, mostly because it was the end of my father’s latest employment contract.
Just as I was initially nervous moving to Asia, by the end of my three formative years in China, I was far more apprehensive about returning back to the very different U.S. East Coast and its accompanying suburban lifestyle.
I wasn’t used to driving much, but it was a necessity in Connecticut; there were fewer restaurants around, which meant I had to learn more about cooking. I found it hard to adjust to life in a community where neighbors know just about everyone in town, and nothing these neighbors do goes unnoticed. Anonymity was certainly an advantage of a large city that I missed.
With the help of my childhood friends, I rekindled friendships and joined the varsity swim team, water polo, orchestra, chorale, church groups and club soccer.
“My policy is to be outgoing, friendly and positive, and life will work itself out.”
A year later I was off to attend Colby College in Waterville, Maine. There, I did what I knew best: I became involved in as many things as I could on campus and in our college town, starting as a volunteer soccer and swim coach at the local leagues. By senior year, I had been a member of the varsity swim team, club water polo team and intramural soccer team, among other sports, chorale, collegium and string ensembles, and I had helped found an a cappella group. I had traveled to Kenya and Spain.
Becoming actively involved in my community was also my tactic when I decided to go to College Station, Texas, for graduate school, a very different place from anywhere I’d experienced before.
Of course, I understand not everyone wants to go through life at this run-and-gun pace. But for me, it had become essential to my assimilation. My policy is to be outgoing, friendly and positive, and life will work itself out.
Still, I have struggled at times to adapt to my new surroundings and make a place feel like home. When I first moved to the Washington, D.C., area, I decided to live close to work, farther outside the city, and it was tough to maintain friendships with those I met through various activities who lived in the city. I had to adjust my usual course of action and slowly build up my connections. But again, life is working itself out.
Ultimately, home is what you make it. For me, that has meant getting involved in anything and everything that piques my interest, making friends along the way. For others, it might mean solitary walks along waterfalls or a solo museum tour. (I’m still learning to embrace exploring in such solitude.) Either way, it’s about giving your new city a chance.
It can take a while for a new place to truly feel like home. But practice makes perfect.
James Hootsmans is a hydrogeologist for Tetra Tech in Sterling, Virginia. His tri-citizenship and international experience allows him to enjoy conversations with people of various backgrounds throughout the world. He sings, plays violin and appreciates all kinds of sports.