“Welcome home” said the immigration border guard as he passed my U.S. passport back to me at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
“Welcome home”, two simple straightforward words. A kind and uncontroversial phrase, especially coming from a man that probably sees hundreds, maybe thousands of passport holders every working day.
Yet the words stopped me in my tracks, froze me for a few seconds. I looked up at him. He seemed to think I had not heard him. “Welcome home” he repeated, this time a bit louder. I nodded a thank you and continued towards baggage claim.
As I stood waiting at the luggage carousel my mind was turning. I had left America fifteen days previously to visit Israel to see my daughter for ten days and then, on the way back I had travelled to Scotland to spend five days with my mother. As I reached border control, firstly at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, and then again at Glasgow International Airport each of those guards at each of those checkpoints had also inspected my documents, checked my face against the photo shown on my passport and also said “welcome home” as they returned my passport to me.
Could this be a worldwide conspiracy by border guards in three countries, an international attempt to disturb me by prodding at that most basic question we rarely consider-where is “home” ?
I considered the circumstances that might have led each of the guards to their own conclusion.
I had spent much time in Israel over the course of my early life. My family had vacationed there often when I was a child and as a university student I had spent whole summers on Kibbutz. In 1986 I made the decision to go there on a one way ticket, enrolled in a Hebrew language learning program and then worked in Jerusalem. I was there for eighteen months. The Israeli guard would have seen all those trips on the computer screen as he scanned my passport. My brief conversation with him was in my still reasonably fluent Hebrew and of course I was re-entering the historic homeland of the Jewish nation. His “welcome home”, in Hebrew, was likely based on some hard facts on a database, perhaps combined with an unconscious attempt to touch my past. Or maybe he was on a personal mission to make sure every Jew felt welcome in Israel. Whatever his thought process, his words certainly felt good to me.
On leaving Israel I flew to Scotland to visit my mother. The Scottish officer too had plenty of facts to support his “welcome home”. I had presented him my U.K. passport-I had made the decision a long time ago to always enter Scotland with my British passport if for no other reason than to avoid the long lines that usually await foreigners. He would have heard my still strong Scottish accent answering his questions, and the security profile on his computer screen would have told him all that he needed to know-that I was born in Glasgow to Scottish parents, that I graduated Glasgow University and that I lived the first 25 years of my life in the country. For him, his “welcome home” was no more than an obvious recognition that another one of the many thousands of Scottish born diaspora dispersed throughout the world was returning to the beautiful green hills and scenic pastures of bonnie Scotland.
After five days in Scotland I returned to America. I had met Tammi, my Chicago born wife, in 1986 in Israel and in 1988 we married and made the decision to live in Chicago and raise a family there. It is a decision I have never regretted. In 2001 I became a naturalized citizen, a proud American. The country has been good to me and our family and I am very grateful. The border guard at O’Hare would have seen on screen that Chicago was my place of residence and that after a short trip overseas I was returning to my family, to my house and to my place of work. His “welcome home” would have been a natural and polite line, meant to announce that after an extended vacation I was back where I belong.
So there you have it, three border guards thousands of miles apart each casually offering his own interpretation of my home, of my life.
Which one was correct ? It’s an interesting question. Our “home” strikes at the very heart of who we are, the very notion of what we are. Everyone wants to have a home, a place where they belong, a place that is theirs, a place to which they can return. How can we love our homeland or be homesick if we have no home? It should be a simple question, one easily answered. Perhaps it used to be obvious but modern life has turned the question into a tougher one for at least two reasons.
Firstly, modern travel has made the world seem smaller. On my journey back I had breakfast in Glasgow, lunch in Amsterdam and an evening meal in Chicago. So it’s now easier, more physically possible than it has ever been, to lead different lives across national borders.
Secondly, and I think with much greater implications, the digital explosion of information creates the real possibility of truly living a life that embodies and experiences more than one cultural existence. For one example, wherever I am in the world I begin my day by perusing the same three newspapers online-Chicago’s Tribune, Yediot Achronot in Israel and Glasgow’s Herald. I am as familiar with the upcoming race for Illinois Governor between Quinn and Rauner, as I am with the political and economic arguments on the approaching referendum on Scottish independence, as I am with the recent criminal conviction of Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. As I cross the globe from America, to Israel to Scotland, I find myself effortlessly able to fit in culturally, to feel “at home” in every sense of the word in each country. This is not limited to the mind- my heart feels similar pangs of pride on hearing Scotland The Brave as it does when singing the Israeli anthem of Hatikva or The Star Spangled Banner. Even my name has three versions-I am Billy in Scotland, Bill in Chicago and “Beelee” in Israel.
I have close friends in all three countries, and while I find it particularly interesting that each group will likely never meet each other, I think this points to the underlying reality of situations such as mine. In this new world I find my life made up of three different strands. However they are not woven together so that they all disappear into one cloth and lose their separate sense of identity, rather they each retain their own unique contribution to my fabric, to my soul, to who I am, to whatever it is that makes me the person I am. Viewed from this perspective it is indeed possible to really feel “at home” in multiple places and cultures. Each of my homes does not diminish the sense of being at home that I experience from the other locations. Rather I feel blessed and privileged to have three places that can each be “home” to me.
I expect that as more and more people move around the world with greater and greater ease, both physically and virtually, for work, play and retirement, that new questions of “home” will arise and more subtle and nuanced definitions of “home” will be adopted.
For me though, the next time a customs officer in Glasgow, or Tel Aviv or Chicago says “welcome home”, I will no longer stop to ponder or question or agonize. Instead I’ll look each of them straight in the eye and say proudly “thank you, it’s good to be back home”.