Friday, March 4, 2011

What leaving home means in different cultures

The other day I was inspired by Melissa Crytzer Fry's post about home, and the things we associate with it. Home is a concept that is so basic to us that invoking it brings an enormous amount of dimension to our storytelling. Today I thought I'd turn it around and look at leaving home.

If I asked, "What did it feel like when you first left home?" the likelihood, at least in the US, would be that I might get someone telling me a story about going to college for the first time. I might hear about how strange it was not to know anyone, how it was hard to keep a schedule what with classes and parties and just plain old not-having-parents-around-to-manage-stuff. However, leaving home doesn't always mean going to college, just as going to college doesn't necessarily mean leaving home. In Australia, for example, people usually stay home and attend university classes (my husband says the university in Canberra is an exception "because nobody lives there," but I'll take his quips with a grain of salt).

What other kinds of leaving home might there be?

In fairy tales, what we commonly find is a young man growing up and going off to seek his fortune. Not exactly like going off to college. Usually this journey results in wild and crazy adventures which threaten the young man to within an inch of his life but usually end with him gaining the fortune he sought. In real life people have left home to seek their fortunes, with more mixed results.

I think of a beautiful Irish song in which a young man convinces his young lady to elope with him because he's leaving the next day for "far-off Columbia's shore."

There are also the marriages of pre-Revolution China. The young woman would leave her home with great ceremony and ritual, and travel to the home of her husband's family, where she would be subject to the directives of her husband's mother.

I also think of people who leave their home countries for a better life elsewhere - notably, immigrants to the United States, whose stories are often harrowing and don't always end well. Some of these are fleeing war or persecution in their home countries. This type of leaving-home story was brought to life for me by the true stories I heard from young people when I helped them with story writing. By contrast, what would a refugee's story be like? What would a defector's story be like?

The context of home-leaving varies widely, but in many cultures it takes on an iconic significance. It is a major turning point in life, sometimes accompanied by ceremony. It is something that people remember and carry forward with them as they continue their lives. "When I left my home." Therefore I think it's an important thing to know about characters in my books. Did my character have a happy home life and leave as an accomplishment, as when going away to college? Did he leave home as a child and go to boarding school? Did she run away from home because she was miserable at age 15? It's worth thinking through these very personal stories, and how they would affect the behavior and emotional states of a character in the context of story action - even if the particular events of the backstory are never explicitly mentioned.

It's something to think about.


  1. The first time I felt like I'd really left home was before college. I spent the summer at Louhelen Bahai'i School to do a summer of service when I was either 15 or 16. Not only was it a great experience for me, but it was also a trial run for my mom in letting go. (I'm the oldest.) I'd been there nearly every summer before but only for a week. Much different when it's for a few months. It was harder on my mom than it was for me. I was thinking current adventure, while she was thinking ahead to when I'd be moving out. She told me later that when she'd dropped me off, she'd nearly decided to take me back with her instead of letting me stay.

    I guess when thinking about leaving home stories, we should also consider who is being left behind and why.

  2. Good point, Jaleh. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Fantasy, in particular, has a lot of 'leaving home' stories which is funny because I don't think many fantasy writers have thought much about the ups and downs of leaving home (more downs than ups, I'd wager, when the protagonist is pretty much a refugee from a dead village).

  4. Yes, indeed, Shannon. Leaving home, and quests, are very big in fantasy. You have a good point about the usefulness of considering how *difficult* leaving home can be.

  5. This one is really interesting. In North American culture, leaving home at a certain age seems like a right of passage, an important step towards independence. In Asian culture, (or Mediterranean culture from husband's experience), you are usually expected to remain home until you are married. Even then, the move may just be to another family home, or not too far away. In Canada, like Australia, most people stay home to go to University, so it's not a big milestone in the regard.

    In fiction, it might also be interesting to consider whether leaving home is expected, or an act of rebellion that could cause conflict with one's family.

  6. In YA/MG fiction, leaving home can be an important plot device, as I think a lot of YA/MG writers don't like to deal with the parents. I try to weave the parents into my stories, so leaving home does not become so big an issue.

    Good thoughts!!! :)

  7. Just read a book about N Koreans leaving home (defecting) to go to S Korea -their new home. S Korea has the same language but is so different for them, made me reconsider what home means. Great post.

  8. Very interesting point, T.S. Bazelli. I agree that would be an excellent point of contrast. Thanks for commenting and contributing your thoughts.

    jpcabit, I can see how this would be a critical element in a lot of YA/MG fiction. Thanks for your comment!

    Tim, thanks for mentioning your book. Culture shock can be a big part of leaving home. I can only imagine how huge the contrast between North and South Korea must be.

  9. I think the whole "leaving home to go to college" experience is a uniquely American phenomenon, because it does not exist to the same degree in other Western countries.

    Germany is similar to Australia in that college students often continue to live at home for a while, sometimes until they graduate (I did). The idea of college freshmen moving out of their parents' homes even though they attend university in the same city would strike most people here as absurd. This caused some culture clash for my American cousins, because their German born parents did not want to pay for a dorm room at a college campus in the same city.

    And even those German students that do leave home, because they study at a university too far away for daily commuting usually return home to visit their parents every weekend. I used to teach at a small university which services a thinly populated rural area, where a lot of students had to live in dorms because the commutes would be too long. In the Friday classes, you could always see students lugging around backpacks and suitcases, so they could catch the train home after class. What is more, most of those students had deliberately chosen to attend this small rural university over bigger universities in cooler cities, because they wanted to stay close to their families in the region where they grew up. While I taught there, I took on a sixty kilometer commute, because I wanted to stay close to my parents, too.

    When young Germans leave home, it's because they can afford a flat of their own, want to move in with their boy/girlfriend or have just heard from friend at university that there's a flatshare looking for a flatmate. The whole rite of passage aspect of the American going away to college experience doesn't exist in the same way. This is probably also why Toy Story 3 didn't do nearly as well over here as in the US, because the film hinged very much on the going away to college experience.

  10. Regarding Tim's example of North Korean refugees fleeing to South Korea, before 1989 you had a very similar dynamic between East and West Germany. The East Germans relocating to West Germany not only experienced culture shock, but they also knew that they would probably never see their family or their home again. And quite often, the West did not turn out to be as golden as the commercials made it look. There actually were a handful of people who tried to move back East after coming to West Germany, because they were homesick, missed their family or because they found that their job skills were not in demand in West Germany. But the way back usually ended in a reeducation camp.

  11. Cora, thanks very much for your comments. I think you're exactly right about the Americanness of going off to college. Thanks for sharing your insights on the German experience, too. (BTW I think you're quite right about the reception that Toy Story 3 received.)