There are expressions, the original meanings of which may differ from what they end up meaning to us personally. Following the posthumous publication of the Thomas Wolfe novel of the same title in 1940, the expression you can’t go home again entered the public consciousness, and has been interpreted variously ever since.
As best I understand it, Wolfe meant it in the sense that, if we try to return to the place we have long remembered as home, especially if it’s bathed bathed in the golden light of nostalgia, the reality and the memory will never mesh. That remembered place is ultimately only accessible only in the imagination. If ever it truly existed as remembered, it no longer does.
The expression often has a different significance, though, for those who emigrate from their home countries and remain abroad for an extended period. I don’t mean the people who go abroad on a lark, backpacking around Europe for a gap year or spending a bit of time teaching English on some other continent. No, I mean the people for whom being away from their place of origin has become the state that is more familiar, maybe even more comfortable.
Part of the trouble is the very concept of home, which becomes so dilute and nebulous for many, sometimes even before going abroad. In the USA, for example, I lived in eleven eleven in six states, and then lived in five different cities in four Asian countries. I have lived at twenty-two addresses in the last thirty-nine years. It gets to be a bit much.
The already-slippery concept eventually all but entirely lost its meaning after years as an emigrant and only regained some of its significance years after settling in Japan.
At this point, the idea of home is most strongly associated with where I live now, with my partner, where I am building a life, and no longer has any sincere connection with where I came from. This new significance exists only because of the deliberate decision on my part to redefine the concept to fit what I needed it to be. No longer a matter of origin, but instead of a sense of belonging and being where I most want to be.
There is also the simple fact that the longer you remain away, the more a person is changed by the experience. The long-term wanderer becomes like a warped and misshapen puzzle piece, no longer able to fit into its original designated place, and incapable of reverting to its original form.
You no longer think the way you did before moving abroad. You become a fundamentally different person. And sure, you can go back and visit familiar people and places, but you’ve become a square peg to that round hole.
Another difficulty is how the physical and relational distance changes how you connect (or not) with the people from your former life. More true than absence making the heart grow fonder in this case is out of sight, out of mind. The longer you remain away, the greater the personal distance grows.
Friendships and family relations alike become less vibrant and active, fading and often eventually dissolving entirely. Not out of any ill will, but just because you’re no longer there. After a while, you tends not to hear much from old friends, or even from family members unless we make a particular effort to keep communications active.
The long-term implications are different for everyone, I suppose. Some people may simply drift indefinitely, never redefining home for themselves in a way that allows them to reclaim it, and unable to build anew the kinds of relationships that can fill the void left by those that have been lost. This is the emotional equivalent of being stateless. It is a lonely place to exist.
I would also say that it’s unnecessary. You can choose, instead, to claim a new place and circumstance as home, investing your time and energy in building the relationships and structures that give home its significance. It isn’t easy, but worth it.
So maybe you can’t go home again, in that you can’t return to what was. But you can claim a new home for yourself, and then you don’t have to worry about whether or not you can go back. You’re already there.