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A stranger in my own home

Feb. 22, 2018
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“I’ll meet you at home,” I shouted to one of my housemates last week. I was walking to class, and he was in the opposite direction by the dining hall. I surprised myself; saying “home” was akin to declaring my major or signing the lease for next year’s apartment. Somehow, over the past few months, the arched corridors and the stone walkways and the people who walked through and over them had become a corner of the world I call home.

If this was home, I wondered, what was the place a plane ride away? What was that place with a faded swingset out back and a creak-ridden staircase? I knew that was home too. 

So now I live in two places, and as a first-year student, I’m still trying to understand what this means. I am met with reminders of this duality every day—while I recognize faces in the dining hall, a server regularly welcomes diners with “next guest, please.” She’s right. I exist in the space between a guest and a resident. I live somewhere between a temporary and permanent tattoo. 

I may be at home when I stand in line at the college bookstore or lounge on the quad with my friends. But my home doesn’t exist in this same manifestation outside of blue lights and book stack-bound nights. Outside of these university streets is a community. And surrounding three sides of this community are other communities; Lake Michigan lies to our east.  

My university is located on Chicago’s South Side, and as a point of reference, it is only a few blocks south from a Whole Foods and fewer blocks north of a food desert. I don’t know these streets like the ones in which I grew up. I can’t tell where to avoid the potholes, or how long it will take until a particular traffic light changes. 

While I’m beginning to feel comfortable in pockets of the city, while I’ve memorized the train route to a West Side neighborhood and I’ve returned to the same community organization there and I order the same drink at one of the locally-owned cafes each time I go, I’m no local.

So although I confidently told my friend that our shared dorm is my “home,” I am hesitant to call Chicago my home. I am a Connecticut transplant, a foreign invader. The act of accepting a college admissions offer did not mean pass GO and claim unfamiliar sidewalks as my own. A new address did not translate to an invitation for automatic ownership. 

Building a home requires time and, more importantly, community contribution. It took me months to build myself a home within a half-mile radius of my campus’s center, and in order to expand that radius, I need to prove that I won’t take from the fountain of culture and history my city has to offer without giving myself back to it. Even so, I’m not confident that I can call Chicago mine.

Like the woman from the dining hall says, I am still in someone else’s home, so like a good guest, I need to take off my shoes.