Where I spent most of my life, there was the concept of going home. That referred to where I went to bed at night.
Here, Cambodians usually mean the same thing.
Were I to head to my hometown, that would refer to the Boston, Massachusetts area, where I was born and lived the first 18 years of my life.
Here in Phnom Penh, “hometown” does not exactly exist as a concept. Instead, Cambodians will say in their language they are going to their homeland.
“Homeland” is freighted with far more significance than “home” or “hometown.” It has a spiritual dimension that I think I can describe as where Cambodians’ ancestors lived and worked for generation upon generation, maybe for centuries.
It is apparent that “homeland” embraces the land, the earth itself, as connecting their forebears and those family members who may have stayed, moved to another province or traveled farther away. The term is adorned with significant emotional content.
Journeying to their homeland for important secular and religious holidays is supremely important to the Cambodians I know. They head there also to memorialize family members who died recently and those gone long ago. They head there for weddings and births. To Cambodians I know, “homeland” sustains them.
If there are Americans who possess the same feelings about their hometowns, I am unaware of them. I may be wrong, but Westerners going home for the holidays strikes me as more like going home to the family than going home to the land that a family occupied for eons. Of course, there can be deep affection for place and its familiar aspects, but I suspect that affection differs in intensity from “homeland.” Perhaps the affection is more akin to sentimentality or nostalgia.
I would be interested to learn whether individuals whose relatives have worked the same land for years and years may experience the same emotions as Cambodians for where they were born and grew up, though I have to say that I doubt the likelihood or at least the depth of their feelings. And it may be that Americans who stayed where their families settled centuries ago may feel the same way.
When I consider refugees who are wrenched from their countries, I suspect “homeland” applies to the depth of the despair they must feel if, arguably, without a spiritual component in most cases.
I have developed a great deal of respect for “homeland” and those numerous Cambodians who embrace the idea of it. I guess I even envy them. One thing I know: If I never see Boston again, that would be fine.