The (Un)-Making of Home: Paradoxes of transnational homesickness, familial longing, and belonging of young expatriates in Amsterdam

Young expatriates - individuals who willingly pursue career- or higher educational-related goals in a country of which they are not a citizen - are commonly “connected migrants” (Diminescu, 2008), using smartphones and social media to transnationally connect with pre-existing social networks (such as family and friends) and diaspora communities across geographical borders. Scholarship on expatriate youth often either: 1) celebrate them as “third-culture kids” who develop an “expanded worldview” (Pollock & van Reken, 2009, p. 107-118), or 2) scrutinize them as privileged mobile populations for their elite “belonging” in a universal cosmopolitan imaginary which is disconnected from local communities (Calhoun, 2003). Under the feminist perspective of intersectionality, it is problematic to homogenize the experiences of young expatriates, thus we seek to ground these polarized viewpoints by investigating how the intersections of age, race, class, nationality, gender, and sexuality differentially position individuals. Following a non-digital-media centric approach, we aim to become attentive to the relationalities between the on- and offline experiences of young expatriates residing in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

We conducted 31 in-depth interviews with 25 females and 6 males between the ages 15-25, and conducted a photo-voice exercise. These participants were invited to self-select photos from their personal smartphone image archive to reflect on their migration trajectories. Building on critical and feminist understandings of emotional geographies and understand emotionality as a domain of “socio-spatial mediation” (Bondi, Davidson & Smith, 2005, p. 3), our investigation of the impact of changing social, spatial and temporal conditions of migration illustrates how bodies relate emotionally. We sought to understand how young expatriates straddle “reactions of ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 8) in relation to their on- and offline everyday experiences. Three paradoxes emerged as patterns: 1) Polymedia affordances and the paradoxes of familial longing, 2) Transnational ties and paradoxes of homesickness, and 3) Global citizenship and the paradox of belonging.


Polymedia affordances and the paradoxes of familial longing

I had to tell [my parents], you know, I don’t want you to FaceTime video me, when you’re with my brother and his wife at the house, like having a nice family dinner… it makes me feel left out, kind of.

The above quote is a response from Isabelle, a 22-year-old American who moved to Amsterdam, the Netherlands to study at a university. Isabelle is one of many study informants who use Apple’s FaceTime to transnationally stay connected with their family and friends. The visual component and synchronous communication of FaceTime allows Isabelle to ‘feel the affection’ and ‘see their reactions’ and ‘body movements,’ which make her feel more connected to her family in comparison to sending and receiving text messages or audio notes (see Figure 1). However, as highlighted in her statement above, Isabelle sometimes chooses to strategically avoid using FaceTime during certain times because it has obverse effects, ultimately echoing Wise and Velayutham’s findings that in transnational social fields, “an array of affects such as shame, honour, pride, guilt, and obligation structure inter-subjective relationships” (2017, p. 116).


Figure 1. (from left to right) Pictured here is Isabelle’s father, mother, Isabelle and brother attending her brother’s wedding a day before she moved to the Netherlands.


Transnational ties and paradoxes of homesickness

Through the complex intersections of young expatriates’ on- and offline experiences, their transnational connections are maintained through smartphone and social media use by exchanging text, audio and video messages, creating a virtual bond or a sense of co-presence. However, an affective desire remains to return to familiar spaces such as bedrooms, cafes, and yoga studios which are imbued with strong personal memories and embodied sensations of which the third-space cannot always fulfil. This aspect adds further depth to Madianou and Miller’s (2012) argument of physical co-presence. For example, Jessica, a 20-year-old American, moved to the Netherlands to study, and misses visiting her favourite cafés in New York City.

Q: What happens when you get homesick?

Jessica: I mean, I miss New York. I wish I could go to that café in New York, my favourite café, that would be nice.

Q: Where in Manhattan is it?

Jessica: It’s called la Colombe Coffee Roasters, and they have a draft latte with goat milk…so it’s coffee but it tastes like a chocolate smoothie.

Scannell and Gifford would argue that Jessica has a place attachment, a personal connection to a place that holds past memories, feelings and emotions (as cited in Li & Mckercher, 2016) (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. Jessica stands in front of the New York Public Library in Manhattan upon graduating high school.


Global citizenship and the paradox of belonging

We explored the offline inter-ethnic social contact between the informants and members of the local Dutch community. Interestingly, some informants were bound to their nationality which hindered access to student accommodation. For example, Tiffany, a 22-year-old, moved from Kosovo and has been living in Netherlands for six months at the time of her interview. When we discussed the issues she experienced settling into the Netherlands and meeting Dutch locals, she explained that she had a difficult time finding housing due to her ethnicity:

You would see in the Facebook and other sites there were rooms available but you will also see with caps lock written: ‘NO INTERNATIONALS.’ So, I guess it was last chances for international students to get accommodation.

Tiffany’s experience demonstrates ethnic discrimination extending the research findings of Van der Bracht, Coenen and Van de Putte (2015) insofar that ethnic minorities are discriminated against in the Dutch housing market based on Dutch language proficiency. Eventually, Tiffany found an apartment where she lives happily and chose to show us as one of her highlights since moving to the Netherlands (see Figure 3).


Figure 3. Tiffany posing in front of her neighbourhood houses.

What these three emergent patterns indicate is the lived multiplicity and paradoxality of home making in transnational fields. Whereas previously the “migrant suitcase” offered new means of being at home abroad - as a way of virtually carrying loved ones and friends with you (Morley, 2003) – in the contemporary smart phone era, the smartphone pocket archive offers new ways of dislocating domesticity and transnational home-making.



Ahmed, S. (2004). The cultural politics of emotion. London: Routledge.

Bondi, L., Davidson, J., & Smith, M. (2005). Introduction: geography's "emotional turn". In J. Davidson, L. Bondi, & M. Smith (Eds.), Emotional Geographies (pp. 1-16). Ashgate Publishing.

Calhoun, C. (2003). “Belonging” in the cosmopolitan imaginary. Ethnicities, 3(4), 531–553.

Diminescu, D. (2008). The connected migrant: an epistemological manifesto. Social Science Information, 47(4), 565-579.

Li, T.E., & McKercher, B. (2016). Effects of place attachment on home return travel: a spatial perspective. Tourism Geographies. doi: 10.1080/14616688.2016.1196238.

Madianou, M. & Miller, D. (Eds.), (2012). Migration and new media: Transnational families and polymedia. New York, NY: Routledge.

Morley, D. (2003). What`s home got to do with it? The domestication of the media and the dislocation of domesticity. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 6(4), 435-458.

Pollock, D.C. & van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third culture kids. Growing up among worlds. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Van der Bracht, K., Coenen, A., & Van de Putte, B. (2015). The Not-in-My-Property Syndrome: The Occurrence of Ethnic Discrimination in the Rental Housing Market in Belgium. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(1), 158.175.

Wise, A., & Velayutham, S. (2017). Transnational Affect and Emotion in Migration Research. International Journal of Sociology, 47(2), 116-130.

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