There is a classmate with whom I have been exchanging loose ideas about the conceptualization and physicality of home. Our conversations are brief and unstructured, revealing just enough to keep the conversation flowing, without anything weighty at stake. Like me, he’s been away from home for as long as I have. Even longer, in fact. He’s originally from China but completed his high school education in a boarding school in a different province from his hometown before treading the globe to Finland for college and now here he is, here we are, Stateside for graduate school.
I sense kinship in our emotions; intangible and uncertain as they are. We are both exhausted by the constant reminder of our foreignness in lands, places, and locations that may have welcomed us and proceeded to owning our hearts – but will never embrace us whole. The thrill and exhilaration of the great wide world, the lure of traveling – they no longer hold the same luster they used to. We talk about places we’ve been to with an unspoken understanding that beautiful as they are, they don’t touch our hearts in the same way the countries of our birth, locked and frozen in an infinite loop of memories in our minds, move us with a clarity that both saves and pains us.
We talk about home in a way that is unrealistic and I suspect – both of us knows this. The images and memories of homes in our hearts and minds aren’t the same ones that still stand today. Built environment evolves just as dynamic beings do. Societies change with the ebb and flow of time as well as the introduction of technology; it is just the way it is. So we speak about our homes with a melancholic voice ladened with nostalgia, yet realize that the very idea of it, that physicality – it remains elusive.
These days when I read articles about home – usually in travel-related articles – I find myself mostly a disbeliever. A pessimistic reader who rolls her eyes at the overtly sentimental feel of those articles and the pretentiousness of the authors’ voices in stating unrealistic expectations and painting all-or-nothing set of choices. Yet ironically, I am constantly fascinated by articles written by third-culture kids – those who grew up outside of their home country for long periods, oftentimes in more than one place – as they wax poetic and lament the framework of home. I am not a third-culture kid and I don’t always agree with everything that’s written, but oftentimes I find myself, just like them, returning to that single fundamental question that is asked:
Where is home?
I understand now that the idea and conceptualization of home is as dynamic as we are. It changes depending on where we are in our lives right now, physically and figuratively, and the ages and phases we’re at. What I wanted at eighteen – the age I left home for Stateside – I no longer desire now at twenty-four.
For a long period, my definition of home was the physicality of it; where the family home was, concrete and rigid. Before I was fully conscious of this shift, I had internalized and morphed it into a state of being; where I am inside my mind. For about a year, I mulled over home being in the heart of a person; that safe space where I exist in another without reservation. At times during those painfully naive and adolescent years, sometimes the idea of home is the books I read, the words that colored my world, the tiny and unsuspecting nooks and corners across the world where I left bits and pieces of myself. There were as many times when I convinced myself that the idea of home is nothing at all; like the air we breathe where we can’t see it with our naked eyes but know that we’re constantly engulfed by this comforting presence. One time, I told myself that home is everywhere and nowhere; I exist, therefore I am.
These days I’m not so certain about my definition of it, but I find that I keep coming back to the idea that home is and has been, all along, within myself.
So long as I am self-accepting of who I am;
I can exist anywhere and make homes out of people and places.
Two weekends ago, I attended a conference on Southeast Asia. One of the speakers was a Berkeley professor who spoke about an Indonesian artist that he’s researched about for several years now; the product of this intense labor of love is a coffee table book that will hopefully be published sometime this year.
According to the professor, the artist was of Minangkabau descent – a culture that ingrains the physicality of home to the identities of its people; never lose your roots, literally – who seemingly rejected and shed the identity that he was born into. He lived a nomadic life for the rest of his adult life, homeless most of the time and oftentimes found sleeping on a bench in an art museum in Jakarta. Part of the Minangkabau culture is the strong emphasis on familial ties and its unique matrilineal element; this artist was a philandering, absent father who knew not his children and despite being Muslim and having studied Sufism at some point, lived on a steady diet of occasional prostitutes, beers, and cigarettes. His artwork were as eccentric and unconventional as the rest of his life and self had been; a stubborn antithesis to mainstream interests. His entire being, his whole life, his works of art – everything was a dichotomy to the ideas of home within his background context. The professor proclaimed that it was as if the artist had deliberately and intentionally built a life distinct from his home.
Yet – and here’s the interesting bit – his signature, the same one he would use to sign off his art, was a creative stylization of his name. It was a tiny icon-like character that has what looked distinctly like a house – an A was stylistically drawn like a roof.
“He was an antithesis – his whole life was an antithesis to his cultural identity – yet there it was, home, in his signature. In every single piece of his work. It almost makes you wonder if he’s been running all this time, all the while, to escape the inescapable.”
One could argue that the inescapable was home – a sense of belonging, possibly – but I secretly wondered if the answer, the true answer, was longing. More than anything else, I thought it was painfully ironic: he spent his whole life running away, building himself a definition so separate from the clutch of his deeply ingrained culture …not realizing that in essence, he was no less further than where he started from.
Over lunch with another classmate just yesterday, also Malaysian, I shared with him about my long-term professional aspiration of someday getting involved in environmental policymaking and therefore, hoping to return to school one more time for another masters in public or international policy. “Who knows,” I said nonchalantly, “It’s all vague and too idealistic now I know, but my plan is to work for several years – five or six – then hopefully make this happen as part of my transition process.”
He looked at me with a genuinely surprised expression.
“…here?” Stanford, he indicated. The US, was what he probably actually meant.
“Probably not here, elsewhere maybe – who knows. But out of Malaysia again, I hope.”
He nodded and said nothing in return.
This morning I thought, herein lies the problem behind his puzzled expression and that strangeness had as a result, stayed with me: he probably could not make sense of the paradox that I am – steadfast in my decision to return home at the end of this program because after all, I’ve openly and constantly expressed my longing for home …only to plan to get out and away again.
Then another thought struck me: how I’d assembled my long-term plan completely on my own terms, taking into consideration only a party-of-one – myself. Up until this morning, it never struck me that I’d never inserted the possibility of a partner, possibly even kids, in all the equations and timescales that I would draw for myself. For a second and probably for the first time, I thought: will there be another person? Kids even? Will I still believe in this career trajectory as strongly as I do now?
Then I realize I am as guilty as the artist; running away.
There is this paradox about myself that I still can’t resolve.
My desires for home, the country of my birth and where I embed my identity so closely with, are so keenly felt that I know that at this point in time, I would regret not going home for good more than choosing to stay here – even though the financial perks and standard of living here are arguably superior compared to Malaysia. When I am away, I long for home. Perpetual homesickness. In my mental’s eyes, I find no better fit than the small microcosm of my society where I feel a sense of belonging, that safe space where I am able to exist as myself without pretense and reservations.
Yet the idea of permanence – to settle – is one that still eludes me. I can paint the next five to six years, just as years earlier, I’d envisioned the duration of my stay here. But to think of planting roots, of establishing lasting bonds, of perhaps breeding second generations and letting go of youthful ambitions for permanence the likes of long-term housing loans and private vehicles – the image is fuzzy, my vision is suddenly overcast.
I realized that I am still on the run.
Sometimes I wonder what it is that I am constantly running away from.
When I was young, I wanted an out. As early as the age of eight, I understood that the only way to achieve that was through education. In my emotionally-charged adolescent and teenage years, I longed for nothing else but a one-way ticket to a country halfway across the globe. Home, both physical and figurative, was suffocating. I thought that physically running away, as it’s often portrayed in television and exemplified in-person through a character in my life, was the answer to alleviate my anguish.
I didn’t understand back then, that one could extricate oneself from home …and still remain within its peripheries. One never really runs away. I ran away repeatedly, first in my mind and then physically with my two feet, only to realize that despite years of wandering and new experiences, I was nowhere near to being found.
A close friend of mine here just recently returned from a ten-day trip to Congo; it was part of her internship with the UN that she undertook last summer. She is someone who is pretty well-traveled and has lived outside of her home country for nearly ten years now despite her young age, which was why I had posed this question to her: what was the single most affecting take-away point from this trip?
She mulled over it for a minute, chiming that there’s plenty of wisdom nuggets. Then she said, “In the end people are… people. It’s like no matter where you are and the condition of your life, especially how it’s portrayed in the media that others have come to perceive your life would be, in the end people are people. We’re the same everywhere.”
I registered her words, uncertain to laugh or cry. This was exactly my take-away point several years ago, back when I traveled more extensively than I do now; obsessed and hungry for the greater world. I had thought that coming here would be different in a way and had thought so in places like Indonesia and Singapore where I visited often in my younger days, and later in the UK and Europe too… only to arrive at the same conclusion that this world is large, but people are people just the same.
Funny, that we constantly convince ourselves otherwise – only to be fooled each time.
Sometimes I think the root of my sister and my crutch could be traced back and identified to a single source. Her fickle-mindness and commitment issues and my default and intuitive party-of-one scenario. Stubborn and obsessed with self-independence, the both of us. Selfish and unbending in our expressions of self-worth. Paradox; rooted and ingrained to the physicality of home, yet unstructured in our conceptualization of it. Constantly in flight, never fully on solid ground anymore once we understood the many ways in which we could run – literally and metaphorically.
…but runaway child, there is only so much running away that one can do to escape from the mental spots and emotional blackholes of one’s heart. My sister understood this earlier than I did, three years ago when she wrote,
“I realize I have to make a choice some time in life – to either get attached and get held back, or not get attached and forever run unstructured.”
Sometimes my mother mulls in that hardened and wispy way that she does, why aren’t my daughters softer and gentler like most other daughters, less ambitious and more settled?
Whenever I hear that, I am uncertain to laugh or cry.
Mother, you are the first house from which we learned how to build a home.