Alternate Title: Coco and the Quest for the Lost Home
When I was in elementary school, I had a best friend who often got homesick. To me, it seemed, to a baffling degree. We were always at each other’s houses, accepted as part of one another’s families. Yet despite this, sometimes during sleepovers at my house she would get so homesick that she would be reduced to tears, and we would have to call her parents to come get her. For a long time, I didn’t quite understand it. I never felt that way at sleepovers. Now, in my 30s, I understand it perhaps too much.
This morning I wrote a poem about homesickness, which I’ve been feeling of late to a noticeably heightened degree. It is that ever-familiar friend of any expat (although I’m sure there must be some out there who never feel homesick). I suppose, when one lives overseas, it must be counted as a sort of occupational hazard. One which we have brought upon ourselves. After all, if we had simply stayed home then we wouldn’t be in this position, would we?
But the truth is that I have been homesick since 2007. Since I left home for university. I didn’t really “leave home for university” in the traditional sense that I moved into the dorms of a nearby campus, leaving my room in tact and awaiting my visits. I moved to another country and months later my parents decided they would also be returning to the states. I had eagerly anticipated flying back home for Christmas like the rest of my friends would be doing, but found myself instead at a strange cabin in the woods, in Wisconsin, in the snow. This was to be my parents’ new home. And just like that (*Forrest Gump voice*), [my sense of home] was gone. There I was, untethered and full of angst.
I think my parents felt bad about this, because they arranged for me to stay at our old house the following summer while I worked at a summer school (this was thankfully possible because it was missionary housing, and no new missionaries had moved in). It was at once joyous and heart-wrenching. I was delighted to be back, to spend time with my friends, to have the comfort of familiarity, to be in our neighborhood. And yet, the house felt jarringly empty.
All of the furniture remained along with the household necessities we had used, our microwave, our mugs, our water pitchers. In the vacuum of our personal effects, these things, so intimately familiar to me, became like artifacts, relics of home past. They felt different in my hands, now strangers. I was living in the skeleton of our former home. I slept in my parents room, as my empty one was too weird. I continually opened the kitchen cabinet expecting to see it full, only to see my few sad items looking back at me: lemon tea, instant noodles, pancake mix. To be there was to be continuously surprised by its new status as my non-home and the non-existence of my family within it. I was experiencing grief, much like C.S. Lewis’ description after losing his wife (“H”):
“I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual… But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it. So many roads once; now so many culs de sac.”C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I’ve spent a decade since wondering what home is and marveling at the power it has over us. If I had to attempt a definition, I think it would be something like this:
A living space (living in both senses of the word: a space for living in, but also a space that is alive), intentionally cultivated, from which emerges a sense of safety, belonging and community.
Home is a powerful notion, one I might even credit for the propagation of our species. There is something cyclical about its nature: that the notion or experience of it plants a desire to in turn create it for ourselves. It is also, very importantly, something to be created. We can’t just decide that someplace is home. Buying a house doesn’t suddenly make it home. Home takes time, investment, work, living. Home is something we have to grow into.
It’s like you get homesick for a place that doesn’t exist. This Garden State quote always comes to mind when I’m meditating on ideas of home and the non-specific longing it can arouse.
For years after leaving Hong Kong I plotted my return. I always thought I’d move back, and when I imagined it, I saw this grand return to home, like I had never left. Of course, that’s unrealistic. But I held out hope and if you don’t already know, I’m a dreamer. Even after deciding to move to Taiwan, I wished for there to be enough similarities for it to feel, in some sense, like the home I lost all those years ago. I’m realizing, still coming to realize, that there is no getting it back. I’m not the same person I was when I left Hong Kong, and Hong Kong is not the same place I left. Old homes cannot be re-created. There is only moving forward and the creation and appreciation of new ones.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”Heraclitus
I’ve spent years building new homes in new places, and loving them all. They have represented different phases of life, parts of self, modes of being, philosophical chapters, relationships. After two and a half years in Keelung, it has finally begun to feel like home. I’ve come to believe that each time we build a new home, we give a piece of ourselves to it. At least, that’s how I have experienced it. Now instead of being homesick for just one place, I’m homesick for many, and now Taiwan, too, will one day be the object of my longing. Perhaps I’m especially cursed with a nostalgic persuasion, perhaps I’m still mourning past selves. Or perhaps this bout of homesickness comes from my awareness that I’m planting roots here, and I’m letting go to make room for those new roots. Probably all of the above.
I’m curious about your experiences with homesickness. Is it something that’s just for children? Or do we suffer from it FOREVER? How many homes have you had and do you miss them all too? Which title did you like better? Is anyone else having a weird emo week? (PINK SUPER MOON?!) Let me know in the comments below. Sending love this weekend <3