Since I’m so non-mysterious in my real life, I like to maintain a good sense of enigma in my blog life. What I photograph and write probably tells you all you need to know but I like to imagine that it doesn’t. However, this post wrote itself. It’s been hibernating in my brain for weeks. I was about to write that, when it comes to home, I’m practically Odysseus, but it’s not really true because Ithaca always represents a concrete concept of home, a place where he is from and to which he is returning.
Anyway, enough with thinly veiled literary aspirations. Here goes:
A few weeks ago, a friend living in Washington, D.C., wrote to say she was homesick, far as she was from her home state of Minnesota. Insensitively, I wrote back that I couldn’t advise her on how to deal with it because I had never been homesick domestically. But the question of homesickness–and my response–lodged itself in my brain. I eventually sent a list of things that I do to stave off homesickness but I’ve been thinking about it since.
I have never had the opportunity to be homesick domestically. Counting this brief stay in Indiana, I have lived in nine states* and two countries: I studied in Paris in 2008; I lived in Vietnam last year. Home is a fluid concept, and it has become more fluid in the past year: my parents moved while I was in Vietnam and are now moving back to the Chicago area, where they are from.
We’re in that stage of moving where dad has started the job at the new newspaper, leaving mom and the kids (in this case, just her 25-year-old daughter) in the old town to sell the house. It’s a time warp, really, when you’re 25 and in that stage of schooling where you move back in with the ‘rents. I have memories of the same process from 1994, 1998, 2001.
Because the constant in my life has been the inevitability of the next move, I try to avoid answering questions about where I’m from or where I’d like to live. The truth is that every one of the places I have lived has somehow formed me. I have, as my grandmother advised, put down roots everywhere and made each place home. Where would I like to live? I can live anywhere. New York or London are probably the only cities big enough for me to not need to leave but I may just be prone to restlessness.
When I moved to Vietnam, I spent the first two weeks so overwhelmed and enthralled by the commotion and heat that I didn’t know I was in culture shock. Then, for a few weeks, I was so busy adjusting and exploring and learning to eat while sitting on a red plastic stool in a dirty alley, that I wasn’t homesick. But one night, I wanted pasta with pesto. I wanted Indian food and I wanted pizza. I wanted to have a glass of wine with an old friend rather than calculate the time difference in order to Skype.
I was insulted by my own homesickness. I had to get over it.
I traveled. The more I saw of Vietnam, the more I spoke to Vietnamese people, the more Vietnamese food I ate, the more I hiked in the mountains and between the rice paddies, the more I loved the country.
I took pictures of everything. My camera lens did not divorce me from the setting. Rather, it brought me closer. I began to notice things I had would not have noticed before. Markets in Hoi An carried rays and cao lau noodles, which I didn’t see in Hanoi, where the pho and bun were made from rice and women butchered fish in the streets.
I found a cafe and went to it three times a week at first, then twice a week, then once every few weeks as I added other parts of the city to my internal map. The man who owned it always pointed me toward the table next to the window. He greeted my by name, “Xin chao, Han-nah.”
I learned to love my commute, sitting patiently on my motorbike, inhaling the poisonous exhaust of buses, learning how to maneuver through traffic jams by watching the people around me do it.
I explored new routes home until I new the city by heart. Hanoi, in the beginning, had no landmarks. Which one was Ngoc Son Temple and where was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum? I created my own landmarks until the city’s map was etched in my mind.
Drive-pushing my motorbike through a knee-deep flood during rush hour was exhilarating, not traumatic. It happened a month and a half before I left. By then, it was just life.
This is what I know: we don’t get over homesickness. It signals the loss of our sense of place. We absorb it; we move on; we find a place within our new surroundings. This is what we call home.
*Because you’ll ask, the nine states I’ve lived in include Washington, DC; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Athens, Ohio; Wichita, Kansas; Chicago, Illinois; Horseheads, New York; Wausau, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and, for the time being, Columbus, Indiana.