How Does a Traveller Define Home?

“No New Year celebrations as there is little meaning without you and others around. I miss the family togetherness every once in a while maybe because I am getting on in age.”

When I read this line in this email from my dad awhile back, I gulped with guilt. Here I was, blissfully involved in my own world here in the D.C. area. Nary a thought for my dad’s feelings. Still, I stuffed away his words into the deepest crevice of my mind and carried on.

Recently, a post on the International Herald Tribune’s Rendezvous blog, which was titled, “Dark Side of the Expat Life” made me think of his email again. ***

It pointed out that as a traveller, the impermanent nature of living abroad forces you to think of what makes a place home to you. The authors suggest that it “might be where your apartment, your work or your belongings — or even your family and friends — are.” More importantly, they note that it “might also be a place where language and culture are confounding. And deep down, despite the thrills and invigorating challenges of an experience abroad, more often than not, we know it’s not a place we’ll stay forever.”

In my early days of being in the States, I thoroughly enjoyed the newfound autonomy over my life. Unlike my American university classmates who had family within driving distance, it was ok that I didn’t see my parents or brothers on my free weekends. I always had friends who were happy to share their home and family with me. If I didn’t want to impose, there were other options.  When everyone cleared out during long holidays, I simply made plans to travel to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami or one of the other countless American cities, each boasting their own one-of-a-kind, unforgettable travel experience. Up till a year ago, I didn’t think of what was home — or what it was not.

In fact – bad as it sounds – I didn’t really want to share details of my life here with my family.

It’s not that I was going crazy wild, doing keg stands and tequila shots at parties every night. I simply grew weary of fielding thoughts and instructions on what I should do, what I should not do and how to keep myself warm. I understand that parents – Asian mothers especially – tend to be protective of their children at no matter what age. But if I couldn’t learn to handle even the simplest things on my own, then what was the point of me leaving home?

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as I am the youngest in the family. While I truly do appreciate my mother’s concern for my wellbeing and safety abroad, it became tiresome to keep having to explain that she didn’t have to nitpick at details. I felt belittled, as if she had no faith in my ability to navigate life on my own. In Asia, I think it’s fair to day that the parenting skills of stay-at-home mums are held to exceptionally high standards by their in-laws, by society and by even themselves. Did she not see, that if I couldn’t handle my affairs, then that would mean she didn’t do her job in teaching me self-reliance, when she actually had – and very well too, I might add – on that front?

Sometime during the past ten years of living independently, I pointed this out to her. She was pleased with what was essentially a compliment, but it did nothing to stop her innate need to worry about us – my brothers and I. *mothers tsk*

In another IHT Rendezvous post, commenters shared their stories about surviving abroad. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it,” wrote Colleen, (presumably) American living in London. “I would never have the kind of self-reliance and strength of character that I do today if I would have stayed stateside.” Mykgee (country of origin not mentioned,) who lives in New York, wrote: “at the same time, you tend to become such a distant person from your old self that your relationship with your family and current friends inevitably becomes more distant.”

Ditto and ditto.

Personally, the hardest time of the year is during Chinese New Year, when my Chinese Americans friends head to their grandparents home, where the generations of siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, spouses converged to catch up, gossip, play mahjong, exchange gifts, hand out angpau, and eat at tables laden with many delicious things. The last time I celebrated Chinese New Year with my own family, with our own unique Chinese Malaysian traditions was in 2009. And that was after not celebrating with them since 2003. This wouldn’t be nearly so much of a problem if i lived in a neighbouring country like Singapore or even New Zealand. Flying  from the East Coast all the way to Southeast Asia more than once or twice a year is overwhelming, and not to mention, costly. The feeling that relationships from the old life begin to fade is very real.

And in the past year, it’s crept up on me just like that. Yet, there’s a small fear that I won’t integrate back into the society I grew up in if I moved back. I also know how much I’ll miss my life here, and the circles of friendships I’ve built up over the past 10 years. A dark side of expat life indeed.

I still don’t know how I personally define home. I expect that in time, I’ll find out.

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