Finding home

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles
”Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
— Mary Oliver
I don't belong in a salad bowl.

I don't belong in a salad bowl.

 
It dawned on me that my struggle to find the true meaning of home can be coined simply as generation zero's first world problem. I had written this story many times over. I can only oversimplify as the struggle between two worlds. I decided it didn't make sense to enumerate the details of my broken home, the uber conservative & religious upbringing, my brilliant orphaned dad who shaolin-ed his way to becoming the revered diplomat but struggle to understand fatherhood, or the extent to which the extended family on mum's side truly extends into every nook and crannies of everyone's existence. Some or all of these probably contributed to my perpetual state of multidirectional lost-and-found when it comes to home. We all have our colored past, our judgement of others, our gossips, and our polite game faces. Such is the fabric of having a family.

Thing is.. when you take a curious girl out of world number one and throw her into world two, three, four.. who do you expect her to be, really?

Parts of Mekhong river dries up in winter time, revealing mid river sand dunes. I once swam over to it. Dumb idea in hindsight given how treacherous the current is. On the dune you could see Thailand to the right and Lao to the left. The dune belongs to no country.  I ran with all my might with my eyes closed here at age 13. Rebelious youth, as it were.

Parts of Mekhong river dries up in winter time, revealing mid river sand dunes. I once swam over to it. Dumb idea in hindsight given how treacherous the current is. On the dune you could see Thailand to the right and Lao to the left. The dune belongs to no country.  I ran with all my might with my eyes closed here at age 13. Rebelious youth, as it were.

 

This is the first time back to grandma's house in almost 15 years. The whole point of this very trip is to come here. I had been preparing for this moment since the beginning of 2015. From hearing the news of the lawsuit that caused my exile from the family finally coming to a favorable settlement, to selling my house to prepare the settlement fees, to going to therapy weekly to mentally prepare for the emotional roller coaster that will inevitably ensue, to finally delivering my entire life saving into my uncle's account. Tonight I get to thank him in person for putting up with the one black sheep in the family. 15 years is a long time to put up with a sheep. Tonight they take me back, at a price tag I can enumerate down to two decimal point in two currencies.


The street of grandma's block etched in my memory like a distant yet familiar photo - forgotten for the most part except for moments of resurrection. We spent a lot of time here as kids. Our mum and dad weren't the most attentive. We got dropped off here quite a bit. Once or twice permanently by our parents only for grandma to yell at someone to come get us months later. Grandma's house is actually uncle's house. Ever since uncle had a car accident in his 30s and lost a part of his movement he became that fun but also weird single uncle that every family has. They live together since forever. This place was the center of all our universe. For someone who grew up relocating more than 27 times it was also the only home I knew.

Mum didn't say anything. My brother tapped my head once to say "I got your back" before we went in.

Grandma is now 95. She's still a force. Funny as hell. Commanding in the same breath. In this house you crawl on your knees to greet her with a "wai" (praying hand) at her feet. Uncle and Grandma sit on chairs. The rest sit on the floor. The elevation denotes hierarchical respect. She's much older than I remember. To my relief she remembers me, and even smiled.

"You used to look whiter. More beautiful. Now you are black. What happened?"

Not unexpected. Actually a compliment for me even though I know exactly what she means. Racism is horrible here -- one of many reasons why I'll never come back for good. Then comes the uncles:

"What are you doing these days? Computers? Your cousin is now a lighting director helping her dad's business. The other cousin owns a ballet studio. What computer thing do you need to do over there in America. It's so expensive to live there. Come home. Get comfortable already. Look after your family."

Not unexpected either. Kinda hard to explain what I actually do. I don't blame them. I never tried to explain. I hate being labeled by what I do so I never give them the means to do so. What was unexpected was how easy it was to hear all this again this time around. The weight of their words didn't hold me handcuffed to the cinder block of guilt that used to sink me. Maybe this was all they could say to relate to me.

I spent some time with uncle and older brother reviewing the lawsuit document. We talked about what transpired, where we went wrong, the "meetings" uncle did with the elders involved to sway my case. He is relieved. He said we were the only case that settled with volunteer payment. Thai law has since changed in the time the lawsuit happened. They finally recognize the high and mighty academic scholarship program is really a giant extortion of poor smart people to the point of life-long indentured servitude. Modern slavery, if you will. Those wishing to get out would face years of fighting in court. Some wins. Some losses. But in the end the company issuing the scholarship always make bank. In my case they profited more than double invested. The document closing the case was a surprisingly short 5-pager. I thanked him again.

The rest of the time were spent reminiscing old times when the cousins used to dog pile each other in ultimate pillow fights that broke down in the living room on the regular. Mum came equipped with old photos of us to distract the "what is" with "what was". She hugged me after.

"Why are you going to Sri Lanka? So many beaches here in Thailand. You just got here."

"She's going surfing, uncle." (I love my brother)

"Windsurf? What is surfing?"

"You get on this board like the bottom part of a windsurf thing but no sail. And ride waves."

".. Always doing something dangerous. Always causing trouble. Sit for a bit will you."

They made sure to make me all my favorite food at the house. We took group photos. When it's time to say goodbye grandma finally said:

"You have to be strong. Especially as a woman. The world is more dangerous for women. To live so far away from everyone. Learn to help yourself. Life is tougher over there. It is your choice."

I hid my tears. For someone who has been so steadfast at wanting a very specific life for me, someone who sees all my moves as one orchestrated failure after another, it was really nice to finally be released. I don't know if I will see grandma alive again after this trip. She's fading fast, albeit with a joke and her fierce smile all the way. I can see the love that surrounds her - the same that surrounds all of us in that house.

Home isn't about a place. Home is a feeling. That feeling of belonging. Of memory-making. Of comfort, familiarity. Of trust.

I spent my entire adult life rejecting my family, my heritage. But now I know I don't have to run away from it anymore. I no longer have to "save myself" because there isn't anyone to defy. If I just let the family be who they are, even in the face of my black sheep situation, everything eventually works itself out. It feels remarkably calm and liberating to finally have closure. 

 

A really lame pic of grandma's house. I wasn't in the picture taking mood.  We always eat together on the floor. That's mum and my cousin preparing the serving. Amazing food. 

A really lame pic of grandma's house. I wasn't in the picture taking mood.  We always eat together on the floor. That's mum and my cousin preparing the serving. Amazing food.