When I left home for the first time it did not occur to me that I would never be able to return to it again. I don’t mean ‘return’ in the literal sense, but in the sense that something happens between the moment that you leave a place and go back to it that irrevocably changes how you perceive things, that renders the familiar objects of ‘home’ into something distant, unattainable – something of the past.
Like so many others, I left home when I was 18, and while I had been told many things about leaving, I did not know anything about what, exactly, it would mean to return.
When I left home for the first time, I didn’t think about looking back. I was only worried then about where I was going, how to begin a new life. What I did not know then – and what I know now – is that the pain of departure is far easier to bear than the pain of return.
The first time I went home was the summer I turned 20. I was studying abroad in Paris and had become increasingly, quietly, desperate. I had grown tired of cathedrals, café crèmes, and the decay of Europe. I had been away for nearly two years, and ‘home’ had become nothing more than a nebulous image in my head, an absence rather than a place I longed for. The summer lay before me, empty and unplanned, and in a moment of panic, I decided to return to Thailand.
Going home that first time was an experiment: I wasn’t sure what to expect, and whether I was going to experience Thailand as a tourist, or as a resident. I had been away for so long that when I stepped into the Thai citizen line at Suvarnnaphumi airport, I could barely speak. The language felt unfamiliar and foreign, and the words garbled in my mouth.
I remember entering my house that first time, how I moved through it slowly, carefully; how I entered each room and picked up different objects because I felt a need to touch them. It was strange how preserved my house felt, how resistant it had been to change. Post-it notes that were at least five years old were still stuck on the door. Half-empty bottles of perfume, hair spray, and old make-up still lined the desk. I saw the same covers on the bed that I had had since childhood. Dolls I had stopped hugging in primary school. My closet was full of clothes, still hung up as if I could have taken them out to wear at any moment. I pulled on a pair of jeans, surprised to find that they still fit. Downstairs, I found a fridge full of food; I asked my mother who she cooked for, and she said – just herself.
I sat on my bed and, for a moment, wasn’t sure if I could sleep in it. I felt like I was in the middle of a museum, a sanctuary, a cemetery of nostalgia. It occurred to me that if I placed myself under the covers, I would be shrouding myself completely in the past.
That summer I marveled in everything, in experiencing once again all that I used to know. Being at home brought the ease of familiar surroundings, the comfort of family, and the interplay of old routines and lifestyles: being able to find good, cheap food at any time of the day or night; driving a car without a license; drinking a cocktail because I was of age. My mother told me that I had not changed, except that I walked faster. By the time summer was over, I felt as if the months had passed by too quickly, that there was more that I needed to experience.
I went home again the next summer, and this time my decision felt purposeful. This time I was not running away from something; I was back in Thailand because I had obtained a grant to conduct research for my thesis. But I was also back because that first taste of home was enough to make me yearn for more – for more of home, of the tropics, of that lifestyle. I told myself that I would focus on rediscovering my country, deciphering it.
However, instead of relishing my time at home as I did last summer, I found myself with a tendency to discard and remove the traces of the past. I would find old things, old notebooks with very little things inside them – multiplication tables from the third grade, half-finished stories and sketches – and after a second flipping through the dusty pages, would throw them into the trashcan. Suddenly the past felt overwhelming, and I wanted the house to change. I wanted to move away from nostalgia, from my mother’s tendency to preserve, from her attempt to maintain the illusion that her children still lived in the house and remained the same. I realized that seeing the difference between this illusion and reality hurt, and I did not want it to hurt.
My last and most recent trip home came as a complete surprise. It was just a month ago, this past winter, and though I never went home during the winter, this was a special, unprecedented occasion: my sister was coming home for the first time in three and a half years, and she offered to pay for my ticket. It would be my family’s first Christmas and New Year together in four years.
It was the first time that I had no reason to be home except to be with my family, and I did not know what to do with myself. While my brother eased himself into vacation mode and my sister delved into everything as “local” as she could, I did nothing. I spent a lot of time sleeping, exercising to occupy myself, and wallowing in a general state of discontent. Instead of enjoying home, I found myself yearning for Wesleyan, for my house and my room there.
I knew this feeling was unhelpful – silly even – because all that I identified with at Wesleyan would end once I graduated – and graduation was not far away. Home, I told myself, was much more permanent, fixed. Yet in my first few weeks in Thailand, all I felt was a continued sense of displacement, discomfort. The things that I had brought in my suitcase, the things that I had most recently worn, touched, and found useful or important enough to bring halfway across the world, felt more comfortable, more myself, than the things waiting at home. I told myself that here, in Thailand, was where I truly belonged, but when I felt so morose, so devoid of purpose, the words seemed empty.
I drifted through my days. My mother took me to visit her family outside the city and I did not know how to act. I met up with some old friends and they, too, told me I had not changed. I did not meet up with them again. My father would talk about city planning projects that would one day build a street right through our house, and I felt myself recoiling at the idea that, someday, our house might not exist. I told him that talking about the project was pointless because it wouldn’t happen in ten years, hoping to banish the idea not so much from his head as from mine. Desperate and listless, I started moving through the house and throwing things away again, realizing – and fearing – how obsolete the objects were, how they continued representing a past that had no relevance to the present.
Every other time I had been home was for the sake of pursuing something, some need or project, and this time I had none. Now I was experiencing just being home for its own sake, and somehow without a purpose for being there, I felt out of place, as if I didn’t belong there.
Then I drove my parent’s car into a tree.
The accident (for these are always accidents) necessitated a long talk – one that was especially difficult because this was not something my parents and I were used to. Talking about why I had decided to leave the house at such a late hour in the night, when I was incredibly fatigued and bound to make mistakes, inevitably led to talking about why I had been so discontent, so dissatisfied with being at home. As we talked, I realized that the source of my malaise was a kind of cognitive dissonance, where I could not reconcile the values and ways of life that I had come to embrace during my time away with the ones that seemed so opposed and unchanging at home.
“Reconciliation is a false hope at best,” one of my professors would tell me later, but by talking to my parents, I felt like I had taken my first step – towards bridging the distance between us, and towards finally considering what my place at home really was. I relaxed, in my own way, and was able to spend the rest of my winter in relative calm.
On the uncertainty of returns
We think a lot about departures, but very rarely do we think about returns. Nor do we think about homes, and the way that our changes affect how we understand them. Home may retain its old shapes and objects while you’re gone, but home as you once experienced it ceases to exist – because you are no longer the same person, because you have changed. And I guess what I am trying to talk about is what it means to return, especially after the first or second time – when the act of coming home loses its novelty, and becomes frequent, routine, and almost commonplace; something that no longer bespeaks a significant event.
At the airport, after my last trip home, after the malaise and the car crash and the long talk with my parents, I thought about all that I would miss in Thailand –not just family, or home, or friends, but details, details that seem more personal to me than anything else I will notice in the States: the tendency for shopkeepers to put everything into a plastic bag; the sudden, unexpected smiles of passersby (taxi drivers, motorcycle taxis, shopkeepers); the lines of commuters waiting for sky trains and subways. I would miss food stalls, the lilt of the Thai language, the constant bombardment of cheesy advertisements. And also, the slow moments of being in transit: standing in the subway station and staring at my reflection in the dark glass, feet sore from a day of walking. Entering the air-conditioned quiet of the subway compartment. Emerging into the hot afternoon air, tired, but eager to reach home.
The more I return to Thailand, the more I find myself drawn to the country. But I also know that I can no longer live and experience home in the same way, that I must learn to forge a new place for myself there in the future. I would like to go home again, sometime soon – although soon could be in several months or perhaps a year. But if you ask me now, I really do not know when I will go home again, if there will be a place for me there, and whether I will find myself with the desire to throw things away, or to keep things exactly as they are.