The meanings of home

you can go wherever you please but it's the insides you cannot leave

One of my best friends from secondary school has recently been blogging a lot on questions of home and what that word means. Having recently returned to Hong Kong to pursue her post-graduate studies after obtaining her BA from the University of Toronto, she is thinking about place, identity and friendship. If you’re interested in discussions on these, I highly encourage you to take a look at what she’s saying; she is an extremely articulate young woman who puts me to shame.

Having said that, I haven’t commented on her posts directly (although we’ve chatted about them) because I’ve been thinking about my own ambiguous relationship with the idea of home, an experience that is quite different, in some respects, to her current challenge of returning on a more permanent basis (for now) to a place from which she has long been absent.

Over the past four years, I have returned regularly to Hong Kong, twice a year for the winter break and for parts of the summer for the first three, and then once a year beginning in fourth year. I expect that to decrease even further in the future as I move around and make my home elsewhere, but I will always go back to Hong Kong to visit my friends and relatives. Go back: a phrase suggesting that is the place I originate from — because that is the place in which I spent all my conscious memories until I was eighteen and moved here for university. Whether I like it or not, my whole existence was in one city for the vast majority of my life, and it affected me in many fundamental ways that even now can’t be properly expressed to someone who isn’t from the same place or culture.

Regardless, I never did feel ‘at home’ in Hong Kong growing up. Not being, strictly speaking, Cantonese, I got a considerable amount of grief from some locals who were less than kind about my not being a sufficiently ‘Chinese’ person, whatever that means. Ironically, while I revel in my own difference in Vancouver, my childhood hurts from Hong Kong still stick like burrs I haven’t yet learned to shake off. If I were to be completely alone in either place, I would choose Vancouver a hundred times over, no question.

But home, for me, isn’t about being alone: it’s about belonging to a people, to a place. It means, more than anything else, having people who love me as an individual and being interwoven in the fabric of their lives. It meant that, despite not being comfortable among strangers in Hong Kong, I adored the friends and family I had in Hong Kong with every passionate atom in my body. With them, I did feel at home, and when I left, I was heartbroken and terrified that I would never again find people to rely on and trust and love that much.

I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to come to Vancouver without a friend in sight; I don’t think I realised how incredibly attached I was to them, or how terrible I was at change (or both). It’s always taken me a painfully long time to open up fully to other people, even as I handle small talk without a worry, so it took me three years to build up a sufficiently strong social support group to feel genuinely happy again. In those three years, I had a couple of friends I felt comfortable enough to speak freely with, but you can’t burden one or two people with your whole life all the time. So I didn’t feel ‘at home’ in Vancouver for a long time, even while I loved this place and the people in general more than I’ve ever cared about Hong Kong.

In those three years, I frequently despaired about my own ineptitude (as I saw it then) in building a new life for myself from scratch. Other people seemed to do it just fine, within months, really, so why did I still feel so out of place three years later? Every time I thought I was doing splendidly in Vancouver (and on the surface, I was doing just fine), I’d go back to Hong Kong and realise how much happier I could be, and that would throw me out of whack when I got back to Vancouver, wondering what I was still not doing right.

And then I felt increasingly out of place in Hong Kong, too.

My first few trips back to Hong Kong were wonderful: this was the place that still felt most like home to me in first and second year, and most of my friends were back there visiting at the same time I was, so we got to see and spend time with each other frequently. Of course, as time wears on, people change, make different plans, carry on with their own lives. The home I missed so much was increasingly a construct of the past, something that existed with people I loved in my memories, who aren’t necessarily the same individuals they are now.

This summer, I went back for five weeks, and my main conclusion is that I was there for too long. My parents work six days a week, I only have three friends left there at the moment, two of whom are working, and I had almost nothing to do because I accidentally left all the homework I planned on doing on a desk in Vancouver. Almost all the things I want to do and enjoy are here in Saltwater City, not Fragrant Harbour (much as I enjoy the shopping and eating there). Here, I have a job, school, many more friends, and several personal projects to work on at any given time: my life is here, now. And as relieved as I am that I’ve inverted my emotions and feel considerably more comfortable here than when I first arrived, it unsettles me that a place that was the definition of home for me for some good twenty years or so is no longer quite that, anymore.

When a best friend in Vancouver said ‘Welcome home!’ this year, I said ‘Yes’ hesitantly because it’s not yet a certain feeling with me, as much as I don’t feel at home anywhere else. It’s the ridiculously clean cut between my life in Hong Kong and my life in Vancouver, the fact that hefty chunks of my past go unrecognised because there is no one to recognise them, that leaves me feeling not quite whole. Four years don’t negate seventeen other ones, after all — but seventeen old ones can’t always continue claiming precedence over four new ones that have wrought significant changes in me.

Now I use ‘home’ in several different ways depending on the day and the situation. I call my residence my home, I call where my brother lives home home (even though neither of these feel like that). I say I’m going home when I’m preparing to fly back to Hong Kong and mean it until I get there. I excitedly tell all my friends that I’m home when I’m back in Vancouver because I want to mean it and sometimes do. There are days when this matters to me and days when it doesn’t.

Mostly, when people ask, I tell them that I’m from Hong Kong and that I now live in Vancouver. More importantly, there is nowhere else I would rather be. I count myself lucky to live in a place like this, among people who love me. One day, perhaps, I’ll call this place home without hesitation or reservation.

4 responses to “The meanings of home

  1. Pingback: Thankfully Tuesday « phood – food | photography | philosophy