Feeling Like Home

STIR Magazine cover

By Nhung Sue Hong Truong '13
Creative Director, STIR Magazine

One thirty hour long flight and two sunrises later, I crossed the Pacific Ocean to visit my hometown, Hanoi. It’s such a chaotic place. Motorcycles weaving into the crazy traffic, life moves faster than time. Houses are stacked on top of each other, cramped, noisy, and smoggy. That’s how it is in the urban area of a rapidly developing country. I haven’t spoken Vietnamese for so long now, it takes a second to formulate a sentence in my head. I go back to the same house every year, greeted by the same people, but now and then, I find myself searching for a familiarity, a feeling of being at home, of belonging that slowly fades away with years of living abroad.

Since I was fourteen, my life has turned into what felt like a long flight with many transits. Packing my whole life in two suitcases, I have moved from Hanoi up to the Himalayas, down to Amsterdam and then all the way across the Atlantic ocean to the US, all by myself. Between flights, I often feel the most comfortable sipping coffee while looking out the giant glass windows watching planes taking off in Narita International Airport. My birthday is also at that odd time in January when the spring semesters start, so for the past seven years I have always celebrated on the move, and often, all by myself.

Every winter I visit my family in the good old hometown Hanoi. Hanoi changes too quickly for me to adjust. After the 6th year abroad, I went back to an entirely new city. I was supposed to be coming home, but it felt more like just another new foreign city awaiting me with new adventures. Am I really coming home?

What is home after all? Home has become a rather abstract concept. It’s an easy answer for most people. However, kids growing up in multiple places, like myself, often find it hard to give an unambiguous answer. On my way to look for an answer, I decided to ask a few third culture kids from Clark about their experiences and definitions of home. Third culture kids are those who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. There are many TCKs at Clark, and they come from all over the globe.

Michino Hisabayashi, a sophomore at Clark, is an example of a TCK. I met to talk with Michino one afternoon in early October. On the first day of international relations class that we had together, she introduced her background and I became curious about her experience. She was born in Japan, moved to Hong Kong and then to Thailand, where she spent five and a half years. Then she moved to Bangladesh in seventh grade, and is now living in the US. After hours of conversation where we shared our life experiences, she concluded that she identifies herself as a Japanese and she still feels the most at home in Japan. Even though she was brought up in many places, most of the interactions were with the expat communities. While in Thailand, she attended Japanese school, so it was not until when her family planned to move to Bangladesh that she started to learn English.

Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh, is a crowded city. In fact, it has the highest population density on the planet. I can’t imagine what the traffic would be like. I spent three years of high school in India, so I could relate to her experience in Bangladesh. Feeling at home in a country where you don’t even speak the language, man, it’s the weirdest thing. Michino went back to Bangladesh this summer, and fit right back in. Her friends were still there, although her family has moved back to Japan. Although it has been lost somewhere down memory lane, she said Thailand would probably still feel like home if she ever has a chance to go back. However, as her family has been relocated in Japan, they will probably reintegrate back into the Japanese society. “Do you feel like you represent Japan?” I asked Michino. “Sometimes, sometimes not so much,” she answered. After all, how can you define your identity if you are made of so many different cultural experiences? What does it mean to belong somewhere?

Unlike her, I have not returned to India since I left. I still remember vividly the way the sun set in the middle of the sky when I lived very high up the mountains. From the path to the boys’ dorm, I could see the faint shape of the Everest and all the brilliant snow peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. The first snow at 23,000 feet, monsoon seasons, standing at the bottom of a dry reservoir in Himachal Pradesh looking up to the purple clouds, floating in the holy Ganges river, feeling my insignificance and smallness as I walk down the street of Junpath, New Delhi with a billion other human beings-- I don’t know if that is the feeling of being home. I don’t know if I will ever feel the same way again, because I have never been back. How can a place be your home if you will never see it again?

I am not the only one who feels this way. Bhumika Regmi, a close friend of mine at Clark, has lived in Nepal, India, North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and now resides in the US. And because her family is from Nepal, and Kathmandu is her hometown, that’s the only place out of those six countries that she ever returned to. Whenever she moves to a new place (her father works for Red Cross, so they move every one to three years), she leaves the old country behind completely, like it is just one stop in her endless journey. Her family’s next destination is Myanmar. When I asked her if she was excited to go to a new home, she said: “When I think of home, I think of Myanmar, although I have never been there.” She doesn’t know what the house looks like, but she has pictured in her head what it would look like, and there is a feeling of belonging to a place she has never been to. That feeling is what home means for her. Her comfort lies in her family, since it’s the one and only permanent element in her life.

“Do you feel nationalistic about Nepal?” I continued.

“Yes, of course. I’ve never lived in Nepal, but it’s not like I live anywhere else either.”

Bhumika’s favorite country of residence is Mongolia because she learned so much from living there. It seems like the most simplistic place, but it’s not. The nation that used to be the most glorious empire in human history is now colored with Communist influence from the old USSR. On top of that, the Mongolians still hold on to their nomadic culture in that they care about very immediate things-- family, food, shelter. There is so much joy in simple things. Sometimes it makes her question everything in her life.

Her experience in Mongolia gave her a very unique perspective, and it has influenced her life at Clark, which is also another milestone for her life. When she graduates in 2014, Clark will have been the place she has spent the most time consistently since she was nine years old. Her friends are now her family, and her home, for that matter. When you realize where your home is, you can gain the strength to deal with hardships in your life.

Michino, Bhumika and I, we all moved West, so in order to gain an universal understanding of this rootless feeling that I am suffering from, I asked my Peer Advisor, now a Clark alumni, Katharine Gill. She moved to Taiwan at the age of five from the United States, then to Turkey at age nine and back to Taiwan at age thirteen.

“Where do you feel the most at home?”

“I think it’s hard to articulate because the answer is a mixture.” Katherine shared.

Her family still lives in the same house in Taiwan that they have lived in for years. Taipei feels like home for her, yet she still doesn’t feel like she belongs there. Like Michino, she is deeply integrated in the expat community in Taipei, and as she doesn’t speak fluent Mandarin, she thinks it plays a major role in how she feels at odd sometimes with the place that she grew up in. Culturally, she sometimes finds herself distancing from her American identity as a result of “growing up in the Bush era.” Discrimination in Asia is a lot harsher than it is here in the United States (trust me). Katherine thinks that because of the widespread American media, people in other countries assume they know what it is like to live in the U.S. Katharine also experienced culture shocks as she moved back to the States for college. For her, the American education system is so foreign it takes a while to adapt to.

Katharine’s life is an on-going process of adapting and customizing to different cultures. However her family is what she defines as the ultimate home. Home for her is an active space, static yet flexible, and constantly changing; it’s never fully one simple location.

So that’s it then? Your family is what defines your home? The location isn’t what makes the difference? Honestly, I don’t know. All my interviewees move with their families, but I didn’t. I went to all my new homes by myself, every single time.

When I decided to write about the third culture kids, I thought I would be able to figure out where my home is. But the further I went on, the more confused I get. The experience of moving to a different country varies for everyone. Just because they also move, doesn’t mean they feel the way you feel. The more I know, the less I understand. By the end of the interviews, I find myself back to square one. Maybe the answer is within me after all, I just have to find it, and will surely share with you when I find out.

This article is posted with permission from STIR Magazine (Fall 2012), a publication produced biannually by Clark University undergraduate students.