In Homer’s epic Odyssey, a man traversed across oceans and every mythical impediment possible to return home to his family. Odysseus left years before as duty in a time of warfare called him away. On the beaches of Ithaca, Odysseus’ wife Penelope and son Telemachus waited for years for his return. Home was a goal, an anchoring dream for Odysseus where he strove to get to regardless of how impossible it may have seemed during his journey there.
I used to view the Bay Area in the same way; I considered the Northern California city that I called home for over eighteen years to be an anchor while I flew around the world for school or any other adventure. I left behind midnight drives to 7-11 with my siblings for Coke Slurpees, I left behind weekend trips to the mall and sleepovers with my best friend Iris, I left behind my own boardwalks and beaches.
As much as I gripe about the suburban stereotypes that San Jose, California so drastically encompassed with its immaculate lawns and overstocked supermarkets, there was a comfort in the dry heat and In-n-Out burgers that I always returned to. The redwood forests that sidled alongside sandy beaches were my resting place, the home that I always envisioned returning to no matter where I was.
David Brooks in an op-ed piece for The New York Times writes, “We want to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living. But we also want to be situated — embedded in loving families and enveloping communities, thriving within a healthy cultural infrastructure that provides us with values and goals.” This is a concept that multicultural multilingual specialist Marcia Pally calls “separability amidst situatedness.” As technological advancements allow newfound levels of autonomy in our immediate lives, we still want to be anchored to something, to someone to an unconditional degree. We want the security and support of a home team when we venture out to move to another city or start a new job or begin any endeavor. It’s as though we are Theseus wandering through the labyrinth of life chasing after an elusive Minotaur. Perhaps the string that trails behind leads to home, a sort of safety net to bring us out of life safely after we achieve our greatest hopes.
The first year I spent living away from California, it took me several weeks to call my new apartment “home.” I initially found no comfort in the humidity and bustling streets of New York to even come close to calling it that. It seemed almost like a betrayal to designate that word to this dim and grimy room that I occupied. After a while, I rationalized that I had romanticized the idea of what a home is, and that I should perhaps lower my standards to a place I could comfortably sleep while watching Netflix. “Home” became a blanket term for these minimal specifications, though I still reserved a certain sacredness to the word that only the Bay Area held for me.
When I moved back to California after living away for a few years, I returned to family and a familiar space. I thought of situating myself deeply into this city that was my hometown. I was hired at a job at a company nearby, I began looking for my own apartment, I found cafes and parks that became my regular spots. I took my grandmother out to lunch, I built a network of friends and colleagues in the Bay. I imagined this place to possibly be the home of who I was now as an adult as much as it was for who I was as a child.
Three years ago, I chose to move away again assuming that my family and friends and everything else would be waiting for me upon my inevitable return. I thought there was more to explore and learn, other places to possibly call home for a little while before settling down. Regardless of how many times I left, there always seemed to be a magnetic pull of family and friends luring me back to the Bay, and I rested on the knowledge that this place would remain as it was.
In sports, “home” is the zone where a player is free from attack. It’s an area of safety. A resting place for your head. But one cannot stay in his comfort zone forever. At the end of Odyssey, Odysseus arrived back home in Ithaca to his family. But their reunion was short-lived as Odysseus returned only to head out to sea again to face another threat, to go on another adventure. Perhaps that’s what home was. A stopping place as much as it was an anchor. The permanence of being held at home seemed to have been impossible for Odysseus for the prophet Tiresias foresaw that he was to die at sea; perhaps home was simply a necessary layover. A place to refuel, a place to rest.
However, I will soon be losing all of that. In the next year, my immediate family will be flung around the globe each living on a different continent. My parents will be moving to do relief work in Nsangi, Uganda. My brother will be attending seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in the States. My sister will be teaching at a school in Seoul, South Korea. And I will be here in Glasgow, Scotland. Probably writing. The city that I called home for eighteen years will no longer be the residence of anyone in my family.
I don’t know what it means that I’ll no longer have that; there will no longer be a regional space to call “home,” there will be no safe zone. And as my parents sat across the dining table of my childhood home on a December night, they told me of their plans to retire, sell everything and indefinitely move to Africa. The world suddenly felt so much larger, somehow less safe.
I visited California two months ago. I was excited at the thought of going back home, especially since I knew that time with family was limited and my future there was now uncertain. But my experience this time left me feeling like a tourist, a spectator. Not much had changed in terms of restaurants and friends and weather. But relationships felt on the fritz as family and best friends seemed to have little time or patience for me even as I tried to slip into the ease of temporary living there. Had I changed or had everyone else? Was it impossible to hold onto the hope that there could be permanence of even the most basic of things?
My friend Katie here in Glasgow says that it’s highly impractical to want to be present for people when one is long-distance as opposed to being present the way one could be in physical immediacy. I think I wanted to believe that I could be an exception to that because I once was; I left and returned, and I thought I could do it again. I wanted to hold everyone everywhere so close, and I wanted to hold onto my hometown while conversely calling so many other places home. But the tension of spreading myself all over couldn’t last, and the feeling of lostness that accompanied the imminent snap of these hopes being broken makes me wonder if I’ll ever know what or where home is.
I once reveled in the freedom that I thought I had when venturing out to explore new streets and new skies. But the looming absence of home that will be coming in the next year makes me wonder if that was only possible because I had a home base, a secure place to return to when all the new streets and skies before me were beginning to become too much.
Is this the reason that people are able to settle down in one place? Is this the reason why people are sometimes able to stay still? Because they have this need for the security of home? I don’t know that I am ready to build my own home yet, but I can no longer rely on the hopes that the Bay Area would ensure and maintain one for me.
The anchor that I found in my family and the memories of my upbringing will no longer moor me to the docks of California. For the first time in my life, I will know the true freedom of being a nomad with no home base which makes me feel both wary and anxious about the course I will take from here on out. But poet Warsan Shire wrote, “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.” Maybe the past was all just preparation for this search for respite and permanence, this safeness. Maybe home is still somewhere I’m going.
Eunice is a California native, a middle child, and an essayist. She is pretty terrible at telling stories aloud, which is why she opted to writing them down. She often writes through an intersection of literature, media, and cultural history.Eunice received her undergraduate degree from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a concentration in identity and creative writing and is currently studying at Glasgow University’s Creative Writing MLitt Program. She likes going to aquariums, listening to 90’s hip hop, taking photos of skylines, and drinking good coffee. Follow her on Twitter at @eunicemchung.
Photo credit: Eunice Chung