Three Septembers ago, I was in Thailand learning about the beauty of home. It wasn’t that our time there embodied anything remotely similar to how I lived back in America. On the contrary: we built a new church building, making every brick manually one at a time; we ate sticky rice with every meal; and I slept on the floor, batting away the ever constant swarm of bugs while squirming to get the most direct line of air from the rotating fan.
Thailand was nothing like home here in America, but it certainly taught me a whole lot about what home can look like.
Every day two little girls would sing-song my name as they ran up to me on the wooden porch swing. My journal time permanently interrupted, I pulled out my earbuds and kissed them profusely before they left for school. It became routine, me and them, as did so many other parts of our days. “Eat, eat, eat! Fat, fat, fat!” our host mom–she demanded we call her Mama upon first meeting her–would exclaim as she served us each meal. We took frequent trips to 7-11, stocking up on familiar candy and iced coffee before riding home in the back of Pastor’s big truck. Many evenings I would play my ukulele, making up songs as heat lightning struck across the dark, vast sky.
And now, three Septembers later, my life looks incredibly different. It’s bound to: I’m nowhere near Thailand or the family who embraced me as theirs for a month. But I have a picture of one of the little girls–Pam, the more dramatic of the two–sitting on my lap. It’s actually just of our feet, but it hangs on my apartment wall. It reminds me of dirt stained days due to dancing and playing, of that last full day with Pam on my lap watching Frozen, the moment I realized how much they had become home to me.
Up until that point in my life, the word “home” tasted as offensive as black licorice.
Growing up, my family moved a lot. Not geographically, but relationally. We’d connect with people, then uproot ourselves and replant into another community. I don’t think this was necessarily a consciously hurtful choice; my parents truly did what they thought was best for all of us. But with this as my foundation, it was only natural for me to continue to wander as an adult.
Perhaps I chose to let the word “home” pickle and turn sour, or maybe I was given a false definition as a child. But either way, I learned to leave hurts–and people–behind and move on both literally and emotionally.
I’m probably not alone in my distorted view of home; maybe you’ve been hurt by its pretenses as well. Maybe you’ve run just as I did, seeking some sense of belonging and identity everywhere but your roots. I think this is just a part of life. Not all of it, but part. A slice. Learning to redefine home based on your positive experiences, not the negative ones. Choosing to do it differently, or the same, or a combination of the two.
But most of all, realizing that home isn’t so much the house you grew up in or the countries you wandered to in search of it, but the people who keep standing there with arms wide open no matter how many times you walk away.
That’s what Thailand became to me.
I have lived in this dot on the map now for 15 months. I’m learning to accept this city in a fresh and gracious way–I can no longer allow it to haunt me as its old self five, ten, fifteen years ago. I have changed since I was 10 and first moved here, since I was a naive 17 year old who thought love was synonymous with forever. And this city has changed too, in its growth, its pretentious coffee shops and weekly farmers markets.
Saying goodbye to Thailand, to the people who embodied home for a month, was heartbreaking. I cried, I looked back until their smiles and waving arms disappeared. I grew angry in self-preservation, because I had let down walls and exposed vulnerabilities. I had actually believed that for me, finding home was possible.
It seems so long ago and all at once like yesterday, Thailand does, while these past 15 months in my hometown have felt like an eternity of transition. It’s been a toxic combination of loneliness and longing for days in the past when I felt more myself in a country whose language I barely knew. And yet, it’s been equally healing. I’m not sure I would use the word “freeing” yet, but it certainly has been healing.
Because here’s the thing about home: it changes and looks different, but it never disappears, not completely. We decorate walls and fill bookshelves, creating an aesthetic we hope emanates who we are and who we want to be–what we desire home to become for ourselves and for others.
There are seasons when the decorations come down and get packed into boxes. Or in my case in Thailand, where I stuffed my belongings and souvenirs into a backpack, hoping a little box of home fit in there too. We move, we say goodbye, and hate how bittersweet life can be sometimes.
But we carry it with us, always. I have forgotten so much of the beauty of Thailand, the way their language sounds or how much sand is required to make cement. But I refuse to forget it entirely. Mama’s voice, the pineapple for breakfast, how I learned to create home for others.
Ghandi had this quote (although to him, I suppose it was just words coming out of his mouth and now we’ve tattooed and sworn by it). “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I imagine he was floating in the air, his legs criss-crossed with a slight smile on his face. Regardless if that’s true or not, the guy was on to something. It starts with us. With you, with me. We must be willing to first change and bring change in order to see it.
When it comes to creating home, I have learned it’s just the same. People are beloved beings, but they will fail you. They won’t know how to embrace you perfectly, just as you won’t understand how to love them perfectly either. But you know what it means to be home, whether it’s knowing more of what home is not due to past circumstances or what it can be because of a month spent in Thailand.
So learn to be home for people. Carry the parts of life into the present that have changed and rooted you. Create the home you wish you had, the home you long for.
And if that means dancing and getting my feet dirty more often, then I’ll happily embrace it.