meliorating:

gradations of homecoming

Before I came to Malaysia, I shared a meal of Korean fried chicken in St. Marks with my friend who spent the previous summer in her hometown in China. (We used some gift certificates we forgot to give out during a raffle the year before…) Andrew Pham’s journey (back) to Vietnam was fresh on my mind and I just needed to know–what should I expect when I returned to my parents’ home country? Where would my search for family, history, and cultural identity take me? When would I feel… at home?

“It’s impossible to find home,” she told me.

*

As much as I said this to myself throughout college, a small part of me did not want to believe the academic one-liner: there is no “essential” heritage home to “return” to. The return journey to a homeland that was never completely mine to claim has been like walking on a perpetually unfinished bridge between my parents’ Malaysia and my own Malaysia. Even when I am in their hometown of KL, in the very same bar street my dad would go to for disco back when he was a teen, the Malaysia I occupy could not feel farther from the Malaysia my parents know. It all feels so… ahistorical.

In a creative writing class I took a few years ago, we talked about “radioactive fossils”—objects that contain a history within themselves. Their radioactivity comes from their silent embodiment of history and their potential to disrupt the present time and place. But these objects never completely reveal their history, we learned. 

What distances me from feeling “at home” in KL is the lack of time in finding these fossils.

The feeling of home, however, comes in little vibrant snatches here in this rainy town.

*

When I am sitting in the hawker center courtyard waiting for my claypot rice after an afternoon shower, a familiar tune floats and fills the air: the sweet, melancholic Chinese love ballads that played from my dad’s CDs on our 3-hour car rides when I was a child. The moment feels complete when I scrape at the edges of the claypot, searching for the burnt rice clusters, the very bits that my mom always says that she enjoys when she buys us some take-out claypot rice for dinner. There is an amiable intimacy (a sense of home) to mealtimes shared with friends who will sit in silence to let you listen to the music dissolving into the air.

Sometimes, when I am driving on the highway by myself to Gerik, Lenggong, or Kampar, I turn on the Chinese radio, in hopes of losing myself to a wonderful song that I most certainly will not know the name of but can happily hum its tune. And on some rare occasions, the moment overwhelms. In a breathless second, the combination of the mountains and hills that outline the horizon, the solitude inside my car, and the lyrics that remind me “in this world, there’s only mother who is good” (世上只有媽媽好), something deep within me stirs and I tear up. I miss home. And yet, home feels so close. 

I think, yes, yes Malaysia is part of my home, even in moments as imperceptible as learning “samans”—a word that I learned from my parents and has been in my vocabulary since I was 5—is actually a Bahasa Malay word my parents brought with them from Malaysia. I think of how Malaysia has been resting in my bones even before I was born.

The taste of food and the sound of words–musical or not–are my radioactive fossils here. They contain history–a history that extends before me and a history that continues with me.  Objects never completely reveal their history perhaps because they don’t need to. The incompleteness is what allows for inheritance, for me to find historical meaning and fill the rest in with personal meaning. 

Other teachers in my cohort seem to find the realest connections when they go into their community’s houses or take the time out to have their kids show them around the local places that shape who they are (and I sometimes envy that sort of experience, because mine does not even begin to resemble that). But perhaps my purpose before coming to Malaysia has always been more individual and inward before anything else.  

I haven’t “found” home because it’s not a passive search; it’s an active construction. Re-making what I consider to be the “familiar” creates these fossils, identifiable markers of “home.” That is the first part of the project of home-building. Subsequently finding this new familiar through food and music in unfamiliar landscapes–that is the process of home-coming. It explains why even something as mundane as shopping at the local supermarket can turn into an explosion of significance when the right instrumental song plays.

These moments let me know that I feel happiest in Malaysia not when I’m teaching, but when my heart is dripping with these feelings of longing. When I feel out of place here, I rely on these moments when I can find self-love and tenderness in the chords of Chinese love ballads or in the juices of vegetarian meat braised in black bean sauce. Malaysia has helped me learn, in a rather powerfully visceral way, that my own personal history of sensorial experiences from my childhood carve out my own transnational, trans-Pacific home.

There is no singular moment of home-coming, no grand sweeping epiphany. There are only intervals of approaching home, of continually indulging in nostalgia to connect my childhood memories with the present moment, while simultaneously forming even more reserved memories that are sure to re-emerge in the future. It’s a constant interplay between the layers of temporality.

This is all a testament, then, to my slippery grasp over the emotional richness of “home.”

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