I once snapped a photo of a rusted tin house leaning weakly next to my Jakarta traffic jam. I counted at least three different chipped paint jobs, four malnourished cats, one broom without a handle, and ten-to-one odds of tetanus. A sweaty, sobbing toddler wailed out of an opening someone far more optimistic than I would describe as a window. There were two hanging lines of pants and tees in varying sizes, all the same exact shade of brown. It was the sort of brown that didn’t begin brown.
“It’s as bad as being homeless,” my friend shuddered, shaking her air-conditioned head.
We were being chauffered to our kids’ international school for an international fair, which was basically an opportunity for all the moms to show off the best things about our home countries. I was having serious misgivings about the pigs in a blanket on my lap.
I tried not to make eye contact with my driver as I wagged my finger at her. He spoke perfect English and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings about his home country. And even though that screaming little kid would never know what she’d said, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings either.
That was his home, after all.
It’s easy to forget about feelings in a place like Jakarta. Most of us tuck them away after the first week.
I’ve been interviewing for fresh work lately. Every time someone asks me to tell them a little about myself, I always mention how I’ve lived all over the world, moving homes every two years for most of my adult life.
Just so they don’t think I’m bragging, I always throw in the line, “Nowhere cool, like Paris or Rome…” and then casually mention Oman and Jordan, Indonesia and the Philippines.
They laugh comfortably and I look like I’m joining in, but really it’s a tiny test to learn a little about them. What they say next is important. Do they talk about how frightening it must’ve been to live in the Middle East? Do they ask if there are actual stores and neighborhoods in Jakarta or if it’s just…jungle? Do they wonder how I liked the people, emphasizing the people with scare quotes?
And so, my answers. The Middle East wasn’t frightening whatsoever; it was home to some of the best times of my life. I tell the story of going to a Jakarta mall for school supplies, and learning quickly that Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and Hermès did not carry spiral notebooks. Of course, there was Montblanc, but we’re really more of a Bic family. And I really, really, always like the people.
“Are you happy to be home?” they ask.
Of course I’m happy. I’m always happy to be home. Wherever that may be.
We stayed inside our Manila apartment for the entire month of March. Rumor had it that the penthouse tenants were connected to The Palace, so building management locked us all up straight away to protect them as the hospitals around us overflowed with COVID-19 cases. We weren’t really allowed to leave until we left for good in April.
I love that apartment. Walls are windows, every view is an Instagram story waiting to happen, and it even has an elevator whose mirrors pretend I am much cuter than I actually am. I could call the front desk and ask for whatever I needed: food deliveries, water, and anything else that gave me the feeling I was safe. I miss it and all my stuff terribly.
But it’s the height of privilege to live in a place like that during a time like this and not once consider that social distancing and uninterrupted income and home security are luxuries most in Manila can’t afford. It’s selfish to feel comfortable when you know that comfort isn’t shared with everyone.
Do you have those thoughts, too, wherever it is you call home?
My mother-in-law thinks I’m a socialist.
My hairdresser in Jakarta used to tell me wild tales about her brother. I can’t tell you the diciest bits just in case you know him or some of his wives, but one of the stories that stuck was how his house would totally and completely flood every rainy season.
Now, you should know that there are two rainy seasons a year in Jakarta, and each lasts a few months.
“Like…every year, twice a year, he has to start over?” I asked, incredulous, my heart racing at the idea of such scheduled upheavel.
“Every big rain,” she shook her head. “He’s bought so many mattresses…”
I shook my head, too. “Why the heck doesn’t he move?” I could not understand this at all.
“That’s his home.” She looked like she couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand this at all.
We’re temporarily in Northern Virginia, waiting it out in a big townhouse until I-don’t-know-when. We’ve got two couches, four barstools, one television, five beds, three empty rooms, and a peeler I thought was necessary. We had just enough dishware until I broke two bowls.
My husband recently flew back to our apartment in Manila and my two older girls drove away to their university. For a few weeks after they all left, I felt lost. Aimless. I stayed up late and talked to my friends all over the world. I FaceTimed good morning to my husband when I was going to bed, and flipped it when I woke up again. I slept through breakfast EST and PST.
I am less lost now, but I still don’t take this time zone seriously. I remind myself to remember every day how lucky we are, and I am supremely grateful for this temporary home, this soft place to land in a very hardened time.
It’s not remotely as bad as being homeless, but it feels like there are two walls missing and a roof.
We took a bus to some embassy event in Amman one early winter around 2007, and short-cutted through a section of town I’d never seen. At that time, the residents were probably Iraqi refugees. Soon enough, there would be more sections of town filled with Syrians, Yemenis, or Sudanis. Palestinians had been there the longest, of course.
One of the kids was acting up. (My Southern friend would describe his antics as showing out, if that helps you imagine it better.) It was annoying but easy to ignore, until he slapped his dad. We couldn’t help but gasp, and then pretend to look away with rounded rolly eyes. If I knew how to whistle, that would’ve been the perfect time for an aimless tune.
The guy grabbed his kid’s shoulders and faced him toward the window. “Knock it off,” he growled through gritted teeth, “Or else I’m going to tell the bus driver to pull over and drop you here.”
We all looked out the window, and took in the scene while the kid screamed in horror. Clothes drying on lines hooked between windows, concrete and rubble, grafitti in Arabic, and a barrel fire.
I grew up on a farm, and barrel fires were some of the most fun and excitement I ever had. Like, once, my brother handed my mom the gas tank instead of the kerosene and she burned off her eyebrows.
Anyway. The kid kept screaming. It was the kind of cry that sticks to your chords and your guts and your heart. His dad sure must follow through with his threats.
I wondered much later why the guy looked at refugees and tried to instill fear instead of empathy. How could anyone look at the falldown houses they tried desperately to turn into homes, and think of anything but gratitude and grace?
Instead, he went with them and us.
I hate that I keep this moment in my memories, but like I said, cries like that stick.
I think we each have our own definition of home. Writers far more talented than I…me…myself…damn it…have already arranged the perfect words to describe it.
To some, home is a place to hang art, drink steamy tea, and have a blender in a cupboard in case you want to make a smoothie and a peeler in case you buy carrots. To others, it’s White Claws and Rosé with your neighbors in the driveway until the sun dips low enough to remind you of the waiting crockpot and bathtime and one more reading of Good Night, Gorilla.
Home is your morning route, the bathroom renovation, the boots and backpacks by the back door, your Container Store bins and swivels after binging The Home Edit, and how the smoke alarm always pops off when you’re searing filets. It’s the slam of the microwave, the grind of the coffee beans, the hisspered argument about Nordstrom bills, and too many ice cubes at once. It’s the puddle on the floor that surprises your sock until you remember the errant ice cubes. Home is the place you leave and hope to return to even if you don’t know it yet, and every unexpected doorbell ring in between.
I’ve learned that to others, like my old hairdresser’s brother and those displaced refugees and maybe even you, home is a question. Will it rain on us tonight? Will I have one tomorrow? Will I ever get to go back?
A friend in Chicago once told me she envied how I was able to move homes so often.
“So much change all the time! You must always be in the honeymoon phase of life,” she smiled. “How thrilling.”
Thrilling. Adjective. Producing sudden, strong, and deep emotion or excitement. Producing a tremor, as by chilling. Vibrating. Trembling. Quivering.
Yes. It is thrilling, isn’t it.