On home

I felt like I won something the other day when I managed to order iced tea from a coffee shop. You see, I am in Mexico right now and disculpa, mi español no es bueno. Though my grasp of the language has improved somewhat in the past month or so I’ve been here, I still feel nervous more often than not when ordering food or drink. Anything, really, that may involve talking to another human. So after I placed my order — Ponme por favor un venti Mango Dragonfruit —and realized I did not slur nor stutter, nor did the barista ask me to repeat myself, I felt triumphant. I even decided to show off to myself. Puedo pagar con tarjeta? I asked even though I already had card in hand, ready to swipe.

I sat down and took my first sip. I was starting to feel more at home in this new country. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Home, for as long as I can remember, has been an ever-elusive object of my pursuit. I cherish, crave, and ponder upon this unique and unmistakable experience. In general, home envelops with its warmth, like a weighted spiritual blanket. It also comes in many variations. One such version presents itself as a refuge. The world can be such a scary and terrible and uncomfortable place. Home offers protection. I am safe here. Another variant presents itself as a song of peace. I can rest here. This post-Mango-Dragonfruit-sip feeling of home expressed itself most as an anchor of familiarity. I belong here.

I regard home as more than a vital part of the human experience; it is a universal longing. Think of migration. Some creatures travel across the planet to reach home. They do so to breed, for food, to congregate in more livable conditions. Whether in physical movement, or through traverses across mind and heart, humans also migrate, and for similar purposes: to find a mate, for better work, for healing and peace. As we discover more about the emotional and intellectual capacities of other species — what home means to them — the commonality becomes even clearer. Home calls to us all.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly at home, anywhere I’ve been.

I’m still not sure why I say this to her. We are sitting on the porch of the bungalow we are renting for the weekend, watching the golden red sun set over the Pacific. It is my birthday. I am not in Denver or New York or Vancouver, surrounded by friends and family. I am here in Sayulita with someone I met two months ago. We know and don’t know each other. She is new, but for some reason, her presence feels familiar. I wonder at certain moments if someday this person could be home. When we talk about what we will do when our parents are too old to take care of themselves. When we make lists of future date ideas and discuss dreams and where we will live and make fun of each other’s quirks. When we rest in silence without awkwardness. When she claims to make great popcorn. I love popcorn. Maybe this is all empty talk. Maybe we are both too impulsive for our own good. Maybe I am trying to invent a feeling or something or someone that is not there. Maybe her popcorn is not so great. I know that it is early for expectation, to make commitments or promises. Early to know what we want from each other. I enjoy what this is, whatever it is, no matter how long it lasts. I kiss her shoulder. She responds.

I hope I never feel that way. Are you happy?

Yes, very.

I know she doesn’t believe me. I ask myself what it means to be happy while never feeling truly at home anywhere.

Memories of Home, a sampling:

  • My grandma’s 90th birthday celebration
  • Playing ping pong and having dinner with a homeless man I met in a Jersey City park
  • Sunday dinners with my parents and sister and our dog Tobi
  • Recording a three hour podcast with my family in Vancouver
  • Reading a list of inside jokes that Teddy and I came up with while in graduate school
  • La cerveza y la comida con Los Gamborimbos
  • Walking around Central Park
  • Singing in choir as a child
  • Playing basketball with friends
  • Playing the piano and guitar
  • Reading Anne Lamott or Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron
  • Laying in bed with a soulmate
  • Meditating at the park during sunset
  • Dogs saying hello in the different ways that dogs say hello
  • Chats at my godmother’s kitchen counter in Miami
  • Whenever Jermaine sends me memes
  • Reading a hand-written letter given to me the night before I left for Mexico
  • Talking about fried chicken with Pam
  • Dancing with strangers during the reception of a wedding I was photographing
  • Super Smash with Logan, Nick, and Greg
  • Watching a movie with friends and talking about it afterwards
  • Cooking dinner for potluck
  • Those two weeks in Florence
  • Game night at Arwa’s
  • Climbing to the top of a mountain with friends
  • Climbing to the top of a mountain alone

I was born in the Philippines. My mother, a nurse, left for a job in New York City when I was months old. My dad and I didn’t make it to America until I was well into toddler-hood. My first memory — playing in a ball pit in a McDonalds on the Lower East Side, not far from the hospital that mama worked at. I made a friend in that ball pit. I was so excited at the prospect of an American friend that I peed my pants a little. I used some sort of computer game to help me learn English. I’d stand on the computer chair since it helped me see the screen. Sometimes I’d lean over and press my face so that my cheek touched the monitor. At certain angles, I could see my reflection.

I grew up in one of the most diverse cities in the world. I also spent a fair amount of my childhood confused. This is no coincidence. That time I had dinner at the home of my middle school best friend, who is Polish-American. Wait, you’re telling me I don’t have to take my shoes off inside the house? And why are we using a knife and fork instead of a spoon and fork? Where is the rice? I’d get home and think that since my White friends did it, I could keep my shoes on in the house as well. Mama quickly corrected this foolishness.

I didn’t understand why my friends pinched their noses whenever I brought my lunch to school. Gross, they said. Dog food. To me, there was nothing more delicious and comforting than that platter-of-the-gods combo of ulam (the meat part of a dish) — spam, longanisa, bacon, and sometimes vienna sausage — eggs, and rice. While stuffing my face with all the deliciousness, I remember thinking: Ya’ll can stick with your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches if you want. You’re missing out.

I don’t remember his name, just his face. Freckled, pale, the tips of his nose and ears a pinkish red. He called me a chink then a spic then a wetback. One uninterrupted epithet stream. He taught me an early life-lesson in being Filipino-American. Even though I am not Chinese or Mexican (am I Hispanic?), I can be insulted as such. It took a while to understand this because I am blessed with a typical Filipino nose. Dead giveaway of my ethnicity. I did try to use this ambiguity to my advantage. There was a certain fluidity to the way that I could fit in with different groups of people. I could hang out with the White kids and the Black kids and the Latinx kids as easily as I could with the Asian kids and fellow Filipinos. This ability extended beyond race and culture. I liked to read and play video games, piano, and guitar, but also participated in sports. In highschool, I assimilated across the clique spectrum, from the nerds to the musicians to the jocks.

I don’t mean to disparage diversity. Diversity, after all, encourages openness and discourages fear of the other. I also believe that the human experience and the universe are too grand not to explore with openness. But for me, there was a downside to the variety. Even though I took pride in being able to fit in with different groups, it didn’t take much for me to feel like an outsider. A racial insult here, a reference I didn’t understand there. The time I overheard someone saying it would never last because she was Black and I was not. The time this White girl said she thought I was cute but could never take me home to family because I was Filipino. I was welcomed everywhere but didn’t belong anywhere.

I experienced a similar sort of dissonance in the household I was raised in. My parents would speak to each other in Tagalog, to my sister and I mostly in English. I understood Tagalog but couldn’t speak it. Fluently, anyway. There were times my mom would forget this and would talk about me to her friends in Tagalog. I’d sit there and understand every word but feel strange that I’d have to use English to tell them to stop talking about me. My parents speak great English but if only I was more skilled in the native tongue. We would have had an easier time understanding each other. We would have had a better time resolving conflict. Recently, my sister and I have been making more of an effort to speak Tagalog with my parents. I see it as discovering parts of our relationship that previously had been lost in translation.

Who am I? I am not Filipino or American enough. What does it mean to be Filipino or American anyway? It means colonialism, that’s what. And we all know that colonialism left us with, amongst other things like hybrid cuisines and non-endemic disease, cultural confusion and identity-struggle. Where am I from? The Philippines. New York City. I don’t know. Earth. Recently, Denver. Secretly, nowhere. These questions should not be hard to answer, but my upbringing has made it difficult at times.

I wrestle with loneliness and ennui and the fear that I will never feel at home anywhere. At least the way that other people seem to feel about a place, or even themselves. There has been progress, though. What does progress look like? Here is a guide. Don’t follow me.

Think about quitting graduate school and attending seminary instead to become a pastor. Before leaving school, decide to investigate, for the first time in your life, why you believe what you believe. In as objective a manner as possible. Read the Bible back and forth three or four times. Read the holy texts of other religions. Study apologetics, philosophy, science. Talk to pastors, priests, imams, monks, and your learned, uber-intelligent dad. Be in denial for a while that you are losing your childhood faith. Realize that you are no longer Christian and begin the slow, painful process of unraveling yourself from the church you grew up in. Struggle to accept things may never be the same with certain friends and family. Begin the process of rebuilding your worldview, starting with morality. Resign yourself to the fact that this will be a lifelong process and that you will find yourself saying I don’t know much of the time.

Graduate with a Master’s. Work a job that you dislike even though it pays well. Mourn your cousin and good friend, both of whom committed suicide in the same year. Break up with the girlfriend that you should have broken up with years before. Enter a state of deep apathy, loneliness, boredom, and sadness that lasts about a year and a half. (In retrospect, I wish I knew to look for professional help.) Quit your job and start over in another industry. One that has the potential for location independence. Pledge to travel more. Journal and read. Train to be a suicide hotline counselor. Go to a coffee shop and lie down on the floor because a self-development book you are reading tells you to do more things that make you uncomfortable. Discover meditation. Spend a year and a half being single. Feeling jaded, decide that lifelong partnership is no longer something you want to pursue. Find the woman who changes your mind. Fall in love and move across the country with her. Understand that she is your soulmate and you better not mess this up. Move in together.

Start a pasta subscription box company. Adopt a dog. Do more meaningful work, for people you respect. Become a professional photographer on the side. Take a bunch of pictures. Hike some mountains. Do more writing and reading. Wind down the pasta business. Try and fail to consistently meditate. Travel. Alone and with your partner. Argue with your partner. Fight more with your partner. Say things to each other that you regret. Fail to put in the necessary effort to salvage your relationship and use past trauma she caused as an excuse for your apathy. Give up. Wait a year too long to break up because you consider her a soulmate and things can’t possibly end this way. Kiss her and the dog you adopted together goodbye as they move to a new city. Spend a year being single and working hard at a new job you love. Travel more while working because your job is remote. Try online dating. Date way too many people even though no one moves you. Write poetry. Read more fiction. Pledge to be more vulnerable and authentic. Experience existential angst and burnout because of all the personal upheaval of the last year. Move to Mexico spontaneously. Successfully make meditation a habit. Make a decision to adopt a child in a couple of years, whether single or not, even though you have no idea where you’ll live in the coming months, let alone a couple of years.

Spend your birthday at a small, private resort on a beautiful Mexican beach, with someone you really like. During sunset on day one of your beach getaway, mention to her that you’ve never felt truly at home anywhere. On night three of your beach getaway, take advantage of her extremely long showers and steal some time away for yourself. Think about what you said on day one. You have felt at home. Many times. Realize that your life is filled with joy and people that love you. So even though home may be something you never experience as strongly as those who feel more rooted to a physical place, be thankful. Stop comparing because it is self-defeating and dangerous.

Instead, promise to cherish the people you love, and that love you and help you to be vulnerable. They are home. Own your wandering and restless spirit. Remember that you have felt at home in many different places, with many sorts of people, at various times in your life. Home is where you are now, at this moment, for wherever you are now is an opportunity to learn, reflect, grow, to love and be loved.

Also, promise yourself this. Whenever home feels far away, or whenever you struggle to see yourself as you really are, go to where the night sky floats undisturbed and unconcealed by artificial light and cloud. Where it is as it should be seen. Marvel at the illuminated stars, planets, and whole galaxies. Then, close your eyes. Think of all the pieces that comprise your identity, your home. Where you were born and all the places you’ve lived. What you’ve done with your life. Your appearance. Those you love and that love you. Your character and values. Your pain. Your victory. Now imagine each piece as a star or shining planet. It should not be so hard. We are quite literally made of starstuff after all. Arrange these pieces into constellations, whole galaxies even. Your personal sky. Do not over think placement: trust your magical ability to make meaning out of uncertainty. Open your eyes and notice that the sky you see now is not so different than the one of your own making. Both endless expanses of darkness interrupted by heavenly bodies of light. All impossibly bright and twinkling.

Breathe and be at home in the world.