Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Knowing Home

One of my first memories of home is watching it burn to the ground. Everything after that seemed temporary. Even the big, two and a half storey house that my father built, a place that caught the wind and rocked like a ship when there were storms, its precisely placed windows framing a range of dormant volcanoes and a thin grey ribbon of saltwater—that was always more of a retreat than a home. I can’t remember ever living in it for more than a year at a time.

Alaska was still the Last Frontier and the life of my family reflected that. We moved to wherever my father found work and set up camp in temporary housing. The place on the hill often stood empty, waiting for us, while we made ourselves at home in places we knew we would leave.

My parents had carried the seeds of their immigrant forbears with them when they came to Alaska. Their dream was to make a home in one spot that would house generations; they had claimed enough land for a whole village of their tribe. But while they talked about home, I talked about leaving it.

Everyone carries lessons from their childhood; what I carry with me like a scar is that I can quickly feel at home almost anywhere but home is a word I’ve never learned to understand.

For most of my life, my home has been the body that carries me through the world, blood and bones, muscles and neurons. The romantic fantasies of my adolescence that I pinned to the walls of my room were a narrow, curving Parisian street, the spired domes of Montmartre, and Che Guevara. I stared at these images and wondered where in the world my home might be.

Then in mid-life, I knew I had found it. Bangkok was my place. It puzzled me, infuriated me, delighted me, and engaged me as no other place had before. Its damp heat settled around me like a blanket; its multi-toned language with its sinuous and enigmatic alphabet awoke a primal curiosity I’d left behind in childhood. Here was a place I could live in forever, asking what and why.

So when I was sixty, I packed two suitcases and came home, to a place I knew I’d remain for the rest of my life.

By the time I moved to Bangkok, I believed I knew it rather well. I’d been rigorously schooled in Thai behavior codes, I had a rudimentary, badly pronounced vocabulary, I had a neighborhood I had spent years in during my earlier forays into the city, I’d written a slender little book as a thank you note to the city. I knew I had much more to learn; what I didn’t know was how much I would have to relearn.

I had left Bangkok in 2001; I came back to stay in 2008. The world as we knew it in the past century had tilted viciously in the new millennium; what we were all about to learn was our planet was in the process of turning upside down. Nobody, anywhere, in spite or because of Homeland Security, would know the safety and protection of being home ever again. All over the globe, people were redefining what home is, as opposed to what they had been taught that it was.

Before I unpacked my suitcases, still locked in jetlag, I turned on the television in my hotel room and heard the measured tones of a BBC announcer proclaim that the United States had economically collapsed. At four in the morning, I listened to a panel of Englishmen calmly discuss which nation would be the next leader of the world and I began to hyperventilate. I’d lived in Thailand when the baht fell and the economic repercussions had businessmen leaping from high-rise windows in Tokyo. Switching off the television, I stared into the darkness, feeling molecules whirl about me with no fixed place to rest.

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