I’m usually a lot more prepared for these things. Ever since I’ve begun living away from home, I would buy flight tickets well in advance for Chinese New Year so I don’t get suckered into paying three times more than I should. But this year, it has slipped my mind completely, and by the time I planned my trip back everything was either sold out or way overpriced.
Consoling myself that I now own a hybrid car to (hypothetically) reduce carbon emissions, it made a lot of sense to decide on the next sensible thing to do: drive 348km back to Penang.
Armed with the two most important things for a millennial – a cup of coffee and an endless (somewhat melancholic) Spotify playlist, it was just me and some of my deepest, most personal thoughts.
Here we go.
348km to go
“Hold on, to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home”
(Home, Philip Philips)
I chuckled a little as I heard this song come on. There couldn’t be a more apt song to begin a road trip home. I wondered a little bit more about how unprepared I was for what was supposed to be the biggest holiday of the year. Few days ago, I stood in the middle of the rushing crowd in a mall like a deer caught in headlights – surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of people and their bags of shopping.
It was then it hit me – I wasn’t home last year for Chinese New Year, and I didn’t miss any of the commotion that came along with it.
I didn’t miss dragging my feet to malls and join the modern-day hunting season for good bargains.
I didn’t miss the traffic. And crowds.
I didn’t miss the endless “Why don’t you have a boyfriend yet?” or “When will you ever put on a dress?” or “Why is your hair always short?” or “Have you bought a house yet?” from people I see less than three times a year (or from anyone at all). And the shoulda-coulda-woulda’s that came with them (and probably the flak that I’m going to get from those who read this post).
And mostly, I didn’t miss feeling alone in the midst of a crowd, be it amongst family, friends or mere strangers – wondering if there’s more to the festive season than just bright outfits, sweetened drinks, obligatory gatherings, superficial talk, and the obscenely hot weather.
“Is Penang still home?” someone asked me the other day.
It was a straightforward question that caught me off-guard.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
And then I caught myself repeating, “I genuinely don’t know.”
273km to go
“I’m open, you’re closed
Where I follow, you’ll go
I worry I won’t see your face
Light up again”
(Collide, Howie Day)
I thought about my loved ones. Those of the past, the present, some possibly making their way into my future.
I miss them, appreciate them, and anticipate them all the same.
One of my mentors, Nic, loved to use the phrase, “People cross paths for a reason.”
It’s a cliché line, but it can’t be any truer. People who come into our lives are some form of teachers – they’ve taught me to read, write, be a tad more grateful, be a little braver, forgive a little quicker and love a little bit more. Some remind me of my shortcomings so I can work on being better.
Some of them appear to help us in our transits – temporary, meaningful, and sometimes painful. They’re often the hardest to say goodbye to because we never had enough time to come around to realise how much they mean to us until one of us has to go.
And then there are some that reach in deeper than we could have imagined. We’ve seen each other at our best, and our worst – like the overlooked constants in an equation filled with all kinds of variables – sometimes ignored or struck out, but remains the very piece of the puzzle that makes perfect sense in the most complicated string of numbers.
Those that catch us off-guard, making us second guess if they’ve been there all along, silently waiting for us to turn around with renewed wonderment in our eyes, followed by a tinge of hope that maybe, just maybe, it’ll all be okay – those are the best kinds to keep.
Because they were made to stay, and go, with us.
I wondered if I’ve ever been – or ever will be – one of them.
190km to go
“I’m finding peace don’t come
To everyone I know,
So I will love in this life
Until I finally have to go.”
(Growing Up, Run River North)
Despite the reluctance I did manage to buy myself a couple of new tops, a pair of shorts, and a new pair of sneakers. We have a long overdue family photo-shoot on the eve of Chinese New Year, and there was a string of discussion in the cousin chat group on what to wear – formal or casual, coloured theme or not, etc. Needless to say, like every memo I’ve missed on etiquette and formalities, I bought a light red top that probably won’t quite fit the blue-ish theme, and my white sneakers would probably stand out a bit more.
But I suppose if we were to have a family photoshoot, I might as well keep it real – I’ve never really fit in from the get-go anyway. The only difference now is that I am now comfortable enough in my own skin to show others that I’m actually really quite alright with that.
I think in our endless pursuit of identity, we’re lucky enough to be able to find ourselves, and even luckier if we ever learn to be okay with it.
Some take years to get from one stage to the other, some never. Contrary to popular belief, one is no less brave than the other – it takes equal courage to embrace your own identity, as well as to deny it.
Some are capable to love others, but incapable of self-love, and vice versa. Some can do both, and some, neither. But I like to believe that, like energy, there is a great balance that often goes unnoticed. To those whose hearts are like reservoirs overflowing with selflessness and love, they are meant to out-pour and fill others who are incapable of sustaining their own. Or to teach others to pass it on.
Just like one of my late-uncle’s favourite songs, sometimes “it only takes a spark”.
I’m grateful for all the little ‘sparks’ in my life that has taught and allowed me to light a tiny flame in this tiny, flawed heart.
86km to go
“Now I’ll be bold
As well as strong
And use my head alongside my heart
So take my flesh
And fix my eyes
tethered mind free from the lies”
(I Will Wait for You, Mumford & Sons)
Man, I’m tired. That notion just hit me as the sun continued to shine in all its blazing glory. My iced latte was long gone and I made another stop for a can of instant coffee. Driving in this heat is no fun. So I put a reminder on my phone to buy flight tickets for next year – three whole months in advance. And then I made another reminder to (possibly) scout for more tickets for another trip, also (possibly) three whole months in advance – while I was sitting in the idle car at the rest stop.
The heat makes one do crazy things.
So where is home? For the past couple of months I had put in blood, sweat and quite a bit of money in repairing my late-uncle’s spare apartment. When I first came back to Malaysia, my aunt has kindly offered the place to me for as long as I needed it for – I just needed to put in some good work to revamp it. Until then, I had never painted an entire house before, let alone climb the highest rung of the ladder to scrape off old leaking stains, paint ceilings, patching holes (and making some and patching more), and furnishing a place from scratch. I would leave work around five or six, and made my way to the apartment to carry on with the work. By the time I got home, I would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Just like everything, little by little, things eventually came together. The empty house was beginning to look like a home. A couple weeks in, I hosted my first dinner and being back in the kitchen felt great. The smallest task such as mincing garlic brought me back to when I learned to actually cook proper back in London. Simple meals that brought joy to tummies that belong to strangers that eventually became family.
Just three nights ago, some of them gathered at my new place – bringing back the old, familiar feeling. We may have left where we started, but I’m sure glad we weren’t misplaced.
Perhaps home is where I don’t always have to feel like I’m outside looking in.
Perhaps home is where I can be fully present because it’s simply where I belong.
5km to go
“Hope that you spend your days
But they all add up
And when that sun goes down
Hope you raise your cup”
(I Lived, One Republic)
I sang my heart out to this one – one of the perks of driving alone. This isn’t as morbid as it sounds but I tell my friends that this must be on the playlist of my funeral. I would be on my way to a different kind of home and damn I would like a great soundtrack to go with it.
Krista recently wrote about the discomfort yet very rewarding experience on living life on the edge – constantly challenging ourselves to be a little better each day, to anticipate and embrace change, not fight it. I told her I would rather choose to stand at the edge with self-driven folks (like her), over mulling in the center of meaningless comfort any day.
29 years isn’t much to talk about – I don’t actually have a long list of things to-do before a certain age because life has taught me that the end is always just as near as the beginning. But I try to do what I am able to as soon as I possibly can. Or as much as Courage allows me to. Sometimes, Courage grows along the way and meets us halfway.
When the prodigal son returns home.
And chooses to stay.
When we find it in ourselves to forgive.
And maybe, even forget.
When we stand up for what is right.
And take a step back when we’re wrong.
When we pick ourselves up again each time we fall.
And strive to stand a little longer, a little stronger.
When we share our truest selves.
And allow others to do the same.
When we choose love over hurt.
And over fear. Again and again.
I’d like that homecoming to be a celebration of life, and not for the lack of it.
“I wish I had a house up in the mountains
That looks out on the Smokies’ hazy green
Because when I lose my blurred out faith to all this doubting
I think about the views we’ve seen”
(Times We Had in Tennessee, Canyon City)
“Gugu! Gugu is here!!!” A familiar excited voice called out as Zachary ran towards me upon my arrival. The tiredness from the long drive melted away as soon as he enveloped himself around me. This boy has my heart from the first day I laid eyes upon him, and sometimes I wonder if he knows the magic that he has brought into the family. Into my life.
Each time I come home, the house looks a little smaller. Or maybe it’s because there are more of us now. My old bedroom that was once a sacred space to the teenage version of me is now a playroom for my nephews and the occasional nap pod for everyone else. I don’t sit in there to write like I used to anymore. Instead, I sit at the dining table now, where I can observe everyone quietly as I type away. Maybe I’m now a little older and I’ve learned how to create my own space wherever I go. Or maybe I just don’t want to miss out on the little things that sometimes incidentally become my muse.
Such as now – where I’m writing and chuckling at the same time as I listen to my nephew describe the relationship between the two rubber duckies in the bathroom. His younger brother, on the other hand, is busy removing the plastic wrapper from every mandarin orange he sees and we all forgive him the moment he flashes that cute cheeky smile. We may have to explain why the oranges we give out this year are a little more bruised.
And just a foot away from my laptop, is a bowl of “jiu hoo char” (stir-fried jicama with dried cuttlefish) next to a bottle of “pai tee” cups, a personal favourite that always reminds me of my roots, childhood and upbringing. Also helps that it’s absolutely delish.
So, is Penang still home?
I still don’t know. Will I be able to give up the little island that has a bit of everything under the sun – good food, beaches, cities, heritage and streets that holds stories that shape who I am today? Maybe. We are bound to find new places and make new stories and memories, anyway. Humans are fickle like that.
But as I look around me and think of the old, young, big and tiny people in my life that I would fiercely love and protect despite our differences, maybe there’s another kind of homecoming that we seldom talk about, but very much prevalent in our lives.
The one where we sometimes wonder how is it possible that we’re related, when we question ourselves for choosing them even when it’s hard, when we forgive each other countless of times, when agreeing and disagreeing with one another is second nature, and whether we like it or not, we would leave everything behind because they will always come first.
It’s not about the distance or the location that makes a home – but the people on the receiving end that await your arrival simply because, in their strange and funny ways – love you for who you are and your strange and funny ways too.
And for now, I’m grateful and glad that wherever I am, home in its various forms – Penang, KL, London, and the random places, faces and transitions – is never too far away.
Strange and funny, as it is.
But I really should buy my tickets home a lot earlier next time.