coming home

reflections on change

There’s a feeling that always hits deep inside, somewhere between my heart and my gut, when I know I’m home. And though home has grown to mean much more than I imagined it would a few years ago, that feeling draws me back to the places that are really important. Growing up on a volcanic rock in the middle of sea, I had not only cultural roots, but people I loved, places I couldn’t experience anywhere else, and the kind of upbringing that manifests itself in an island culture like Hawai’i’s. Leaving that, possibly for good, and trying to dig roots into a new kind of soil (that is covered in snow for a good part of the year) made me question why I’d uprooted myself in the first place.

You can always come back home, echoed the lyrics of my favorite Jason Mraz song, playing on repeat as I flew the almost exactly 5,000 miles from my hometown to my soon-to-be college town. I needed to remind myself that Hawai’i’ wasn’t going anywhere; I was. Only 12 hours of flying stood between my two lives. But it wasn’t about the distance—it was about fitting in, familiarity, emotional ties. It was reconciling the discomfort I felt at knowing that I’d never get to experience those first 18 years of my life again. They were only memories, images that would slowly start to slip away from my consciousness as I grew in a new place. I could travel back to my homeland, but not back in time.

Many of the people I met during the first few weeks of being at Brown were excited beyond belief to be at college. While my enthusiasm matched theirs on the outside, the pangs of displacement sank my spirit on the inside.

Orientation is strategically planned to keep freshmen as busy as possible so they don’t have time to think about everything they just left behind. And it seemed like many of my new classmates hadn’t left much behind. They weren’t attached to their high schools; they’d only had to load up their cars and drive a few hours to get to Brown. They were ready to start over.

When I left home, I felt like I had to leave a part of myself back on those islands in the middle of the Pacific—the part of me that could only be understood by others who had grown up in Hawai’i’. I’ve spent a lot of the past few years at Brown, especially those first few months, trying to drag the home of my childhood into this new place. I wanted people to know where I came from, and how much I cared about it. Warm weather, Asian food, environmental causes—I related everything to my upbringing. I regularly Skyped with my friends from home and asked my parents to send me clothes I’d left behind, convinced that I could still wear them during Providence winters (they were layers!) But slowly, I began to learn that I couldn’t be in two places at once. My pride for and emotional attachment to Oahu was important, but I wasn’t standing on the beach looking out at the turquoise-meets-cerulean horizon. I was waddling my way across icy sidewalks to get to class on time, and no amount of wishing or imagining was going to turn that into an island paradise.

Appreciating Providence came to me more easily than people might assume for someone whose dorm room walls were plastered with photos of high school friends and sunsets over the Pacific. I fell into routines I became comfortable with, met people who loved me without judgment and inspired me daily, and learned new things about a school and a city that had so much to offer.

Slowly, I felt my childhood home slipping a little further into the past, but not so far back as to make me forget the food that really only tasted right in the islands, or the way my high school friends and I could laugh about inside jokes with origins we’d forgotten. These memories and people tied to Hawai’i’became things that I would get to go back to on the occasion, not the components of my everyday life. I had a different routine, one that doesn’t sound as good when I try to write it down, but that means stability and familiarity all the same. It was newly satisfying; I was building up a new life with classes I was passionate about, ideas that challenged my beliefs, and people who understood me. Brown was no longer new or the deviation from the norm, but home.

I could see the beauty in Providence, and while it certainly wasn’t anything like a Pacific island, I felt welcome. Half of the time, when I tell people where I’m from, they ask how I could’ve left Hawai’i’ for Providence, give me an incredulous look, and sometimes even ask if they can take my place at home. I usually laugh and give some variation of, “I like the East Coast.” And I do. I love the way fresh snow glitters when light hits it at night, even if I know it will be slush in the morning. There’s comfort in the monotony of the Ratty and the scent of pastries that drifts upstairs from the Blue Room, even if they’re not the Asian-local mix of food I grew up with. I like the colonial homes that line the streets surrounding our campus, the bright oranges and reds of the trees in the fall, the abundance of brick buildings, and even the unreliability of RIPTA.

I remember my parents’ surprise when I first began to call my dorm room “home.” One day, mid-spring semester of freshman year, it slipped into my everyday conversation and stuck. My roommate had already been calling our room home for some time, but I’d always hesitated. Once I didn’t hold back, it felt right and I said it with conviction. Providence would be home for at least three more years. I was less homesick after that, and mostly nostalgic for all of the endings that had led to this new beginning. It wasn’t just dealing with moving away; it was growing up and learning to deal with change that my stubborn heart resisted. But I would remind myself that there were new things to focus on, that being in the present was important because in the near future, I would be looking back on my time at Brown with a bittersweet pang.

Before Brown, I always felt that I would only ever have one home: Hawai’i’. I knew I was going to leave for college, and despite the pulls of the warm climate and family, not return permanently for a long time, if ever. But it never occurred to me that I would find somewhere that meant nearly as much to me as my childhood stomping grounds. But suddenly New Pembroke 4, Perkins, the Brown campus, Providence itself, maybe even New England as a whole, called me back to them when I was away. It didn’t feel wrong, and I wondered if I was finally learning to accept change.

Once I came to terms with having two homes, my life divided between comforts at each end of the country, I was suddenly a second-semester sophomore, having to decide if I wanted to study abroad. It had always been part of the plan: East Coast college, study abroad in Europe. But wasn’t one uprooting in four years enough? I had my favorite corners of the Ratty, I was slowly trying each of the many different muffin flavors at the Blue Room, I talked excitedly about Brown for an hour giving admissions tours to prospective students. The fact that I’d found a home in the people and growing familiarity of Brown didn’t mean I could do it again, particularly in a foreign country.

But I did. Flying halfway around the world to Scotland slowly pulled me away from my comfort zone, stretching the invisible ties to my homes farther than I thought they could handle. The first week there, a repeat of my experience two years prior, was packed with orientation activities that failed to distract me from wanting to be at home. But this time, the first image I conjured up of “home” was Brown. Oahu of course came to mind next—I just wanted to be somewhere where I recognized and was recognized, where I didn’t constantly feel like I had to be on my toes. I had no road maps on how to handle the new situations I was encountering, other than advice from previous study abroad students and any and all information the internet could give me about Scottish quirks.

But soon, I was thinking less about my accent standing out, my lack of appreciation for tea, or my limited knowledge of British culture, and I was falling in love with Edinburgh. The homesickness still lingered, and even in the last week of my semester, I didn’t feel like I had ever belonged in Edinburgh. But I did feel as though I was in the right place, that I’d been meant to spend my semester in the land of haggis and hairy coos. I learned to be comfortable with a less secure home; I’d accepted my time there for what it was—a semester abroad. And in doing so, I let my guard down and began to refer to it as home.

Edinburgh, with its intensely rich sunsets, charmingly medieval stone architecture, and intimidating churches, enchanted me. Perhaps that fascination and novelty of being in a totally unknown place is what drew me to call it home. Coming back after a weekend trip to another city or country had the same calming security that landing in Honolulu or Providence did. I took it to mean that Edinburgh had managed to earn a place in my heart, which I didn’t think had room to accommodate another home.

Change is natural, and if there was going to be a time when I should start to accept it, it was going to be then. I now felt a tug of warmth in three very different areas of the world, and my definition of home had broadened. I was no less attached to Hawai’i’ because of a growing attachment to Providence, and the same applied to Edinburgh. The place in my heart where I held all that was important to me did not have a finite capacity like my Gmail inbox. Finding new places to belong wasn’t about forgetting the old, despite my initial uneasiness that this was true. I would keep living and moving on, collecting memories, and those would have to be good enough.

Now, when I listen to that Jason Mraz song, and look back on my homes, I focus on the line: Your home is inside of you. Yes, defining home is about the places, but it’s the people, the memories, and the gut feeling that reinforce the ties. Instead of feeling like I’m in limbo every time I fly between homes, I try to remind myself of the privilege I have of belonging in multiple places. Finding home is a process, just like everything else. When I flew back to Providence to start this semester, it was more surreal than it had ever been. As the plane made its characteristic turn over the waters of Narragansett Bay and Providence River, I gazed out the window across the aisle. I glimpsed downtown Providence in the distance and the nervousness in my gut turned into a spreading warmth that helped counteract the cold plane air. Eight months of being away, and it felt like I was coming home, just as it had a month earlier as my flight descended through darkness into the bright lights of Honolulu. I was apprehensive about all that I’d missed, wondering if it would make Brown feel like less of a home. But having to find my place again amongst everything and everyone that was familiar before only makes me cling to Brown more. The people may have shifted and I may have changed as well, but I will always have the memories and the chance to make even more in the places I call home.