Home is not necessarily where you’re from, where you’ve spent the most time, or where you happen to be living at that moment.
As the plane began to descend, I turned off my iPod, stuffed it into my bulging purple bag, and looked out the window at the gleaming city of lights outside. It was our first visit to Hong Kong, to Asia, and to what would become my home for the next 5 years.
After claiming our luggage and taking a long train ride into the city, my parents and I boarded a taxi that would bring us to our hotel. My heart fluttered as I boarded the bright red vehicle and we began our adventure. Around me was a city that at first sight appeared to be taken out of a futuristic movie, with tall, illuminated skyscrapers and Chinese characters in the place of words; I’d never seen anything like it. Our hotel was immense and luxurious, and I felt as though my life was a movie, taking me to these wonderful places that were only present in my dreams. Yet the feeling of novelty and awe soon faded, and the creeping feeling of displacement was unbearable, while the culture shock was slowly eating away at me. Though I tried to convince myself that I was happy, all I wanted to do was return home.
A few weeks later I started school. Asked to write an essay about where my home was, I sat at my laptop without a moment of hesitation and immediately began to pour my heart out. The day I placed the final draft of that essay on my teacher’s desk, I found in my hand a paper entitled “Homeless.” That was it, my answer to their question—I didn’t have a home. My family’s roots were in Venezuela, the majority of my life had been spent in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, and now I lived in Hong Kong. I didn’t feel like I fully belonged to any of them. I was always a foreigner. In that moment, I truly believed that this feeling would never change.
Today, as I fast-forward through the memories of my life in the Asian metropolis, I can’t imagine how I ever turned in that essay. Despite having left the city two years ago, I still consider my friends from Hong Kong some of my closest. Our reunions take place all around the world, wherever we can find each other—just a small effort to reunite with some of the people that understand us the most.
Sitting in the living room of my parents’ new home in Jakarta, Indonesia, I think of the days spent hiking through Hong Kong’s luscious green mountains to get that perfect view of the skyline (and bumping into weirdly fit elderly Chinese men doing tai chi). I think of the weekends spent dressing up for the yearly Rugby 7’s tournament, Hong Kong’s hybrid version of Halloween and the Superbowl. I think of strolling through the city’s incredible markets and eating at the hole-in-the-wall restaurants hidden in its corners. I think of giving out red “lai see” packets with money in them for Chinese New Year.
Then there are the unforgettable high school nights sipping wine at hookah bars before trying—and often failing—to pass with our fake ID’s for Lan Kwai Fong’s most exclusive clubs. Oh, the satisfaction we felt after we turned 18 and didn’t need them anymore. And who could forget the nights spent dancing on the bar at Carnegies in Wanchai (Hong Kong’s red light district). I think of the safety in taking a cab at 4 am alone, a luxury unheard of in most cities. And I think of the pride I feel when I’m showing my family and friends around—when I know the best places to eat and which impeccably clean bus or MTR line will get you there.
And all of these things make me think about what a “home” truly means. It’s not necessarily where you’re from, where you’ve spent the most time, or where you happen to be living at that moment. Home is where your memories can’t be contained, a place that you start talking about and find that you can’t stop. It’s a place where, when your plane lands, you can’t help but feel butterflies in your stomach like you did on Christmas Eve as a little kid. And yet the best moments are those when I hear a bleep from my Facebook page, a message from one of my best friends from Hong Kong: “When are you coming home this summer?” I feel a familiar warmth, a feeling of acceptance and belonging. And I smile to myself because I realize, with relief, that I’ve finally found it.