The designer of my website chose a graphic of birds that seems perennially right — never more so than in summer when our family goes on leave. We “migrate” from our apartment in Thailand to my in-laws’ place in Japan, to my parents’ house in America, then back again.
This is “vacation,” but we are visiting not tourist havens but relatives’ homes. A Japanese author we met in June observed that wherever we go, we are doing sato gaeri: going back home.
To a degree she is right: When in Japan we were thrilled to see early-summer hydrangeas again, to crawl into familiar futon at night and sink our teeth into homemade rice balls, resuming parts of our lives spent in Japan: my husband’s later childhood and my post-university years. I homestayed with his parents then, descending a long stairway behind their building to a bamboo grove and bus and train and school, then returning. Now our older daughter has memorized the bus route and loves to press the “stop” button before getting off. She plays on the playground behind the building with children we know to look for on each visit. This year they picked clover flowers, played on swings, and enjoyed the Japanese version of hide-and-seek: Mo ii kai? (Ready for me to seek?) Mo ii yo! (Yes, come find me!)
When we shifted to Kansas in July, the “comforts of home” became the cicada sounds of my own childhood; sunflowers and the shimmery leaves of cottonwoods; a family collection of books and toys loved by three generations. In the nearby park the preschooler again swings, again picks clover flowers, and plays the English version of hide and seek: “Ready or not, here I come!” She has enjoyed the neighbors’ wading pool, graduated to a booster seat in the car, and showed off the “Momotaro-san” hand-clap she learned from Ojiichan, her Japanese grandpa, while trying Grandma’s “One potato, two potato, three potato, four.”
In both places, the one-year-old has practiced scooting up and down steps, standing-and-maybe-stepping-but-not-walking, playing peek-a-boo with closet doors, with a bib in my old high chair, and self-feeding with everything from nori seaweed squares to Cheerios. She has perfected her “p/ba, p/ba, p/ba” sound, perfect for Baba/Obaachan, her Japanese grandma, and here for Grand-pa, pa, pa. Of all of us she is the most at home anywhere, never asking about the next stop.
Our sato gaeri, or going home, has not exactly meant blending back into familiar places. In Japan I have had many moments of feeling “of” the place — as when on a bullet train I knew more about stations in Nagoya than Japanese tourists did — but then there are the new digital TV channels I don’t understand, cards to swipe rather than tickets to insert in bus and train machines, new public spaces and political conversations.
Similarly in Kansas, I know the landscape and the sound of my parents’ garage door and the actors on Sesame Street, but Maria and Luis have aged. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is only broadcast on weekends. There’s a streetlight near my parents’ house where there used to be a four-way stop; gas and postage cost more; every store asks for a membership card. Cashiers wait ages for me to swipe my own credit card rather than hand it to them for scanning, as I did years ago and still would in Asia.
My time in Thailand has changed me along with this place. I know our baby’s weight and diaper size in kilograms, not pounds, and expect to order a “short” latte at Starbucks (you can get one in the U.S., but it is not on the menu). I mistakenly switch on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal in the car and look the wrong way when I back up. I feel funny speaking only English and not Japanese or Thai, and miss the neighborhood of friends — Kenyan, Korean, Thai, American, British — that we left in Bangkok.
As I work out how to be in places that are and are not home, my relatives have had to work out how to host people who are and are not part of the household — a family with young children that lives away all year and then comes for an extended stay. Who cooks in this situation? Who shops? Who treats at restaurants? Who goes to a crying baby in the night and wakes early with the preschooler? How much doting is OK, when “spoiling” the kids would work for a few days but not for weeks?
This experience of going home is a far cry from my own childhood, when my parents, siblings and I lived close to our relatives and saw them regularly for short visits. We had no need of passports to visit our blood relations. We did not feel like strangers in relatives’ towns or experience shifts from nuclear family to multigenerational; we did not become “frequent flyers,” migrating once or twice a year inside metal birds.
Soon my family will finish this summer’s sato gaeri and return to glimpsing home places via video chat — another practice I could not have imagined years ago. Skype has its perplexing points: we see our loved ones but cannot hug them, cannot invite them in for snacks or Old Maid or feel the air where they are, see the slant of the sun.
We know that home is where the heart is, and a heart can hold a whole world. The video chats will remind us that, while going home has grown complicated, we make the trip because there is no substitute for sato gaeri, no matter how far we may have flung ourselves.