The words home and away are clearly defined in sports. They remind me of the football and basketball scoreboards I watched in high school, usually from the pep band seats. Touchdown for the rival—a 6 appears under Away (or Visitor). Layup, foul, and free throws by a local star—the Home score climbs by 4.
Teams wore different uniforms depending on whether they were the hosts or the guests. Their supporters sat in distinct sections. There was no place of in-between: just home or away.
I noticed how strange that duality has become to me when on summer leave to Kansas this month. We migrated earlier than usual this year, arriving the first week of June for my brother’s wedding. Seven years younger than me, this sibling was in grade school when I left for college, but he somehow grew into a strapping groom who co-coordinated string, brass, pipe organ, and jazz music for the ceremony and a cover band for the reception. He and my lithe sister-in-law wowed us with their cha-cha.
Our trip to their event bore marks of a homecoming, especially for me. I drank in the long-missed sight of ripe wheat, caught up with relatives, and talked with the pastor who married my husband and me and baptized one daughter. We all joined in a flash mob at the rehearsal dinner, busting moves from a workout video embedded in family lore. I introduced our girls to my grandmother’s cousin and her husband, at whose ceremony Mom was flower girl in 1958.
And yet this trip home had a lot of “away” in it. In the grip of jet lag, the girls and I woke at three in the mornings. Mom and Dad had come from a posting in Australia so were also adjusting. My husband flew in at the last minute and fought fatigue throughout the ceremony. None of our body clocks ever really set to Central time.
Adding to the exhaustion were demands of life elsewhere. I tapped at a laptop at weird hours, arranging charity donations in Thailand and supporting a translator at a conference in Singapore. I needed to confirm speakers for an event in Japan and arrange my visa for a month of education classes in Vietnam. And shop. One night found me putting the girls to bed, rushing out to purchase a year’s supply of raisins, and then e-chatting with a travel agent in Da Nang.
Our two daughters made the most of the visit. They served as flower girls. Watched their first-ever marble-sized hailstorm with awe. They played with toys of my sister’s and mine—old-school Little People, My Little Ponies, Annie figurines—and rode in a wagon that has carried three generations.
But when the girls played store, they priced their items in baht. For my part, I confused the turn signal and windshield wipers in the car due to always right-steering. When I saw a cartoon with bananas growing dispersed on a tree like apples, I stared. Huh? Coming from Southeast Asia, it was like watching a cartoon of wheat growing underground.
We had to cut our stay in Kansas short this year, due to my parents’ assignment overseas and my classes. Days after the wedding, we were all stripping beds at my parents’ house, putting away Little People, and lamenting that we had not ridden bikes that Mom and Dad took out for the visit. Energy flagged and emotions flared as we packed for long-haul flights, did more errands, and processed the separation: I would go to Vietnam, my husband and daughters would visit Japan, and my parents would return to Australia. My sister and her husband had flown to the northeastern U.S., where they live and work, and the newlyweds had jetted off to a honeymoon in Jamaica.
Is a house that every occupant has left still a home?
I tried not to dwell on this thought as I unplugged my childhood clock radio and picked hair out of the shower. Of course we go away—in my case, to the land of baht and bananas. To the girls, that land is home.
Then again, home is so much more than a place. No matter where we travel, home goes with us. Home, as family: blood bonds and vows. Home as community: for us, far-flung companions who share our multicultural expatriate journey.
In a 24-hour caffeinated blur, I flew back to Tokyo with my husband and daughters, said goodbye-for-now at Narita airport, and continued on to Bangkok. There I repacked and ate a last meal with a British friend moving to Shanghai. Then, two days later, I was in Ho Chi Minh City, a place I have never been that soon felt familiar. I went to class with a Trinidadian American who taught in Egypt and New Delhi, a Dutchman married to a Polish American who lives in Qatar. Over bowls of pho, we quickly identified common acquaintances and experiences. My heart settled down.
Later that day, I did the exercise video from the rehearsal dinner while looking out at the Saigon River. I learned via Skype that my dad was doing the same workout in Victoria. Meanwhile, my husband and the girls, in Kamakura, had observed hand threshing of wheat.
It all reminds me, like the World Cup matches in Brazil, that home and away are fluid (Belgium faced Algeria in Belo Horizonte, technically home to neither, as I wrote this). Home can be dear and real, and yet also ever-changing.
I look out again and watch the river pass, a football field away, bearing container ships and water hyacinths. I wonder if I can show the girls on Skype today how it moves, even as it stays.