Up until two years ago, I had grown up in Asia living in Singapore and Japan. My entire life I was surrounded by different cultures and religions, eating some of Asia’s finest foods, and being exposed to the wealthiest and poorest parts of the world. I was born into the culture of travelling, so naturally, as I started to learn and expose myself to other people’s homes, I started to wonder where my place in this world was. I was certain that because my parents and my passport were both from the States, then I had to be too. Looking back, this conviction was to answer a question that I was both nowhere near to ready to delve into, and it was the easy way out of a question that I would grapple with for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. that I realized how disconnected I felt from the place that was supposed to be my home, America, and how much I missed Asia. My first year in the States, I was mentally torn apart from both pushing aside this question that was slowly breaking me down and trying to find my place in a new school. During this time I felt like even though I fit in everywhere, I belonged nowhere. Being so conflicted by my identity, I started to lose any and all of my confidence. By the end of the year, I came to the conclusion that one particular place doesn’t need to be your home. I was certain that all of Asia was my home. One of the many reasons why I came on this trip was to see for myself whether I still felt as connected to Asia in person as I told myself I was halfway across the world. I wanted to see for myself whether once again I was giving an answer to fill a piece of unknown within me.
For the past month I’ve travelled along the China portion of the Silk Road and once again exposed myself to the same things I had experienced growing up overseas. Except these same familar elements that have always made me feel at home weren’t enough. After my first week in China, I was sure that I was wrong, that for the rest of my life I would never feel like I belonged anywhere. I was scared. I completely let go of any hope that Asia or China could be my home. I thought that because Asia wasn’t my home, that I belonged nowhere. Once I started to let go of this thought, for the first time since the beginning of the trip, I was present. I realized I was so consumed by the idea that I needed a place to be my home, so desperate to feel like I belong, that I was living in a bubble. I had put so much pressure on myself to get the outcome I wanted out of the trip that I was putting up walls that were preventing me from getting anything out of the trip at all. The day I let go of that thought was the day my trip started, and not too long after I started to have connections with locals that otherwise I would’ve never had. There were three moments in particular that struck me:
1) My “Chinese Father”
As I got on board of the sleeper train that I would spend the next 8 hours on to Tian Xue, I came upon six Chinese men and one women all huddled around a suitcase, sitting on my bed, eating chicken from a bag, in the middle of an extremely aggressive game of cards. As soon as I stood in front of them, the game went silent. We looked at each other in confusion for a really awkward minute before one man stuck the bag of chicken in my face and another man made room for me on my bed. So I did the only thing I could’ve done in this situation: I jumped onto the bed, took a big bite of the chicken that slid down my throat like soap, and told them through my broken Chinese that the blonde girl is playing next round. Of course, I had no idea how to play this game, but we all laughed as I angrily threw down random cards acting like I knew exactly what I was doing. The woman gave me about a dozen of greasy kisses on my cheek and fed me a continous stream of peaches and dried apricots. She told me that my mother and she are the same, and I would never say no to a peach from my own mother, which I couldn’t really disagree with. As I stuffed my face with peaches, almost peed my pants laughing every five minutes, and got in heated debates about whether Yao Ming was better than Michael Jordan, I started to realize their completely unwarranted generosity and kindness. By the end of the train ride, one man in particular told me that I was now his third daughter, that if I ever came back to China I had to call him. He took my hand and told me that we were family now, so by default he was my Chinese father. Never before in America had complete strangers that I would never see again show me so much love and kindness. The unbreakable family ties throughout China are clear and to me; it is my favorite aspect of China’s culture. The idea in China that you should treat everyone like your own family was never proven to me until today, and since then I’ve seen it every place we’ve gone in China. These people never second guessed me. Instead they showed me all the curiosity and love they could give. As our train arrived, I gave each of them a hug and clasped their hands in mine to show them how grateful I was.
As our Sakor homestay came to an end, I gave one of my baby cousins, Jo Ma, a tube of bubbles. At first she would stick the bubble wand in her mouth and squish her whole face together from the bitter taste, but finally she got the hang of it. With my two cousins huddled around her, Jo Ma blew bubbles for close to 45 minutes – laughing so hard it sounded like bouncy balls were errupting out of her and she stomped her feet the entire time. When dinner was ready and our sister took away the bubbles, I had expected Jo Ma to cry, but instead she walked right into the kitchen and got ready for dinner. I was shocked at how detached she was from materialistic items and realized how much power I give them. I have often overlooked the power of simple living until now. This family savors every aspect of their lives. They appreciate the things we don’t even notice. I realized that without materialistic things that come and go out of peoples lives, it creates a life of consistent happiness. Their happiness costs nothing and its all because of the power of detachment.
3) The Carpet Man
It was our last day in Kashgar and I was exploring the city by myself. For the past week and a half we had learned about the oppression by the government in Xinjiang, (go read Mel’s Yak about it!) and it was hard to walk through the streets of Kashgar with this knowledge. On my walk I found dozens of carpets sunbathing on the street and hanging from the balcony. I walked over. As I knelt down beside the carpets, the store owner came by and invited me inside for tea. He brought me to a room with stacks of carpets all the way up to the ceiling, and we sat down in the middle. We talked for close to an hour about who I was and my reasons for coming on this trip. Just as I was about to say goodbye to him, he started to tell me how unhappy he was. He told me his family lived far away and he only gets to see them sometimes, that there are times in his life when he feels no love or happiness, that he hopes it will get better but he knows it never will. I sat with him for a very long time holding his hand as his eyes welled up with tears. I asked him why he chose to sell carpets and through broken Chinese and lots of hand motions he replied, “A carpet is just a million tiny threads weaved together into something beautiful… I hope one day China will come together. I think it could be beautiful.” I left his store with tears in my eyes, and I am grateful for this: his open, vulnerable discussion of his injustices, pain, and inability to ever escape it. Walking through this city knowing his truth and that there is nothing I can do to fix it, it gives me a will to share his story and do everything I can to make sure this never happens again.
None of these experiences had anything to do with the piece of Earth we were on but rather the people that were on it. I do not think that I will ever feel like I have one designated home, maybe I’ll feel more connected to one place rather than another, and I’ll always be drawn to Asia. Still, I think for the rest of my life I won’t have a home. I’ve tried to tell myself that “the whole world is my home,” or that Asia is my home because I wanted to be grounded and thought that a question as simple as this should be answered. I think now I care more about the people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made in the places I’ve gone rather than what specific place I’m in. I’m sure as I get older my answer to this question will develop and change a million times, but for right now, I like being detached. So, the people I love and care deeply about, the people full of compassion and happiness, the people who make me laugh till I pee my pants and offer me chicken from a bag, the people who open their hearts to me and let me open mine to them, these people are all I need to feel like I belong in this world. These people are my home.
*below are some images of little Jo Ma and my Chinese Father… I have chosen not to include a picture of my carpet man for reasons regarding his safety.