Ghost in a skeleton city

Lindsay Mug

I’ve never liked Hallmark cliches, especially the ones that had to do with home. Take, for example, “Home is where the heart is,” “there’s no place like home.”

But over the weekend, my parents came to visit for the first time in a while. And though I’d never given those platitudes much thought, after my parents left, I took these old sayings down from their place in the back of my mind, brushed off the dust and took some time to ruminate.

My parents came crammed in our dusty car, packed tight with clothes, books, furniture, spices, neatly wrapped homemade meals and coffee beans I had specifically requested  — items they had chosen thinking of me. We spent our day together wandering across the city, visiting each of my local haunts. At every stop, I tried to summon to life the stories behind the places — the things I would do, the people I would come with — and found myself falling short each time, always grasping at some impossible task, a description that would perfectly present my college life.

When they left the next morning on a seven-hour road trip back to Southern California, I went back to my apartment and looked at the things they gave me — all the bits and pieces of my childhood they could fit into the car — and took in the familiarity of it all.

Alone and homesick for my parents, it felt like these objects held in them some sort of knowledge of the part of my life I’d truly shared with my family, in much the same way a body preserves a knowledge of home. The things that feel like home are so full of memory, I want to believe that the meaning I impose on them can exist separately from me, that I can leave a ghost of myself in the objects I love. The physical things that make me feel at home, I want to think that my presence becomes part of them, too, so that they transform, as changed by me as I am by them. Home is more than where the heart is. It’s a resting ground, an extension of the self.

But since moving away from my parents, I’ve started to notice that my sense of home is migrating, and the physical objects that frame my life are shifting, too. While “home” has remained with the same people, it’s moved residency away from SoCal to Berkeley, in the corridors of Wheeler Hall, on a bench overlooking Strawberry Creek, along the sidewalks of Shattuck Avenue — all the nooks and crannies where I’ve begun to build a life.

So, while I never thought that Berkeley would become a home, it has. Before coming to Berkeley, I had naively thought that life here would be like high school — that I’d just go to class and retreat. I thought my education and my personal life would be separate, but I was wrong. Even when you’re not on campus, you’re surrounded by campus life, and after a while, it all starts to blur together: Time in class and time alone start to consolidate into one sort of organic system that’s just life in Berkeley.

Unlike the nostalgic sense of home my parents bring, Berkeley is a home distinct from the memory of a life I had shared with my family. During childhood, every moment was a shared experience, and my parents were the framework I built my life around. But here in Berkeley, I mold my life around the city and campus — a skeleton my actions work to enflesh.

Running up the steps from the East Asian Library to North Gate, collecting leaves in the Eucalyptus Grove, feeling the familiar grain of the wooden desks in Wheeler — these are the small, everyday events that fill my days. This is what it means to call a school home: to hold the memory of it in me and to hope that these places will become infused with my presence so that when I come back to them, I’ll feel the same tug of memory as I do when I step into my bedroom in my parents’ house.

And when my parents visit, I can’t show them my life, and we can’t share it the same way we had before. But I can show them Berkeley and the tangible things that structure my days. I can show them the spaces that I’ve filled with my presence, take them to the office where I write the articles they read religiously online, walk with them along the routes I take to class and to the restaurants where I like to eat. I can show them physical objects that hold in them a memory of me and make Berkeley my home.

Contact Lindsay Choi at lch[email protected].

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