A stranger in my own home

Sense of home blurs as students move forward

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This winter break, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks with my family in our new home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My parents had officially moved out of Hong Kong this past summer, so it was my first time in Vietnam. Everything felt completely foreign as I walked into my Vietnam apartment.

I was introduced to a living room surrounded by glass windows that look out to the bay. The apartment was too spacious and bright compared to the cramped, dim Hong Kong image that typically comes to my mind when I think of “home.”

The giant furniture pieces that once used to be squished into our apartment seemed to have regained its delicacies, as if they had finally found where they belong. I felt that inspiring foreignness that I usually feel when I walk into an art museum.

All of my things were stored away in boxes, and there were a few unfamiliar little things that had been added to my mom’s collection of decorations: a pretty set of tableware that I’d never seen before, a coffee maker (since when did my mom drink coffee regularly?), some fancy sofas that would never have fit in our old home and lovely new bedsheets to give some extra comfort for my aging parents.

I very quickly noticed I was a stranger, a visitor in my own home, walking in with a suitcase full of clothes only to borrow bedsheets, closet spaces and toiletries. The apartment almost seemed as if it were rejecting me, reminding me early on that my stay would only be temporary.

Then I realized this is how life would be for the foreseeable future. How likely am I to go live and work in Ho Chi Minh City after I graduate from college?

I mean, I don’t even speak Vietnamese. In fact, considering that my parents will most likely spend a long time there, it’s unrealistic to think that I will be living with them anytime soon.

Nothing about that is too much of a surprise, I guess. When most people get to college, they start to think about leaving their parents’ nests to find their own lives. This is when they actively make their own decisions about careers, expenditures, social networking and priorities.

Some call it independence; others call it adulthood. College is a time when everything changes quickly, but it was just a bit surreal to see the actual processes leading to the outcome.

Although I traveled halfway across the globe to come to the U.S. for college, contrary to what many think, living independently wasn’t as difficult as leaving my family. Although this sentiment had much to do with the particular bond that my family shares, it also probably came from the fact that I’ve been moving around a lot, from school to school, country to country.

My family members really are the only people I’ve known for a lengthy period of time, as everything else about my life has changed and shifted around every few years. In that sense, the fact that our home base moved to Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t anything new: clean up everything, say goodbyes, pack up and leave.

That is now an all-too-familiar process that has become very natural to my family — except, this time, my sister and I are away at college and will not be able to actually live at our “home base.”

The problem is that my parents now live in this geographical location that is and will probably remain foreign to me. When I think of “home,” I still think of Hong Kong, where most of the memorable moments of my life (so far) have happened. Berkeley is also starting to feel like home now. Uh-oh, more contradictions: Where is home now? It’s almost as if I should start dividing up my heart to explain my homes in multiple places.

My parents both left their families to lead their own lives and start their own family. I can’t believe that that transition phase is already starting for me. I still feel like a little fish in my own familiar pond, yet to see the big oceans of jobs, careers, marriage, people and, in general, the world. In the end, it seems that I’m not at all used to leaving home after all.

Although I’ve relocated many times, it appears that my definition of home depends little on the geographical location but on where my family is and how much quality time I get to spend with them.

Three weeks had passed, and I was back in the same doorway with the same suitcase, dressed the same way as I did the day I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. The apartment felt just as foreign as it did my first day there, and it was as if I were returning (home?) after a short vacation in just another exotic place.

As my parents, my sister and I carry on with our own lives, we will eventually stop seeing each other as often—maybe once in a few years. We will walk through our own paths of life, which may change us in ways that further differentiate us from each other.

This is the life, so I will put a hold on these thoughts and look forward, trusting that my upcoming journey will be worth leaving the nest for.

Contact Alice Oh at [email protected].