I carry pieces of Malaysia with me wherever I go. Literally.
I have specks of dirt from a hiking trail on the island of Penang embedded deep into the skin of my left thigh. When I was in the seventh grade, I attended boarding school there. While trekking out to one of the island’s more remote beaches, I slipped off a bridge made of rusty poles tied together. My entire left leg was covered in dozens of tiny scrapes plus a long, curving cut that went from my knee almost to my hip. We tried to clean it at the beach and again at the infirmary when I got back to the school that evening. But the dirt was wedged deep into my flesh, virtually impossible to get out. Over time, as the cut healed, the dirt stayed there, tiny black flecks visible through the translucence of my skin.
“It’s time to get up,” my husband said gently to our youngest daughter that day last June as he went into her room and flicked on the light. “We’ve got to drive to California, remember? And then we’ll go on an airplane to our new house in Korea.”
Annalee had just turned six a month before. She sat up, scratching her thick mane of hair with a little pout on her lips. “There’s just one problem, Dad,” she told him matter-of-factly.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I don’t want to leave this house.”
I didn’t want to leave either.
We bought our home just seven months earlier when my husband retired from his military career, and we thought we were finally settling down. I walked through the empty rooms of our new home on the day we got the keys, trying to imagine what it would be like to stay in one place for more than a few years. Maybe Lilly, our third daughter, would get to do all of high school here. Maybe even Wyatt, our son, would, too. Maybe Jayna and Skyler, our two oldest, would announce their engagements in this living room. Was it possible?
I hung pictures on the walls and several pieces of artwork I’d bought over the course of Matt’s twenty years as a Navy pilot, plus all the family pictures. At first, I was scared to put holes in the walls, but then I remembered it was all right because this house was mine. On the doorpost of a closet, we measured the younger three kids and wrote their names and dates beside the lines. I imagined the lines and dates we’d write later. Looking at the backyard, I made plans for a trampoline and a clubhouse for the younger kids. Maybe we’d even get a hot tub, or eventually put in a pool.
Ever since we moved in, people asked us how we chose this place, this town—after everywhere we’d lived. Matt’s mother was an hour away, so there was that. But honestly, we didn’t have a good answer. We just liked it–though, truth be told, I worried about fitting in.
Then came the job offer. This new job in Korea, where we’d just moved from the previous summer, would use all Matt’s skills and experiences well. There was the draw of what we knew, too, versus trying to blaze a new path in a totally different place. In a way, it felt more familiar to be strange in another country than to be strange in my own. I prayed so much, asking God to close doors if we shouldn’t go. But He didn’t. So now we were moving back. I packed up the house, crying as I took the pictures off the walls and exposed the holes they’d left. A dream that I’d finally dared to believe was real was disintegrating, crumbling to pieces before my eyes.
“Where are you from?”
Those four words are always enough to send me into a slight panic. It’s… complicated. Do I say Bangladesh since it’s where I was born? But I was always an American citizen thanks to my parents, so that answer isn’t entirely true. When I was eleven, our family moved to Thailand, and I went from there to boarding school in Malaysia.
See what I mean? Complicated.
In the eighth grade, there was an essay contest with the theme “Home is where…” I wrote something, but I can’t remember what. Obviously, I didn’t win. I had no idea how to answer. Even now, as I think about the famous adage, “home is where the heart is,” I wonder what that means for me.
Is my home in the little house my parents brought me to as a newborn–the one surrounded by rice paddies in Bangladesh, where I first understood what love was? Or is it in northern California–the city where I met my husband and toppled head-over-heels in love, where we lived as newlyweds and had our first baby, where we became a family of our own? Maybe it’s in Hawaii, where our family became complete. What about the three glorious years we lived in Spain? And I can’t ignore Korea–where we’ve lived for over four years now.
Does that make it home?
Is it the places where I cried the most when we left? Because I would include Washington state even though we lived there just twenty-one months. And our house in Arkansas, and those seven short and sweet months.
Is it where I laughed the most? Because then I could also say my heart is in my best friend’s kitchen, in her house surrounded by almond orchards in the central valley of California where we sit every summer and laugh until our faces ache.
On the days when everything makes a little more sense, I like to think I carry those places with me, embedded in my heart the way those bits of Malaysian dirt are embedded in my thigh. I tell myself I’m a sort of patchwork quilt, made from all those “homes.”
But then there are the hard days when it feels like too many goodbyes. Then I feel only the ache that comes from all this missing—certain people, a particular view, a road I knew so well that I didn’t need to turn the navigation on—I wonder if the truth is that I left pieces of my heart all over the world.
Maybe this, I tell myself, is why I never truly fit in anywhere–why I’m always just a little strange.
“When will this feel like home?” Jayna, my oldest daughter, asked me one night more than a dozen years ago. We’d been living in our house in Virginia for a few months already and had just returned from a weekend away.
I didn’t have a good answer. I just shrugged and shook my head, feeling guilty for giving my kids the same curse I’d struggled with all my life.
All these years later, I recognize the familiar panic sweeping briefly over their faces every time someone asks where they are from. I’ve heard them pick from a handful of true, but not the whole story, answers. Sometimes, if they tell it all in a rush of words, the kind acquaintance says, “Wow! That’s so cool!” And it’s true; you can hardly feel sorry for someone who has lived in Spain and Hawaii and Korea unless you’ve seen their tears at night–or heard them cry about how they “just want to move back to our old house”–then watched them bravely square their shoulders to walk into the zillionth “new” something the next day. At least when I tell my kids, “I know how you feel,” they understand where my words come from, I’m not simply saying platitudes. But I’ve heard enough voices from people who lived in one place their whole lives and still said, “I never felt like I fit in.” I’ve found what makes me weird also allows me to connect to someone who also feels like a perpetual outsider.
I wonder if maybe we are all like pieces of a mosaic–beautiful, unique, strange pieces–longing to fit together to make something breathtaking.
In our new apartment, I buy removable hanging strips for some of the artwork I brought with us, trying to make this place feel a little more like home. One is a gift Matt framed for me of Annalee’s little handprints. About a month later, the strips give way suddenly and without any warning, and the frame crashes to the floor, shattering the glass. I sweep up the pieces, trying not to cry; it’s just a picture. But all the pictures fall eventually, and we aren’t allowed to put holes in the walls. I stare at the blank walls and think, This is not home.
I throw my dog’s rubber bone one Saturday night when our downstairs neighbor comes up to complain about the noise it makes on the floor. Ironically, she is from New York.
“I’ve tried not to complain about you, but I just can’t take it anymore!” she snaps. I don’t handle this well.
“Well, what do you want us to do about it? This is our home for now! We live here!” I snap back.
“Joy…” Matt says in a warning tone from the doorway. I apologize, and we live in cold, scared peace with the neighbor, constantly telling our kids not to jump or dance or stomp for any reason even though there are lots of reasons for kids to stomp. We certainly never throw the dog’s toy.
This is not home.
“I miss our home,” Annalee tells me out of the blue one day.
“Yeah?” I ask as my heart squeezes with that desperate ache again. “Which one?”
“Our house! The one we bought!” she answers, in a tone that tells me it should have been obvious.
I clear my throat, hoping she can’t hear the lump that constricts my voice. “What do you miss about it?” I ask as evenly as I can, though I don’t know if I can bear to hear.
“I miss the garden. I miss our flowers. Can I plant flowers here?” She looks around our apartment here in Seoul.
“Maybe,” I reply, keeping my tone light. “Let’s go see what we can find.”
We walk to Daiso and return with little planters and pots full of soil and seeds, covered in pictures of flowers and cucumbers and lettuce. She chatters the entire way back about the salad we will eat from her plants, and how pretty her flowers will be. But then she says, “I still miss our home though.” We had a tiny taste of what could have been, and now that’s what our hearts long for.
All I can manage is, “Me too, sweetie.”
Maybe someday we will have a home we stay in for a while – though all the kids might be too old for the trampoline and clubhouse by then. Maybe I’ll hang pictures and throw my dog’s toy and have dance parties in the kitchen without worrying if the downstairs neighbor will come up and yell at us. Maybe we will stay strange but find a connection anyway because of our strangeness.
For now, we’ll hold the pieces of what we call home together in our hearts.
We’ll plant what we can and try to grow something beautiful.
Joy Nicholas is a mother to five kids, aged 6 to 22. She has lived in six countries and currently resides in Seoul, South Korea where she is writing her first book, a memoir. You can follow more of her adventures on Instagram at @justyouraveragejoy