I have been on the road for over a decade now and one of the questions I’m often asked is: where is home?
Somehow this question always catches me off guard. There is no short or direct answer to it. I know where I’m from, but that doesn’t mean that it is my home. Settling down has been a foreign concept for most of my journey. Even though I have lived for an extended period of time in a few places, I never thought I would settle down there, but merely passing through; in transit if you would.
I didn’t want to settle down not just because there are many places to go, but more so because I felt that being tied down to a physical place was not my calling. At least not yet. I enjoyed the freedom on the road too much, and didn’t find a reason to exchange that for a permanent address.
There was one exception however.
Almost a home
Of the 50 over countries I’ve been to there was one country that almost made me changed my mind: Spain.
My beautiful relationship with Spain lasted for three long years; the longest I’ve lived in one place for the last decade.
I embraced the culture like a long-lost lover. The Spanish lifestyle fitted me like a glove, and the language was like honey to my ear. I adopted their lifestyle, and assimilated into their society. I was happy and contented there.
When Spain won the 2008 Euro Cup, I was caught in the euphoria of national pride; a sensation I had never felt for my birth country.
But when the frenzy subsided, like Cinderella I returned to my old identity: an outsider. It’s an identity that I knew too well.
Growing up in the “other” part of Malaysia, I’ve never felt like a Malaysian. And because I have a Chinese family name, I was set apart from the bumiputra (son of the land); it doesn’t matter that my parents, even my grandparents were born in Malaysia. How could I identify with a country that set to alienate me?
This alienation pushed me to find my own identity. When I left Malaysia in 2004, I set out to deconstruct my identity; to unlearn what I was taught, to erase all the conditioning I grew up with. And like a blank page, I picked and chose from aspects of other cultures I came into contact with and adopted them as my own.
My outsider identity took me so far off the grid, so detach from society that I didn’t know how to interact within the framework of society; which isn’t a problem when I’m on the road, as I never stay in a place long enough for it to be an issue.
Homeland vs home
Culturally confused and socially irrelevant I found myself back in my homeland – Sarawak – at the beginning of 2011.
I used to think that “the grass is always greener on the other side”, that foreign lands were more exotic and appealing. But after seeing the world and returning home I realized that my own backyard is teeming with adventures and many exotic cultural nuances that I knew very little about.
I started traveling in my own backyard. I discovered a village above the cloud – Semban – and intrigued by a dying culture – the ring ladies – there. I partook in the Kaul festival and the Babulang festival. This made me realized how little I knew about my own land, and how culturally diverse and interesting this piece of land in the Borneo island is.
I realized that I fell in love with my own land at the Rainforest World Music Festival, when the haunting music of the sape weaved through the crowd and I had tears in my eyes.
I still don’t identify with the Malaysian identity (if there’s one), but I definitely feel proud to be a Sarawakian.
However it isn’t home, for now.
I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that the only country in Asia I can see myself living in is Taiwan.
There’s just something about this island nation that connects with me in a much deeper level, as if I was a Taiwanese in my past life and there’s an unfinished relationship between us.
The very first time I arrived in Taiwan I felt ‘right’ at home, a kind of affinity. I’ve been to Taiwan three times in 2 years, which says a lot for someone like me who can’t sit still in one place for too long. I feel really comfortable there and it’s really easy to make friends with the friendly Taiwanese.
Even though I was brought up a Catholic I’m intrigued by all the exotic temples and riveting festivals.
What am I waiting for, you might ask? A sign, perhaps? So far all my attempts at moving there have been thwarted by its rigid immigration law. But I haven’t given up hope yet. My relationship with Taiwan is like the one between Romeo and Juliet, or the Chinese version of a similar story: 牛郎與織女. I just hope that mine will have a better ending.
Meanwhile, I find myself back in the embrace of my latin lover – Colombia. I came back mainly because I was bringing people to see this amazing country. Subconsciously maybe I’ve returned hoping to recapture the sense of home this country had given me the 1.5 years I lived here.
Colombia might seem like an odd choice because of its violent history, but it has improved tremendously in recent years. Precisely because of its history, the people are among the warmest and the most giving I’ve met in my 11 years of nomadic life. The sense of individuality isn’t at the egoistic level of some western societies, as community is still important. And the family bond, though strong, isn’t as crippling as in some Asian countries.
There’s a kind of intensity that attracted me to Colombia. Emotions are lived to the fullest at every second. When emotions are left to run amok, it creates a culture where friends will constantly remind you how much they miss you and strangers who invite you to their house and by the time you walk out the door, they have become your family. On the flip side, it also creates a volatile environment for violence.
Like a bitter pill, I would like to take Colombia in small doses.
Most people will say it’s where the heart is. But this doesn’t work in my case, as my heart is in Sarawak, Taiwan, Spain, and Colombia. And maybe other countries I’ve yet to visit that might steal my heart too.
Some people, as they move through life, rediscover home again and again. Some people never find another after leaving home. And some never leave the one they’ve always known.
Home has nothing to do with the piece of soil confined within senseless geographical borders, it has more to do with the soul. Especially connections my soul has with a place and/or people.
Of the 4 places I mentioned above, I have intense but very different connection with each one of them. None is calling me stronger than the other, like a Casanova caught between 4 lovers.
Pico Iyer says that “only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about and find a home.”
So I guess, I need to stop being fixated on wanting to find a home. Instead I should find what I care deeply about…
…and that will lead me home.