Sometimes I feel the best friends I ever had were imaginary. There are very few people to relate to, and the friends I had were in the stories I could escape to. The life of a vagabond, a Third Culture Kid, and a young man trapped lost between cultures in some metaphysical space run parallel to the most common telling of the Japanese tale of Urashima Taro.
The following summary is taken from the English Wikipedia article:
One day a young fisherman named Urashima Tarō is fishing when he notices a group of children torturing a small turtle. Tarō saves it and lets it to go back to the sea. The next day, a huge turtle approaches him and tells him that the small turtle he had saved is the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea, Ryūjin, who wants to see him to thank him. The turtle magically gives Tarō gills and brings him to the bottom of the sea, to the Palace of the Dragon God (Ryūgū-jō). There he meets the Emperor and the small turtle, who was now a lovely princess, Otohime.
Tarō stays there with her for a few days, but soon wants to go back to his village and see his aging mother, so he requests Otohime’s permission to leave. The princess says she is sorry to see him go, but wishes him well and gives him a mysterious box called tamatebako which will protect him from harm but which she tells him never to open. Tarō grabs the box, jumps on the back of the same turtle that had brought him there, and soon is at the seashore.
When he goes home, everything has changed. His home is gone, his mother has vanished, and the people he knew are nowhere to be seen. He asks if anybody knows a man called Urashima Tarō. They answer that they had heard someone of that name had vanished at sea long ago. He discovers that 300 years have passed since the day he left for the bottom of the sea. Struck by grief, he absent-mindedly opens the box the princess had given him, from which bursts forth a cloud of white smoke. He is suddenly aged, his beard long and white, and his back bent. From the sea comes the sad, sweet voice of the princess: “I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age …”
This story was retold to me in various forms, but this was the most common telling of the story and the first one I heard. In many ways, I feel this is a myth that some Third Culture Kids and Asian Americans relate to. Hearing it again from a Japanese professor made me reflect with some sadness about the life I have had and currently live.
One meaning I derive from it is that when you leave a place and come back, it’s never the same. Sometimes the place changes, but many times, it’s because you change. This is repatriation, or returning to the home country you came from or what was your passport country. In my story, I left the U.S. when I was young to grow up in Hong Kong and Manila. For years, I was angry at the culture shock, and always thought nobody understood me (even in international school) because I was American, and Asian American. When I returned to the U.S., to my horror, the place I was longing for was not what I remembered, even after only the first year.
The way I talked, slower, more enunciated English, the realization that everyone talking around me with a similar accent was not a fellow foreigner like me in an expat community, and my manners were not the same. Training myself to realize not every American accent was someone I knew and talking to me, realizing the immigrants with Asian accents had the same adjustment problems I did, and being ostracized for my difficulty coping or re-adjusting to life in America. And by the end of a short time frame of mere weeks, I was back on a plane to what I thought was my comfort zone in Manila and Hong Kong, only to realize a short time overseas still changed me.
Likewise, the few Asian Americans I’ve met who go to their parents’ homeland with their parents: their parents discover the language they speak is no longer the same; and the place they longed for is lost in time, not somewhere they can return to by hopping on a boat or a plane. I am not the man who left Vietnam during the war with the U.S. who discovers his home is lost in time thirty years after, nor am I his son who discovers Vietnam and tries to comprehend the home his father told him stories about growing up before going with him there for the first time.
Who am I? I’m not one of those seeking a way to be recognized in America, their right to call it home too, for it ceased to be my home the moment I left it the first time, the same time Urashima got on the turtle. I’m not one of the backpackers seeking paradise, an escape, a utopia, a home away from home, for there’s nowhere to run to or run from: I have no home.
What was my home? My home was my father, the man I loved more than anyone else. Whether he was in Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, San Francisco–no matter where he was, that was my home. Yes, the apartment I lived in longest was in Manila, but take away my father, and it’s an empty place. When I left my father that last day in Hong Kong in February of 2010, our last day in Manila afterward too, I came back two months later to watch him die in a hospital bed. In two months, California, Hong Kong, Manila, and Bangkok all died, for they would never be the same. Would Urashima have left if he knew he would never return to his love? Caught between home that he left, the love of his life, where could he be that would make him happiest in this dilemma?
The road ahead of me now isn’t my search for paradise. I’m looking for a place called home. But where is it? Home is where the heart is. I keep moving because my heart is on the road. And until my father died, my heart and my home always knew I could return to him.
Family, home, community? All lost on me now. No country is my own, no people are mine, no home exists for me to physically return to. As of today, I am the lone wolf, the world warrior, the global nomad, the adventurer. Two years ago this month, I lost my father, this year, I finally begin the journey to search for home–whatever it is, not wherever it is.
Is home a place where my dog and my lover await with the door open and a loving embrace to welcome me with? Is home a frame of mind like paradise is? Some say the answers come from within, but I say the best way to discover who I am is to travel and find what is habit, what is adopted culture or behavior, and what within me remains constant wherever I go.
“Wherever you go, there you are.”