Going, Or Staying, “Home”

Every year when December rolls around, I get on a plane and fly to Malaysia with my parents for a couple of weeks. They insist. This trip has sort of become an annual pilgrimage to my parents’ homeland, an occasion where we spend time with one another and rush around making the most of the time we have here visiting relatives, shopping and eating.

Shot of the skies and clouds stretching over Melbourne, taken on a plane ride back from Malaysia earlier this year. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Shot of the skies and clouds stretching over Melbourne, taken on a plane ride back from Malaysia earlier this year. Photo: Mabel Kwong

I always feel agitated a few weeks before each trip because going overseas during this time of the year means missing out on a number of things in Melbourne for me: New Year festivities with my friends, turning down that hard-to-come-by office summer job I was offered, quietly reading the book I want to finish and so on.

This year, for a number of reasons work and health related, I won’t be making the yearly trip back to Malaysia. And you know what? I feel sad.

Very sad.

I don’t know how to explain why I’m feeling this way. I mean, if I actually went on Malaysia trip 2013 I would be doing the same things as per the last few trips – visiting relatives whom I’m not close with, shopping and eating. And I should be happy finally I get to spend New Year’s in Aussie land, right?

Last week, one of my friends suggested we go to the Night Noodle Market – eating the street food dished up here might cheer me up. We ended up going last Saturday. There were hawker-style stalls galore at the Market on the lawn beside Federation Square, smoke billowing from hot works tossing flat rice noodles and old Asian aunties reserving seats for their families by draping their belongings on chairs.

The day-before-summer sizzling sun that radiated down upon the hordes of hungry folk made this food festival seem something like one hot and sticky outdoor hawker eating experience. Walking past long queues for food and hearing incessant chatter in a mish-mash of Asian languages, I felt so…comfortable.

I’m a proud Asian Australian living in Australia yet I long to be a world away on random occasions. I could be on a tram, lining up to buy sushi for lunch or in between shuffling papers at work and suddenly, my mind flits back to the times I’ve spent in Malaysia and Singapore – and I wish I could pop back over there at the sharp snap of my thumb and middle finger.

Why? Maybe it’s the atmosphere, the hustle and bustle of Asian life that my adventurous self longs for? Or the ruthless dog-eat-dog working lifestyle in Asian cities that my personality-which-likes-a-challenge craves? Or perhaps the warm weather which I so love?

I don’t know and it’s confusing. Is Malaysia “home” to me? I can’t entirely say yes to this. I have set up a stable life in Melbourne – I have a roof over my head, a small group of nice friends and transportation wherever I want to go around the city. All of which I would think twice about giving up in a split second. Is Australia “home” to me? Well, obviously I can’t say yes either.

Pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. The free-spirited travelers among us are always happily on the move and find solace in the little things around us, for instance a familiar face or the crystal clear blue sky. To them, “home” is the world and the world is their oyster.

I envy those who confidently call the town where they grew up “home” and don’t struggle to answer “Where are you from?”. At the same time I’m very thankful for all the experiences I’ve had living in Asia that I would never encounter in Australia. That’s the trade-off for being a citizen of many worlds, I suppose.

So year after year of complaining about wanting to stay Down Under in December, this year I’m getting my wish. Although I’m not exactly jumping for joy about this, there really is nothing I can do about it except accept what is meant to be and be positive about what lies ahead for me this month and beyond.

I’ve come a long way from learning to confidently call myself Asian Australian and embrace who I am: I’m an Asian Australian living in Australia, but no one can take the Malaysian out of me.

And that’s the way I roll. I’m sure I’ll have fun this silly season.

Where do you like to travel or feel at home, and why?

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16 thoughts on “Going, Or Staying, “Home”

  1. Well said, Mabel. I totally connect with what you wrote. “Home” is where our loved ones are, I suppose and to do the ‘annual pilgrimage’ as you wrote is to visit the loved ones there, not so much as going back to our home country so be it in Malaysia, Singapore, Australia or New Zealand or elsewhere. “Home” is where family and love is.

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  2. My family has a similar tradition. Each summer we travel for several! months to Finland and spent the time there in our cottage. Nowadays only my parents are doing that trip as I currently live in Finland but there has been no summer in my memory that my parents didn’t take that journey.

    As I am planning to move back to Germany with my own little family we have to at least try to go to visit my parents up there in the north sometimes. But it will be harder as well as my me and my wife have the own tradition already to travel each year for several years to China. This means I have to make each year a very hard decision =/

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    • I sympathise with you. It must be hard to choose between traveling to two place so significant to you and your family. We don’t have all the time in to world – and money – to make these “pilgrimage” trips. I don’t know about you, but I personally find it much more meaningful and rewarding when I spend more time on such trips (at least three weeks) – more time to take in my surrounds, more time to observe what’s happening around me and what are the people/people I know are doing. I don’t see the point of trips shorter than a week especially – they seemed so rushed and it’s hard to relax and see the beauty of the city I am in in the present moment.

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  3. Although born and bred in Australia, I still want to go back to China for holidays and visits. I guess it’s the endless opportunities to learn about the history of this 5000+ culture. And going to different places always inspires you to do something different when you return home.

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    • It’s always interesting to see new things, isn’t it? Looking at the same things around us as we go about our daily routines – wake up, work, breakfast, home – gets tiresome. There’s something comforting about routine and seeing the same things over and over, but I reckon there are much more rewarding feelings and experiences in store for us when we visit an unfamiliar place or take the plunge. With China as you mentioned, it has such a rich history – so many complex characters, traditions, dialects, cultural revolutions, stones, dragons, the list goes on.

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  4. I concluded that home revolved more around people and not the actual place itself. Granted certain types of people exist and live in a city or country, but without the people it’s nothing but bare land to me.

    After I had graduated from college and found a job, I bought my own house near the company and lived with tenants for a number of years. Compared to where my parents, my house had many advantages: indoor washer and dryer, quiet neighborhood, plentiful space for cars, beautiful skies, and a much larger living area. In a nutshell, my house was comfortable and convenient, and I had my own bed. Naturally, in the earlier years on a few occasions I would choose to stay at my house instead of return home. It didn’t take long before it was quite obvious what was missing.

    I missed seeing the smile on my parents’ face when I knocked on the door. I missed seeing the joy in my mother’s face while preparing a holiday meal for the family. I missed my father asking me if my car was running fine and if any tune up was needed. Most of all, I really missed seeing both of my parents happy that the kids chose to return home to visit. My parents lived in a modest apartment that was cramped when everyone came home to visit, but otherwise sufficient for themselves. The feeling of warmth around family, regardless of the usual family drama, couldn’t be replicated in the most finest looking house if the right people aren’t there. The feeling of completeness was missing when I didn’t go home.

    Long story short, we are now back together after I had some time to figure myself out.

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    • Like you, I find comfort and solace in people a lot of the times. If we are unhappy with the people around you for one reason or another (be it their attitude or their personal choices), then it seems hard to see how we can feel at ease and relax.

      Coming home to familiar faces and people who you can talk to tends to be preferred over coming home to people whom you barely know or can hardly get along with. In regards to the latter, some might say “Grow up, that’s life so toughen up”.

      But in all honesty, I reckon there is just something so positive about family. As you said, it’s probably the warmth radiating from encouraging parents and siblings. Maybe this stems from growing and sticking together for a long, long time, through the good and bad times. There may be arguments, but in Asian families everyone seems to stick together and work towards the common good of putting food on the table through sheer hard work and not mooching off others.

      However, not all biological families are happy families and I hope people in these situations find home and comfort in other people around them.

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  5. When I was growing up in Guangzhou, my paternal grandfather would take my cousins and me to this little village that was once his home. I don’t remember any of the people there nor much of the place, save for a big tree that we used to play under. We children never really understood then why it was supposed to be home but dutifully treated it as such nonetheless. Just before I came to Australia, he took me one last time, because who knew when I would be able to visit it again?

    The wait turned out to be 19 years. In that time, Melbourne had superceded Guangzhou as the home in my heart and my grandfather had become too old and frail to make what were once frequent trips. In that time, the old homes in the village had been bulldozed and replaced by new apartments. The people too, now wealthy from their ownership of the real estate, had moved on to better places and better things. My uncle showed me where the big tree had once been and pointed to an obelisk that stood as the last remnant of bygone times. What had been the fledgling city of Shenzhen in 1992 had since become one of the largest in China, and that little village that had once been my grandfather’s home was now just another part of that sprawling metropolis.

    But yet, this place that I hardly knew and which had long since lost all that I ever knew about it still had an aura of home. As I write this now, I feel the urge to visit it once more. “Home” sure is a perplexing thing.

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    • I guess places change over time and when we go back and visit the places where we used to grow up, it feels different. As you mention, old buildings are knocked down, making way for new ones. If the old buildings are still there when we go back, chances are the people whom we knew living there have moved away and everything seems slightly alien. When we are kids, I reckon we are too busy trying to have fun; we’re naive and we don’t take notice of the significance of the events around us (for instance, we don’t question why our parents work so hard at mundane jobs to give us a roof over our heads).

      I agree with you that there is an aura around the places we used to live and visit. My dad used to live in a shop house in one of Malaysia’s Chinatowns. He pointed the exact one he grew up in once to me. Today every time I pass by it, I can imagine and feel my dad living there as a kid. As I am writing this, my parents have already gone to Malaysia and I am sitting alone in an empty house – and I feel the urge to go back. “Home” is really a confusing thing.

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