Vulnerable Homecomings: On the Intensity of Meaning and Recalibration of Time

Since coming back home a few days ago, I’ve had a good number of what I now realize are anxiety attacks. I haven’t had these, well, ever. You know when you can’t breathe and you feel your chest caving in and you burst out in tears every few minutes? That’s the one.

Just what is it with a homecoming, which is supposed to be a celebratory affair, something that has become a time fraught with worry and trepidation? I have hiked dozens of mountains, have had several near-death experiences, and had to pull through on so many near-impossible projects, but I’ve noticed that I have difficulty walking through my own neighborhood. Familiarity was far from comforting—I wanted to take the next plane out.

I suppose that growing up, I’ve always been made to feel—perhaps involuntarily (or at least I would hope so)—that I didn’t belong. Never a day went by when I wasn’t called out for my skin color, my weight, my accent, my height, my choices. Being at home, it was always a time for either endless interrogation or mournful indifference. The questions of why I travel a lot and why I do what I do and why I don’t conform to a specific type, as well as the blank stares of incomprehension are depressing. You are expected to revert back to your original state. People don’t wish you well anymore; they just wish you were gone. The accomplishments and growth when I was away make me feel guilty. I always come back with a lot of sadness and even more terror.

I’ve realized that the city that raised me is the only one that hasn’t claimed me as one of them. New York gobbled me up and spat me out a New Yorker who had to earn her stripes the hard way. I would claim a lot of roots in Barcelona, which taught me how to live well. And Seoul has pretty much adopted me as her own—though perhaps it was because of my quick assimilation to their culture and the bizarre (and by now, admissible) fact that I do look a lot like her people. Even Singapore, with whom I didn’t expect to belong, has given me people with whom I have genuine connections with and I actually miss. These cities have all marked me in their own ways, so much so that after ten years of travel, people can’t really guess where I am from anymore.

To be fair, all the times I’ve traveled for long periods of time were for programs by perfectly legit institutions. Each leaving was a gamble and I always flew out with so much uncertainty, but I always ended up with a plan, a routine, a welcoming and goodbye committee, and most importantly, solid work that shaped my views as an adult. I can tell you exactly what I did there, each with a website, spreadsheets, slideshows, and a hard drive full of data.  People from other places were always open and eager to hear what I had to say. Just what is it with their easy acceptance of foreigners like me? Why is it that I feel much more at home in unfamiliar places and am always on guard and frightened where I am from?

I suppose that travel-based growth has expiated me of a lot. Excessive social media use, concern for material things, and worrying about one’s place in society are habits that are left, I think, to people who have never had to survive in far from home. And inasmuch as I love the internet for being able to stay connected with people, I also feel that many have substituted it for real relationships.

I noticed that over the years, my sense of time has been recalibrated. The minute things are suddenly shining with importance. Each meeting became more valuable, because it might be the last. I never wore jewelry or kept anything that didn’t have a specific practical use, except when it was given by a friend. I learned the importance of showing up in spite of being “crazy busy.” Many times, goodbye really did mean goodbye, because one is never the same in the next step of his life.

I tell myself that I was perfectly happy a few days ago, and that the past year was the best I’ve had.

I need to fix this. Because designers, while fixing other people’s problems, should in fact, fix themselves first.

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