to build a home slowly

words & images tiffany vlaanderen

I was twenty years-old when I first packed my absolute necessities in two extra large suitcases and went to spend a few months living in Hong Kong. Five years later, after a summer in Indonesia, a year in Japan, a few months in San Francisco, an assignment in Kenya, and a year and a half in Los Angeles, I'm living in Amsterdam with my Corgi.

I haven’t learned how to pack better over the years, really. A deep clean of my closet this past year revealed that my life could be summed up in clothes, books, photos, and more books. And from that, I still had some thinning out to do. I donated or threw away what I could convince myself were the non-essentials: my first essay written in the fourth-grade about immigrants in California and the books that I had collected for the home I had longed for, with built-in wall shelves. I told myself that I would be able to rebuild the collection one day when I really had a home. 

When I studied in Hong Kong five years ago, I didn't realize how much my time living there would shape the way I wanted to live. I started to notice the mundane moments: an alleyway full of steam from noodle stalls; a woman pushing a cart up one of the many hilly streets in Lan Kwai Fong; the expats and wealthy Hong Kongers enjoying the district known for its decadence and incessant night life. 

The city has been perpetually occupied for most of its history between the British and its current counterpart, mainland China. I watched its livelihood spill out of small streets bordered by worn buildings on all sides. Its literature for many decades was shaped by the countless outsiders passing through or making a home in this glorified fishing village, turned colony, turned beacon of east meets west. 

"Hong Kong" as a name is neither Cantonese, Heung Gong, nor English, but it is the name that stuck.

Hong Kong. Fragrant Harbor.

The fragrance was a wistful English romanticism; the British at that time were true sentimentalists rather than real adventurers at heart.

When you’re not just passing through, when you’re attempting to create a community and a life in an unfamiliar locale, you gain a sense of agency that allows you to be whoever you want, stripped of expectations from those who know and love you back home. In Hong Kong, I became lost in the folds of time. But when I wanted to wear my new home, I was almost already on the way out. 

At the time, I wondered: Had my parents not been the first to risk it all—my mother, who had made an eighteen-hour flight from Indonesia and waited almost two years until her sons were reunited with her in California, and my father, who made a boat voyage from The Netherlands the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released—would I be sitting here with the weight of uprooting (yet again) gutting me?

I packed up my life once again, convinced by the person who I then loved that I would have a home, a safe landing when I returned a few months later. I tried to find solace in knowing that life would catch me, that I could follow the life I wanted with minimal consequence. But how many times can you live out this feeling of insatiable wonder, curiosity, and adventure? Sometimes I feel like a glutton picking at the most raw and extreme experiences life offers us.

A few years later, just a few days before I moved to Nairobi on my third overseas assignment, an unusual pang surfaced. I wanted stability: a casita-styled home with a small yard in Los Angeles with the person I was supposed to do life with. But those benchmarks seemed so far from the reality at hand.

Instead, I sought opportunities to work and live in the respected cities my parents consider as their hometowns: Jakarta and Amsterdam—a decent trek from Pasadena, California where they met more than thirty-years ago. I wanted to know the places that greatly informed the people my parents came to be. 

Over the years, I’ve come to value the in-between moments in life, the ones you might believe are fillers for the life goals that you’re supposed to reach, as the real experiences that shape my narrative. It seems that I’m ready now to make a home, to make my way home—which I’m finding may be the same thing.

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