After some five years, my mother and I decided to go home to spend the new year. Of course, the term ‘home’ here is one I use with a pinch of salt. I don’t think I have a home per se, except for the one where my bed and my blanket and my adorable stuffed monkey await. The ‘home’ I speak of here is called Sielmat, where both my sets of grandparents live literally across the street (in this case a field) from each other.
As the years go by, I feel the weight of this term ‘home’ slowly anchor me to something somewhat tangible. I’ve spent literally (yes, that’s how you use that word) all my life traveling from place to place, setting up a home in one place only to take things down and move out within three to four years and start anew. So, as a third culture kid, my best bet at defining ‘home’ would be to look at my parents and their home.
My mother and I left Delhi for Imphal via Guwahati on the 28th of December 2015. I was grumpy as a result of last minute packing and my mother’s flustered state. She’ll never admit to this but she’s quite a weary as well as wary traveler; dearest mother, just calm down. I get even more grumpy when she asks where to go next when the simplest thing to do is look up at the signs. Seriously, to anyone who struggles with traveling in the metro or an airport or a transportation station of any sort, look at the damn signs! As a result of all of this, I become concerned for her wondering how the hell she’d ever travel by herself. It didn’t help that when we got the tickets our seats were scattered and my stress meter most definitely spiked up when the tag on my mother’s hand luggage did not get stamped at the security check-in and I sat watching people boarding the flight for what felt like an eternity till she finally showed up.
Normally, traveling for me – especially in an airport – is a breeze. I’ve been traveling alone ever since I started college from Delhi to Hanoi and back for summer and winter holidays. Until one horrible experience where the kid next to me was masturbating in the dark as I watched 47 Ronen – thanks for ruining that movie for me, kid – eventually leaning in and saying something utterly creepy. I switched seats. Moral of the story: don’t let a creepy kid ruin a good movie for you, watch 47 Ronen again anyway. It did not help that as I waited in Bangkok to catch the next flight to Hanoi that a group of assholes did absolutely nothing to help a lady worker struggle to open a gate due to her short height. Literally there was a guy stood right next to her doing absolutely nothing but watch this poor lady, not to mention the rest of the men and women assholes doing absolutely nothing but gawk at her. I mean I can’t stop repeating ‘absolutely nothing’ because that’s just what it was. Infuriated by my dwindling hope for humanity, I went up and unlocked the gate for the woman. Moral of the story: don’t let all the assholes stop you from helping someone in need. By the time I boarded the flight I couldn’t be bothered with the creepy old man staring at me two seats away because I was two hours away from passing out on my bed at home in Hanoi. My father was waiting for me at the airport in Hanoi no longer greeting me with the embarrassing moonwalk he attempted the last time I came on vacation, his face hardened with concern for me. As we stood waiting for my luggage to arrive in baggage claim I told him about the last wave of shit I waded through on my journey and he said, “Where’s this guy? Let’s go stand next to him and stare him down.” Moral of the story: have a kick ass father.
By now you can probably deduce that the scattered seats really bothered me. There I was sitting not in the aisle seat or the window seat but the middle seat potentially next to two creepy people. I can say now that I’m better equipped to handle things in case of a creep-ergency but thankfully it was not needed. When we landed in Guwahati we happened to pick up my cousin Obed which was a pleasant surprise.
One of my biggest struggles upon arrival was time management. It wasn’t the kind where you sit down to study at 1:00pm, look at the time five minutes later, and realize it’s already 7:00pm wondering what the hell you’ve been doing for six hours. My problem was quite the opposite.
If you’re a night owl like I am and you’d like to change that habit to integrate yourself better into a society where time progresses from morning to night instead of afternoon to dawn, I suggest you immerse yourself in a place where everyone, and I mean everyone, wakes up bright and early. There I was going to bed at 11 pm when I’d usually go to bed at 4/5 am and wake up at 8:30 am when I’d usually wake up at 12 pm. Side note: even though the latter sounds horrible, really think about it. Is it better to sleep for 9.5 hours or 7/8 hours? (The answer is the second one so all you kids and night owls tell your parents/yourself your lifestyle is completely rational)
I had one constant in-town contact during my stay with whom I confided my struggle. Jonathan told me he never woke up before 9:30 am. Blasphemous, right? I resolved to follow his sound advice but by the end of my stay, I decided to stick with 8 am.
However, the real problem was not deciding when to sleep and wake up, but what to do in the hours between waking up and going to bed. Miles away from the city where you spend all your conscious hours watching movie after movie, YouTube video after YouTube video, or simply attached to an electronic device of some sort, you literally just sit in the sun and that’s about it. So time, taken as a relative and subjective phenomenon, moves slower.
Those initial days were the slowest I think I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’d wake up, brush my teeth and wash my face, then have breakfast, then sweep and mop the house, then eat lunch, then sit in the sun for however long was needed (two to three hours oh what fun), then have tea and snacks, then play some guitar, then eat dinner, then sit by a heat source, then calculate how many more hours until bed time, then sit for eternity because time now is subjective and eternity can exist in this sense, then go to bed. Rinse and repeat.
You need a packed and busy schedule if you’d like to feel like your life is actually progressing. You sort of wish chores upon yourself just to feel like you’re spending your time somewhat reasonably. That’s why when Jonathan asked me to join the picnic excursion that was happening the next day, I went along.
The last time I was in Manipur, I was about to finish high school. We didn’t stay long enough for me to socialize i.e. I was still a damn awkward teenager so I didn’t bother socializing with anyone. And before this, the gap was about three years entering my initial years of teenage awkwardism still not bothering to remember people. So if you add that all up, really the last time I would have properly remembered anyone would have been 8 years prior to our visit; 8 years to completely forget everyone except for immediate family.
So there I was on the day of the picnic, not knowing anyone except Jonathan and my cousins, not remembering anyone and time decided to stand still to let that awkwardness set in a little bit longer. At one point, I was really tempted to make up some lame excuse and go home but I persevered and it turned out to be a really lovely day. If there’s one thing that social settings have taught me it’s that all awkward situations sort themselves out by the end if you’re willing to change your attitude to be more open to the experience. Works every single time. And it also helps to smile and laugh.
We went to Khuga Dam and spent the day listening to music under the warmth of the winter sun. When it was dinner time, we threw our disposable plates into a bonfire, a satisfying end of the day for the pyromaniac residing deep within my soul.
There was so much handshaking and re-introductions – because I’d probably met all these people before – that all I could simply do was smile and nod and answer honestly, “ka hriet ta naw”. I just don’t know you, sorry.
Side-thought: If you’re the type of person that thinks all dogs are scary and out to get you, you should definitely visit Sielmat or the North-East in general. I was in awe at all the beautiful and well-tempered and human-friendly doggies. I mean, friendly is one thing but to have friendly AND healthy-looking, shiny-coated, handsome pups everywhere? That’s a miracle. A doggy miracle.
And then there was the earthquake.
On the 4th of January 2016, around 4:30 in the morning, we were woken up by an earthquake that at first reminded me of one of the scariest train-ride slumbers I ever experienced in Vietnam from Hanoi to Sapa. As if my body was sending a warning to my unconscious state, I was at the brink of waking up well before the earthquake had even started. I shook my mom awake with a “Mama! Earthquake!” then proceeded onto running out of the house with my hands in the air. No, but really, all earthquakes remind me of that one scene in Freaky Friday where Lindsay Lohan’s little brother pranks his grandfather at breakfast, shaking the table as if to simulate an eathquake upon which the old man shouts “EARTHQUAKE!” and promptly runs out of the house.
I was quick to try and the open the door and get to open air but for some reason, the lock wouldn’t give in easily so my mom beckoned me to her side on the bed and we held onto each other until the tremors had passed.
The thing you gotta understand is that a) these damn earthquakes will not stop following me, and b) these houses are not built to withstand earthquakes like the buildings in Japan are. So after surviving the March 2011 tremors in Tokyo and being extremely impressed that nothing broke in our house, you can understand if I go straight into panic-mode when I’m in a country that’s not Japan and whose houses could potentially break with even a magnitude 5 earthquake. So, EXCUSE ME little nieces who made fun of me screaming for my mom in the middle of the night during a scary ass natural disaster.
I have come to the conclusion that I am an ambivert. I can handle the social aspect of life and I can also be happy by myself. If ever I find myself in an uncomfortable social situation or there are just too many damn people around, I will quietly slip away and watch some birds, wander about and such. It began when in my final year in college, I decided I couldn’t handle the monotony of following the crowd that I walked past it all and enjoyed solitude instead. It was this wanderlust that sped up the time.
I began to ask my little nieces to go on walks with me. It started with a walk across the field and back and by the end of the trip we’d wander down the river into the wilderness and up a mountain. I had a camera with me as an excuse to go exploring. Everywhere we went I’d take pictures and videos that I told myself I’d edit later into something epic (still yet to do).
My three nieces and I usually started down the set of steps that lead you to Dan Veng, right outside a school. Then we’d be met by a Y-intersection, though it was rather a trident-intersection. We managed to explore all three paths; one went up to New Sielmat, the middle towards a river path that’s slowly drying up, and the last one further into Dan Veng. Usually we’d follow the last path back up and out via the set of steps behind the EFCI church or continue further in and follow another river path back up and out into the wilderness around the entrance to Prayer Mountain. Then before heading home, we’d make a quick visit to the cemetery where my nieces would gather fallen flowers and place them onto their respective grandmother’s and grandfather’s graves. What can I say? Winter is a wonderful time to go walking and exploring, especially for me i.e. a person who’s already sweating in mid-Spring.
There I was in my favorite terrain. How can you not love the mountains? There’s so much beauty to witness and adventuring to do. It so happened that I woke up looking forward to walking and exploring with my nieces and time was no longer slow. I wished there was more daylight because nights felt subzero and all you’d ever want to do is sit by a fire.
By the end of our two-week stay, there wasn’t enough time left to see everything that I wanted to or could have seen. I was just warming up to the place. It takes me a loooong time to get used to something or someone enough to open up. But, as if time and space were telling me it was time to go, I developed a small case of food poisoning on the day we departed. It really didn’t help that the in-flight dinner looked like the most appetizing airplane meal I’d ever seen.
So, what is home?
I’ve yet to understand that term. It confuses me as much as my identity does. I’m Indian, yet not in the sense an outsider would understand the term. I’m Hmar, yet not completely attached to the traditions and customs that go with the tribe. ‘I’m an international kid’ is honestly the most sense I can make of my identity. I may have Indianness coursing through my blood and muscles but my mind is a mix of everything that sometimes is in denial of that very Indianness. Whatever it may be, that is why defining home is such a confusing and complicated subject to me.
I’m not black and white, I’m grey. I can’t ever look at something with concrete certainty when there are so many other factors and exceptions to consider. And that’s why home to me is whatever you make of where you are. By the end of our stay at my parents’ hometown, the place and the people started to bury themselves into my soul and I could see myself slowly integrating into it. The same way that when I watch a YouTube video or a vlog about Japan I feel an aching inside me and a yearning to walk the streets of Tokyo at night like my brother and I used to. The same way that when I think of the best street food I end up reminiscing about Hanoi – and incidentally how I never got food poisoning from eating street food over there. The same way that our Indian Ocean view from our apartment in Maputo has burrowed deep into my dreams as a recurring motif I greet every now and then. The same way that when I step out of the house, I can’t wait to crash onto my tiny mattress on the floor, pass out, and wake up again with a wanderlust to go out and get absorbed by the world again.