Where is home?

Image of Short Fiction & Poetry Contest - 2019
Image of Short Fiction

a. the house you grew up in

When you close your eyes, the images, sounds, smells, all come flooding back.

It’s been years, but you can still transport yourself in an instant, across time and space until you’re standing in front of that familiar doorway. You step inside and walk through each of the rooms, the living room, kitchen, dining room, bedroom, retracing the path you must have taken a million times before. You know every inch of this place, from the feel of the furniture to the stickers on the walls to that one stain in the carpet. It’s all the same, even the air hasn’t changed.

It’s home.

But one thing is jarringly different.

You’re alone now. Your dad isn’t typing away in his study, mom is no longer nagging at you to do the dishes, your sister isn’t parading around wearing your clothes. Your family has moved on and you’re the only one left here, in this empty house on the street corner of your imagination.

You wonder if the building still stands, out there in the real world. You think, maybe you’ll go back one day, just to take a look, for the memories. But you know you won’t.

You close your eyes and you’re back, standing in front of that familiar doorway. The house is still there, exactly as you remember it. You turn the doorknob, swing the door open, and step inside.

If you hadn’t walked in knowing where you were, you wouldn’t have recognized the place.

The living room has been turned into the dining room and the dining room the living room. The furniture is different, arranged completely differently. Someone has redone your whole room in a hideous pink. Pink! The stickers are gone, the walls painted over. That stain you could never get rid of for the life of you is gone too, the carpet torn up and replaced with hardwood.

You realize that strangers live here now. And they call it home.

Funny how things can change so much over time. Funny how this place, so real to you, now exists only in your mind.

They say home is a place to go back to. But you can’t go back, not anymore.

No, this place is no longer my home.


b. the house you now live in

Since then, you’ve moved. Several times. And each time you moved, you learned to move on, to not let yourself linger in one place for too long. And each successive place became less a home and more a house.

You lost things and people and pieces of yourself along the way.

You’re pretty sure you dropped your favorite doll while moving out of house #2.

Your dog died in house #3 and you buried him in the backyard, marking the spot with a little branch.

Your dad left in house #5– or rather, you, your mom, and your sister left him behind to go live in house #6. In fact, he’s still in house #5 and you visit him every other weekend, although it feels like a new house altogether. He’s redecorated the whole place, replaced the couches, rearranged the kitchen cabinets, removed the pictures on the wall, until there was no trace of mom left, no sign that she had spent 4 years of her life there, sleeping, eating, cooking, cleaning, crying, pretending, holding her breath.

You still live with your mom and sister in house #6. It’s been 8 years. You wonder when you’ll leave. The air feels cold, so different from the warmth you remember. But even those warm memories are now broken.

You remember something your family used to do, a tradition that almost every Korean household takes part in without so much a second thought. 

When someone comes home, no matter where they’ve been or how long they’ve been away, they say:

“다녀왔습니다.” I’m home.

And someone in the house replies:

“어서와.” Welcome home.

It’s simple, it’s short. But for you, the exchange became almost a ritual, something you looked forward to everyday. You remember how you’d rush home from the bus stop, fling the door wide open, and shout, “I’m home!” as you kicked off your shoes. How mom would walk out of the kitchen with a smile, wafting the smell of kimchi stew. How she’d never fail to greet you with “Welcome home.” How you’d run into her open arms.

You don’t remember exactly when or in which house the ritual was broken. Perhaps it was more of a gradual change. Perhaps some days you still walked through the door saying those words, “I’m home”, out of habit more than anything else, but still hanging onto that flickering hope that your mom would appear with her smile, the one that was lighter and brighter, and not so weary or heavy with the lines of time.

But more often than not, you were greeted with an empty house. And all that came back was silence. So you stopped.

No, this place is not my home.


c. college

Time passed. You came to college.

They called college your second home, the community your second family. But you already had two homes, or at least two houses, and your family had already split into two.

You remember something you heard a classmate say freshman year. It hadn’t been long after orientation, when someone had been behaving in some manner that another deemed unfit for a member of your school, leading to a scolding “Hey, hey. We’re a family.”  

We’re a family. Those words rang in your head long after the face and voice faded away. You still marvel at how quickly, how easily they embraced this new connection.

“Family.” Such a simple, yet heavy word.

“We” is another one. Even simpler, yet so hard to grasp.

You know that language is powerful. You’ve felt it with certain words, laden with so much meaning that it takes effort to even bring to the tip of your tongue.

Another is names. Names of people. A single word, with its own meaning and history, that has come to hold your identity, represent everything, your thoughts and emotions and cells and heartbeats, that makes you you. When you call someone’s name, you feel as if you’re tossing them a thread, irrevocably tying yourself to them. So you find different ways to get people’s attention, with eye contact or hand gestures or words with less weight and easier to say like, “hey” or “you”.

And of course, there’s the word “home”. People throw it around all the time, and so do your friends, after a meal or study session together. As they leave, they say, probably without a second thought, “I’m going home.” But you notice, you noticed it from the very beginning. And they probably haven’t noticed, but in your four years here, you have only ever said, “I’m going back to my room” or “I’m going back to my dorm”. Never have you used the word “home”. Sometimes you think it. And sometimes you wish you could say it. But not once have you uttered it out loud.

But yes, sometimes this place does feel more like home than where your home is supposed to be. When you come back from breaks, your friends always sigh, saying it was too short, it went by too fast. You, on the other hand, stay silent and sometimes, even breathe a sigh of relief. Being back, it’s a little easier to breathe.

But college has a time limit. You were never meant to stay. You came knowing you would leave. And now, time is running out.

Yes, perhaps this place has become my home. But now it is time to go.


d. all of the above

Home. A place to go back to, a place where you belong, a place where you feel safe and warm and loved.

So where the heck is this home? I’ve asked myself this question for a long time, a million times.

And this is the answer I’ve found.

Perhaps, that perfect home I’ve been looking for doesn’t exist on this earth.

Perhaps, instead, the closest thing I will find are the people.

The people from the house I grew up in and now live in, the people I met in college, the people I will meet wherever I go from here, they weave together, interlocking and intertwining, to form a space. A home.

Yes, it’s a little – or maybe a lot – crooked, and there’s knots here and there – or maybe everywhere. But it’s home, my home–

these broken, messy people who love me in their own broken ways, and who I’ve come to love with all of my broken heart.

So I wrote this – whatever this is – to these people, my people.

And perhaps, one day, I will find the courage to go up to them and say,

“I’m home.”