There are many things in life that are confusing; taxes, relationships, driving in Asia.
“Home” doesn’t feel like it should fit on to the list, but once you’ve made the trip back to the town you grew up in after a long stay in Asia the word definitely becomes muddied.
What does home mean? Having lived a rather nomadic life for the last eight years, I quickly decided that home was where I lay my head. One night it would be the 2-centmetre foam mattress in a dirt-cheap dormitory in Bangkok, the next my swanky apartment in Tay Ho, Hanoi. As much as I’d committed to the idea that home was where my backpack was, I’d still slip and call the place I grew up “home.”
I’ve made a few trips back to the UK over the years, but my most recent trip seems to be the most irking. Which is weird since it’s the first time I’ve been back to a house that I own. I was accompanied by my partner who hails from South Asia, so I got to see things through his eyes too.
First, we had to deal with getting the visa, which fuelled some resentment for my home country. As part of the process I needed some paperwork posting over and when it arrived it smelled of home – Pledge furniture polish, Surf washing powder, and the old leather Chesterfield – the childhood home that was sold two years ago. I knew that walking into the house that I had bought and installed my step-dad in two years ago was going to smell of home if the envelope did.
Home sounds different after years in Asia. It’s quiet; no thrum of air conditioning, no whir of a fan, motorbikes revving and babies crying were all absent as we tried to sleep. It feels like there are a lot more people everywhere in Asia, living closer together and closer to the outdoors with always open windows and single glazing.
I remember the first time my partner visited the UK with me, we were taking a walk down some pleasant, Lancastrian lanes and he turned to me and said, in all seriousness, “where are all the people?”. “Work? School? Watching TV?” I’d never noticed how many more people there were around me in Asia.
After noticing the unsettling silence, I checked my watch. Then my phone. Had I got the time zones right? It was broad daylight outside yet 9pm by every device in the room. Trudging to the office in the dark at 8.30am was one of the reasons I decided to get out of the country in the first place, but the light evenings had never been something to contemplate before. “Imagine Ramadan over here? I’d be following Mecca times if I were fasting now,” the thought making me instantly hungry.
As a teacher I’ve joked with my students that they’d never understand me if they heard me talk like I do “back home.” Liverpool has a strong accent and a lot of slang and I can speak whole sentences that a non-Scouser wouldn’t have a scooby about (Scooby Doo = clue). On an extended trip to the UK a few years ago I temporarily returned to a contact centre job and a customer actually said to me, “excuse me love, are you thick or summat, can you get on with your words?” I’d spent so long moderating the pace that I spoke that my fellow countrymen got bored waiting for my sentences to end.
This trip, my mouth has struggled to wrap itself around the words at the pace everyone else speaks at. I either stumble over a word because I’m going way too fast or I completely blank and forget what I’m saying because mind and mouth are working at such different speeds.
When the words do come out, it’s not guaranteed to be in my home language. I’ve terima kasih’d the shop assistants more than once when my friend’s kid tripped over in the park, they got a hati-hati, and I even gave my partner an apa? even though Bahasa is neither of our native tongues and I’m nowhere near fluent. Having heard the fuss about Gregg’s vegan sausage roll, I went into the town on our second day to get us a couple. “Can I get two vegan spring rolls, please?” fell from my lips before I knew what was happening. “We don’t do spring rolls, love,” was the polite yet confused response.
People go home much earlier in my native land. It feels like nearly everything you could want is available from a Circle K, 7 Eleven, or mom and pop shop, whenever you need it and there’s one or seven on every street in South East Asia. Things close at home, early. You need to get your clothes shopping done before 5pm, coffee drank before 6pm, and beers swilled before 11pm, and woe betide you need a pint of milk outside of 8am to 8pm.
As annoying as I find it, the partner says it’s the thing he likes most about this part of the world – life isn’t all about work. Maybe I am spoiled in Asia; needs satisfied whenever I demand, not immediately understanding that it means another person being away from their family and home to keep me in late night Pringles and Oreos.
Toilets are the dealbreaker. Asia wins, left hand down. As much as the thought of squat toilet still strikes a modicum of dread into me, toilet paper makes me squirm. On this last trip I actually took a bum gun attachment back with me and had it fitted into my bathroom. The plumber wasn’t convinced, my septuagenarian step-dad steadfastly still uses the toilet paper, but for me it was the compromise I needed to make me feel right at home.
Taking with you what you miss to every home is the way forward, in my opinion. Having my man cook amazing curry most nights kept the belly happy in the UK, packing three kilos of assorted cheese lit up my tastebuds on my return. It seems to have worked, this time at least.