“It’s quite simple, my dear. You have had the power all along. Simply close your eyes, and say three times, ‘There’s no place like home,’ and before you know it, you will find yourself back in your beloved Kansas.”
Dorothy looks at Glittering Glenda awestruck. “You mean… all along…” The young girl’s voice drifts away over the rolling emerald hills. Dorothy gazes around her at Glenda the Good, at the big-hearted Tinman, the courageous Lion, and the wise Scarecrow. “…I guess I never would have met any of you.” Tears gather in her eyes. Embracing each of her friends in turn, Dorothy gathers Toto into her arms. “It’s time for us to go home now, Toto.” The little dog barks in reply. Closing her eyes, Dorothy states, “There’s no place like home.” She sees the flat golden fields of Kansas. “There’s no place like home.” There is the farmhouse looking whiter and brighter than she remembers it. “There’s no place like home.” There is Aunty Em at the stove from which the smell of warm corn bread and rich stew curl gray and inviting.
Dorothy has the sensation of spinning. She can no longer feel the ground beneath her feet, but Toto’s warm soft body in her arms is a comfort. Then of a sudden, there is something solid beneath her, but the world has turned sideways. Dorothy opens her eyes to find herself lying in the golden grass in her back yard. Pulling Toto’s slick nose to her face, she whispers, “We’re home, Toto. We’re home.”
Home. “Aaphno gharko maayaa laagihalchha, aaphai janmeko Thaau…” “Of course we love our own homes, our birthplaces…” Home is a word that raises reservations in me. Apparently it has since I was quite small. I am told that when I was 6 ½ and preparing to leave South Africa to return to the United States, I firmly informed my parents that although they might be returning “home,” the United States was NOT my home. South Africa was my home. I was NOT going home but leaving my home.
And now? Home is where the heart is, some say. Where is my heart? Physically, it is here. Kalimpong. India. Nepal. I am going to a place (San Francisco) where I have never lived and in which I have spent a total of maybe two weeks. Am I going home? My parents will be living somewhere neither of them have lived before. A place that it is quite likely I have never been to. Am I going home? I would say that I am going home to my parents and brother, or going home to my friends.
Kahile aaphno ghar jaane? People ask me. When are you going to your own home? Sometimes I want to tell them, right now, as I walk the road to my house in Kalimpong where my aamaa (mother) and bhaauju (sister in law) await my return. My aamaa calls me chhori, daughter. On Saturday, I will celebrate my birthday for a second time in Kalimpong, for a third time (in the last 4 years) in India. Where is home if it is not where I live and work and love? “You must be excited to go home….” People tell me. Yes, I am excited to go to the United States, but I am reserved about using the word home. I am sure that it will be home in a few months, but it’s not home yet.
What about the strange dynamic of being hosted as a foreigner in a family’s home? I talk with students about how fabricated it is. A family I have never met comes and picks me up from the program house 3 ½ years ago, their new “chhori” “daughter.” They give me a new name, speak to me slowly; slowly teach me the rules of the house. They love me. They call me daughter, sister. I become “Jyoti Rai.” Am I still Thandiwe? Am I really their aaphno chhori (own daughter)? It is fabricated, contrived. Yet this culture seems to more readily accept people into family than we do in the United States. I call strangers on the street “didi” (elder sister) or “daaju” (elder brother). A man I met on the train to Vellore, South India tells me to come and visit him, I am like his own daughter after a couple of hours of conversation in Nepali and some shared food. In the United States, I would quite likely be creeped out by this, I would probably have refused the offer of food, I probably would not have been so ready to have conversation. But here it seems natural.
The challenge, as several of my students have put it, is to take this contrived relation of “chhori” (daughter) or “chhora” (son) within a family that I do not know as a starting point from which to build a relationship that is real. I am not an aaphno chhori, and I will never be. I know this. I can feel it in my own freedom to come and go as I wish. I can leave. I can travel to the United States. I can leave and never return. No one expects me to send money that I earn to my family. No one expects me to come for my aamaa’s funeral when she dies, or to bring my partner and have a wedding ceremony with my family here. My family here hopes that I will call sometimes, that I will send letters and perhaps gifts. Mostly they hope that I will not forget and that I will return to visit. How can I forget?
I stopped at a neighbor’s for tea one morning on my way to the bazaar. She repeatedly marveled at my grasp of Nepali language and culture. “How did you learn so well? How did you learn to be so good?” She asks me. Unsure how to respond, an awkward smile creases my face. “Your parents, no?” And I know the answer. “Yes, my parents. My aaphno [own] parents and my family here in Kalimpong. I live with Kailash Rai and his family – they have taught me a lot of the language and also about Nepali challan (customs).” “Oh! Kailash. He and his wife are wonderful. Very good people. No wonder….” This testament to my family rings true. They are wonderful. They are good people, welcoming of others, loving of me, generous, honest.
I come home cranky one afternoon after a long day of work and with the added stressor of extra hormonal activity. I know that I’m off so I try to be extra friendly and talkative with my bhaauju (sister in law) when I get home. She’s had a long day too and doesn’t have much patience for me. She clips her answers to my questions and barely turns her warm round face to mine as she heats water, milk and sugar for tea. “Here you go. For you and for Kabita didi [elder sister],” she tells me handing me two cups of golden tea. I carry the cups into my aamaa’s room (which also doubles as sitting room) where my didi and aamaa are sitting. Anu didi, a neighbor is also there, and I have two cups of tea, so I hand one to Kabita didi and one to Anu didi. “How did you know I was here?” Anu didi asks. I smile and tell her that I’m psychic and sit down beside Kabita to watch TV.
Bhaauju comes in a few minutes later. “When did you get here?” she asks Anu didi. “A while ago,” Anu didi replies raising the tea cup to her lips. Seeing this, bhaauju looks at me. I smile sheepishly and bhaauju laughs. “Our Jyoti,” she says, “she understands how to be a good Nepali chhori,” and she puts her hand on my leg, letting it rest there.
Am I going home or leaving home? It hasn’t been easy living with a family for the last 4 ½ months. I had forgotten what it’s like to have someone monitoring my movements, telling me what to eat and when, with whom I feel expected to spend time. As a student, my responsibilities were restricted to coming to class to learn Nepali and then going home to spend time “immersing” myself in the culture of my family. Now I have to work, to be “on” at the office and then I come home having had enough of people for the day. I guess this is life when one has a family…. I also know that the expectations of a “Nepali chhori” are somewhat different than those of a daughter in the particular US culture that I come from. And sometimes I find this different to be a challenge for me. Where do I fit? How much do I compromise to the behavior expected of me as a participant in a family here and how much do I say, well, I am from the US and I have certain needs too? I cannot say that I found this balance very well, but that’s alright. It’s been a learning process. Wry smile. And such is life, no?
Home…. I feel that I’ve digressed a great deal from the idea of home. There’s no place like it…. Sometimes I wonder where I can be from. I think that San Francisco will be an incredible place to be from even if, as my friend Sean informed me, it’s not a very original place to move to. Wry smile. I guess I’ve been setting pretty high standards in terms of originality these last two years (residentially speaking). Fair enough. But I think and hope that I will both have a ready made community when I arrive, but also that I will be able to find people who bridge some of my experiences – people who’ve lived and worked in India and Nepali, people who speak Nepali, people trying to decide in which direction their lives are going, people who are still working to figure themselves and their relation to the world out.
Yes. The U.S. IS my home. But so is Kalimpong. And many other places have been my homes in the past and many places will be my home in the future. If my return to the Nepali Diaspora last May (2007) is anything to be judged by, this culture will also be a home to me. Interesting questions, these: family, home, what the hell I as a foreigner am doing here, the power that I have, my role, my responsibility…. So many things to think about. I guess that’s what transitions are all about. Starting over and yet at the same time, continuing without stopping right from where we are. Starting from where I am, I’m leaving home. But it is also with the knowledge that I am going somewhere where I have people who will be home for me. Who already are home for me. And maybe that’s what’s important. There’s no place like home. No place like any of them. To get sentimental and cheesy, we always have the power to go home because we have home within us and the power to create a home is something we carry with us wherever we go.