In Search of a Foreign Sky
In the only bedroom that was ever mine and mine alone, I owned a sky, a few clouds, a rug of earth—a small world.
My walls were a pale blue and they enclosed me like the sky in the expanse of my 10 by 12 foot room of a world. My bed frame and mattress were of a soft, solid white, characteristic of IKEA-bought furniture. Every night, I fell asleep on a cloud, blanketed by the blue atmosphere of my comforter. I had a single window with purposefully chosen white shades. The shades, like my white door, were always left closed to copy an impossibly rectangular cloud. My desk, too, was a simple white rectangle standing on silver stilts, a floating cloud. My soft brown carpet of earth grounded this designed dream vault of heaven.
From eighth grade throughout high school, this was my little world.
Outside my window was a mundane world of life I increasingly closed myself off from, because it felt too small to me. For as long as I’ve known it, home has been a dead-end street. On one side, the street is cut off by a sewage river. There is a single railing that blocks off the end. On the other side, the street gets consumed at the intersection of a busy boulevard, cut off by the onslaught of cars. So really, home is a two-block long line segment. One could walk through Stevens Avenue and see it all in three minutes, but I—I was stuck on that street for 18 years.
What a small world home was.
When I was born, my family lived in a tiny apartment on the east side of the street. Two months later, we moved three houses down and across the street. The new house was a humble, two-bedroom abode with a small front yard that was fenced along with my childhood play.
In my younger days, I would often peer through the perforated fence, hands clenched against the hexagonal wires like a prisoner holding onto the bars, staring wide-eyed at what little life I might see passing by each day: the young couple next door walking their dog, the older children racing their bikes in the middle of the traffic-less street, the old Asian ladies gossiping under umbrellas on sunny days about their grandchildren’s grades. I quickly grasped that this little world of mine was a boring one.
In eighth grade, we moved into the condo next door. At the time, it didn’t matter to me that there was no front yard, no open air beneath the sky that belonged to us. By then, I had resigned myself to the fact that home was a bubble largely disconnected from the rest of the world. I was content with burrowing into my own microcosm as I began plotting for and longed even more for my escape into the bigger world.
All these houses I’ve lived in were on the same double-dead-end street. I could feel suffocated on Stevens Avenue, but I knew that any other street in San Gabriel, be it a few blocks longer or a few traffic lanes wider, would be just as small when it boils down to it. After all, the city, too, was a tiny world. It was a compact, four square mile, sterile suburbia in which not much ever happened. Somehow, San Gabriel was a niche home to 40,000 people, mostly immigrants from Asia or Mexico and generations of their offspring. It was easy to get stuck there; most people were too complacent to leave the familiar bubble that would become all they would ever know of the world. Sure, it was in the L.A. County, but people rarely took the half hour trip into the big city. As a whole, the town was estranged from the world.
It was a dead-end on its own.
Though my room in that house was designed make the sky mine, what I really wanted was to live under a new sky, a broader reaching one. I wanted a sky with clouds in it that carried the seasons I never got in sunny Southern California. I didn’t want the familiar sky that shielded my small street from the seasons, from experience, from the possibility of significance, because that’s what home inescapably was—a grain of sand forgotten on the shores of a spacious world and lost in the tides of time—insignificant. On both ends, home was a dead-end.
And I wanted out.
And I got out, eventually.
I went to MIT, 3000 miles away from home, thinking I’d find my foreign sky there. But it, too, felt too small, like another bubble that was a little world on its own. Then, wanting to escape the institute, too, after just a year, I went to Singapore, hoping I’d stretch my world significantly more. While there, I travelled to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, in that order—ironic how their initials spell out MIT. I’m going to Germany this summer, adding the breadth of a European country.
I’m seeing more of the world, immersing myself in what I can of it little by little, day by day, place by place. It’s deeply enriching, but something stops me from being completely fulfilled by the experiences.
Maybe it’s the long journeys of flying over large patches of the world and realizing how I will never be able to see it all with my feet planted on the ground, how all of it is so close in aerial view and yet out of my physical grasp, how so much of it I will never know. Maybe it’s having to leave each place before I can walk every street to its own dead-ends, before I can register the distinction between every face, before I can let the sky sink into the background as comfortably as I sunk into my old bedroom. Maybe it’s learning how worlds are separated not just by space, but by time, experience, and the ability to relate.
Or maybe it’s that I get homesick. The normal I-wish-I-was-home-so-my-mom-could-do-my-laundry kind of homesick where I miss the people, the food, the routine, the lack of adult responsibility. At least my homesickness always comes on like that. But each time I come home—each time having been away a little longer than the last, the sickness grown a little stronger with the passage of time—home relieves the sickness less and less.
The first time back home, after spending the summer at MIT before my freshman year began: the only differences I noticed were the newly painted roof tiles on the restaurant down Stevens Avenue and the construction work finally beginning at the demolished movie theatre next to my old middle school. Everything else fell back into their familiar place. I got frustrated with my parents easily, my friends and I gossiped about the same old things, I settled into the same position against the headboard of my bed each night like I had throughout high school and wrote in my notebook before falling asleep.
The second time back home, after my first semester at MIT: my parents had moved into a new, smaller house where the lights turn on slowly to conserve energy; my grandfather had moved to the hospital bed where he slept curled up in a coma; the town had moved into a different season and winter shrouded the setting in a different light that seemed dimmer than I remembered. I didn’t know where to write in the new house, but I still went to the same places with my friends. Indoors, Janice’s house and the boba tea shops we frequented still felt the same.
The fifth time back home, after spring break, second semester, and summer in Singapore: I found myself wondering aloud, has that store always been there? has that school display board always been red? has the library always been closed on Tuesdays? And someone always answered me with the affirmative, yes, it’s always been so. At first, I thought it strange I had never noticed. But then, a friend recalled that I had once pointed it out myself that the school display board was a broody red that didn’t match our school colors at all. Had I noticed then and simply forgotten?
Now, the seventh time back home, after sophomore year: I struggle to find familiarity here. When we pulled out of the freeway onto New Avenue, the bigger commercial street that stretched parallel besides Stevens Avenue, I felt my memory fail me. The picture of the two shopping plazas sitting next to each other, with a busy street running dynamic between them, seemed just that—a picture. It felt I was only aware of where I was like a tourist visiting the Eiffel tower for the first time, after having seen so many pictures of it, might be. The place is familiar, but not through experience. It felt I was coming to a place, not coming back to it. It lost the familiarity I once had of living there.
I’ve come back to the new house six times now. I know the outline of it, I know which rooms are tiled and which are carpeted, I even know where all the outlets are. But still, the house does not feel like home. The city no longer does either.
I no longer have the simple, deep, commonplace knowledge of it that gives it the intimacy of home.
I don’t know how much our memories and our sense of self and belonging are tied to setting. But if I am always flying from one place to the next like I have been, my sense of these have been blurring. Like the blurred scenery passing by when one stares out the window on a long car ride, with the vehicle moving at full speed, 80 miles per hour on the freeway, life is moving too fast for me. The landscape winds in and winds out of the window quickly. It is enough to know what I’m seeing, but not enough to take it in. I’m left with a sinking feeling of missed opportunities.
It seems I miss the very thing about home that made me feel suffocated here.
Home has become my foreign sky.