Home: A Story in Three Acts

A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform a piece of writing in front of people. It was scary and exciting.  I expected a few people, maybe 10, in a coffee shop who may or may not be interested in hearing my story. Instead, there were 150 people crammed into a small bar in mid-town Tokyo listening intently as I shared my writing.

I was slotted the second to last spot on a Sunday night and as the night wore on I worried more and more that the people in the audience would grow tired and leave. Actually, I secretly hoped they would. They stayed. When it was my turn, I pretended to be confident and took the stage, sounds of Alice in Chains’ epic ballad “Don`t Follow” pounding in my head. Breathed in. Breathed out. And shared my story:

Home, A story in 3 Acts

Act 1: The Fuckin’ Yankees

Slam! The screen door shuttered on it’s hinges. Causing the whole house to shake. Shocked by the tremor, my attention swiftly shifted from the Charles in Charge reruns I was watching to 

to the screen door. 

“The fuckin’ Yankees won again!” Dad announced. He’d just been outside, cleansing his chi. His doctor told him that he needed to walk barefoot in the garden to reduce his hypertension. He does this. Every summer  evening. He carries with him, his one companion: A rusty old transistor radio. The one his father gave him after the war. Sounds of crackly a.m. radio baseball sneak out of Dad’s pocket as he enters the kitchen.

“I swear on my father’s grave, the Orioles’ ONE goal in life is to lose to the fuckin’ Yankees!”

“Hmmm” says my mother, calmly snapping peas at the kitchen sink. 40 years of marriage has taught her to react subtly when he is being irrational. Especially when it’s about sports. Especially, especially when those sports are the Baltimore Orioles.

“What happened this time?” She asked

“Derek Jeter, That`s what happened. They can’t seem to stop Derek “f-in” Jeter. ”

“Well, Maybe They will stop `em tomorrow.” I offered, one eye still on Charles. 

Next to me my younger brother, Kevin, was too busy playing with his new guitar to care about the scuffle in the kitchen. 

“One can dream,” Mom said turning her attention back to the peas.

This was our routine, my parents me. Dad would complain loudly about New York sporting teams and mom would hum show tunes to drown out the din. Kevin played guitar while I contemplated the latest episode of Growing Pains. That kitchen, with its mustard yellow walls and cherrywood cabinets is where we became a home and where I learned what it meant to be home. It is where I learned to love, negotiate, laugh, cry, and listen.

I grew up in sunny Colorado, riding bikes, climbing trees, building snowmen with my little brother, sprinting up mountains as fast as my legs could carry me. Its where I kissed the neighbor boy for the very first time and fell in love on my front lawn.

Summer days spent skipping stones into glassy mountain streams and evenings in dusty old theaters learning everything from Shakespeare to Rogers and Hammerstein. 

Its where I learned how NOT to be a successful college student, and how to lie to my parents about being kicked out. Colorado is where I learned the word integrity the hard way, and that failures are stepping stones to success and not life ruining events. It’s where I learned that home is where they have to take you in no matter what. Because like The Rocky mountains, silent and majestic, home is a place for new beginnings and fresh starts. 

Act 2: What`s that smell?

Sniff!

“Woah. What the hell is that?” I asked as I stepped off the plane into the dense heat soaked Bombay summer.

“Nothing mad`am. Burning trash only.” he said with a dismissive wiggle of his head. 

“Oh.” I replied. But I wasn’t convinced. I’d never smelled anything like it before. It smelled like steamy old rotten bananas mixed with the sour blood of a freshly slaughtered goat. 

Heinous.

India is like that; It’s an assault to the senses. We made our way through the busy airport and after only 2.5 hours of waiting for luggage we were finally set free into the steaming buzzing streets of Mumbai.

He turned, looked at me, and with arms wide open he breathed, “Welcome home mad`am.”

“Thank you, Suraj.” I canted.

It hit me then.

This is home?  Where the pollution-soaked-sun casts long shadows of overstuffed rickshaws busily buzzing people and sugarcane and cows?

Where Ravens the size of small children incessantly chatter and debate about who gets the last morsel of decapitated rat? 

And where limbless people writhe and spill onto dirty dusty roads fighting street dogs for discarded bits of chicken biryani?

“This can’t be home.” I thought. “I won`t survive here.”

And I almost didn`t.

One year and three months into India, I was diagnosed with Typhoid fever. Like American Civil War typhoid Mary contamination thousands of people typhoid fever. I’d managed to contract the disease even though I’d had the vaccination. My doctor, Dr. Ajit Sadi, “it’s like this Andrea. A vaccine is like a small umbrella in monsoon. You’ll still be getting wet, but you won’t get as wet.”

“Oh. Great.”

The hospital became my home that week. The nurses my sisters, the doctors my parents. It wasn’t so bad. There were catered meals and   wifi. But I was glad when it was time to unhook the iv be discharged back my real life into my real home. Unfortunately, three weeks later, I stumbled into the hospital again. This time it was encephalitis. The scary kind. The kind that kills people.

“Welcome home, Andrea! We cannot keep you away!”

I would’ve smiled, but it hurt to move.

“Come. We’ve two new nurses just learning how to insert IV’s. They are very excited to meet you.”

“Perfect! You know how much I enjoy needles. This should be fun.” I said, mustering as much sarcasm as I could through the encephalitic fog. 

“What a good attitude you’ve got Andrea. India has kept well,”

And he was right. Despite two deadly illnesses and countless rounds of antibiotics India was keeping me well, because it’s there that I  learned how to build a home. How to create my own family. I molded important relationships with the shoe guy and the ice guy and the knife walla, the coconut lady, and the fruit guy, and the little kid who sold gum and old Bollywood playing cards. I grew attached the giant fruit bat family that lived in a tree by my window and the fleet of stray dogs who stood guard every night.

India is where I learned to embrace heat, and noise, and how to celebrate multiple deities, seemingly every weekend singning, “Om Gan Gana pata ye Namo Namah…shri sidd tviyak namo namaha ashta vinaiyak namo nahama ganpatti bapa morya…” It is where I learned to steer myself around noisy firecrackers, and goats, cows, dogs, burning piles of garbage, people, people, shit,more people, chickens, crows, more shit, bats, palm trees, discarded bits of goat, elaborate wedding processions, and even the occasional elephant.

The heart pounding deafening drum beats that echo down the dusty cobblestone lanes became my pulse. India was my heart. It’s where I learned how to really, truly, love being surrounded by the best of humanity.

And worst of humanity.

Because India, that is where I learned the truth about corruption. And blatant bigotry. And racism. And rage.

So much rage.

My home was becoming hostile and turning me into a person I didn’t recognize. One who became irrationally upset with tiny-insignificant things. So irrational that when doors were slammed, they rattled the whole house. I knew that as much as I loved India, and as much as I wanted our relationship to work, we weren`t healthy together. So with a heavy heart I broke up with home sought younger, fresher pastures.

Act 3: Silent Sardines

“Do you hear that?” he whispered

“What? I don’t hear anything,” she replied. 

“That. There. Listen.” He said, tilting his head toward a distant sound. 

They let the silence sit between them for a while before she reached over to him.

“I miss India.” she said.

“I know you do. But this is home now. You’ll get used to it.”

“When?”

“When you wake up.”

“What?”

“When you wake up.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I mean, when you wake up from dream you are in, you will get used to Tokyo. You will adjust to the silence. You will learn to embrace the cold compartmentalized disinterested public and you will see that it is respect for your space and not you being snubbed.

You will learn to love clean air, blue skies and pouty pink blossoms in spring. You will learn to love balls of rice and seaweed and riding your bike on vacant streets in below freezing weather. The rocking hum of tightly packed tin trains carting silent sardines downstream will start to feel safe. Like a communal hug. Silent swarms of silverly salary men and new moms with tiny button babies that rock and sway in the ebb and flow of the foot traffic, will carry you with them if you let them.

Listen.

Home calls to you when you hear the train conductor whisper, “Kichijoji, Kichijoji desu.” When you wake up and realize that you made this move on purpose. That just because you shifted locations doesn’t mean you shifted homes. Open your eyes and look around and you will find that home has been here all along. It’s in the song of the mountains and the laughter of school children being called inside with the sweet tune of home. It’s the trees you climb in Nogawa park and the Indian wool blanket you wrap up in at night. It’s in the 4:30 am sun rise and the dense heat of Tokyo Augusts. Home is the crack of the baseball bat when the pitcher for the Swallows gives up another base hit. It’s what you carried here from Colorado, and India.

It’s here.

Home is what you bring with you, and home is what you learn.

So wake up!

Stop fighting, and see it.

It’s waiting for you.

And those tremors you feel, those are probably just the fucking yankees.”

I finished reading. Swallowed back tears. Bolted from the stage directly to the bar where a cold gin and tonic was waiting for me. I didn’t hear the applause or see the partial standing ovation. People had to tell me about that later. I am glad I did it. Felt good to share a part of me with strangers, to get good feedback. The writing isn’t as polished as I want it to be, but I guess that is the nature of writing. It is cyclical. I will come back around to this piece, and when I do, I will find home waiting for me.

This is me reading. Photo credit, Sam Hubble.
This is me reading. Photo credit, Sam Hubble.

Melting Pot

Barcelona, Spain. International Airport. 3:05 p.m.

Standing at baggage claim, awaiting my adventure in this new country and looking forward to practicing some rudimentary Spanish that I kind of remember from high school, and as soon as I think it I find myself in this conversation:

[Enter, oldish man wearing no front teeth, chapped lips, and a blue blazer. He shuffles toward Andrea, standing at the baggage belt. And says…]

“No puedo encontrar mi equipaje.”

[No response]

“No puedo encontrar mi equipaje.”

[Startled] “Oh, um, me? Um…siento, hablo sólo un pequeño español.”

[Pause]

“No puedo encontrar mi equipaje!”

“Again, um, otra sir, no entiendo. Lo siento.”

[pause]

“Usted no es de España?”

“Nope.”

[pause]

[Louder] “No puedo encontrar mi equipaje!”

[To self] “Equipaje? What the hell does that mean?”

“Um, bags? Las bolsas están aquí.”

[Gestures to baggage belt directly in front of them.]

“No, no, usted no entiende.”  [Slower and louder] “¿Dónde está mi equipaje?”

“Oh, you don’t know where your bags are? Um…”

[Points to the arrivals screen.]

“Qué aerolínea? Did you fly? Where? Donde?”

“Nueva York”

“Claro. Belt tres.”

“Gracias señora. Buenas dias.”

[Man shuffles off. Andrea is left at baggage claim flustered, but smiling.]

Conversations like this happen quite frequently when I travel to Europe. In Turkey I was asked questions in Turkish, in Greece in Greek, even in New York I’ve been approached in Italian and Spanish. I guess I look Turkish, or Greek, or Spanish, or Italian. Is it my olive skin? My brown eyes? My chestnut hair? Could be.  The truth is my cultural heritage is a mix of Scottish, English and German. My family’s theory is that when the Romans conquered the British Isles during the Roman Empire, some burly Roman soldier found a Scottish milk-maid he fancied and made his love “official,”  thus securing my future as a melting pot person. I like it actually. I’m proud to be an American of diverse cultural heritage.

I wonder if I’ll be mistaken for Japanese on Thursday?

Glass You Made It

My parents took my brother and I to the Chihuly exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. It was beautiful a beautiful day with my beautiful family.

Dale Chihuly @ Denver Botanic Gardens
Dale Chihuly @ Denver Botanic Gardens
IMG_1842
Dale Chihuly @ Denver Botanic Gardens
IMG_1846
Reflection @ Denver Botanic Gardens

 

IMG_1934
Dale Chihuly @ Denver Botanic Gardens

IMG_1866 IMG_1883

IMG_1902
Dale Chihuly @ Botanic Gardens
IMG_1913
Dale Chihuly @ Denver Botanic Gardens

 

IMG_1937
Dale Chihuly @ Denver Botanic Gardens

 

Mohammad

Mohammad is a driver from the state of Utter Prasesh in north India. He’s moved to Mumbai in hopes of making money to support his wife and daughter. He and his family are Muslim which Mohammad is very proud of. I’ve known Mohammad for three years, met him through my friend Megan (read more about her on her blog http://blondieinbombay.blogspot.in) who found him and knew he was a keeper. He has met my visiting friends, my parents, is always willing to take me where I need to go, and is full of questions about “Mad’am Megan” and “my country.” Today was no different. I needed to go to the Japanese Consolate to submit paperwork for my pending work visa and Mohammad drove me there. Here is a transcript of the hilarious conversation I had with Mohammad this morning, as so many of them are. 
 
It went a little like this: 
 
M: How many brothers you have? 
A: One
M: How many sisters? 
A: None. Just me and my brother. 
M: Oh, father only has two babies. 
A: Yep. Only 2. 
M: How many marriage you make? 
A: I’ve not yet been married Mohammad. 
M: You are not making any marriage? 
A: Nope. 
M: How many years your brother is? 
A: Two years younger than me. 
M: Oh, he is 43? 
A: No. I am not 45 Mohammad. I am 38. 
M: Ok, so he is 32? 
A: He’s 36. 
M: Is he making marriage? 
A: Nope. He’s a musician. 
M: So father not making marriage for you? 
A: Nope. In my country, we marry for love. 
M: Megan mad’am making marriage? 
A: Not that I know of, no. 
M: Megan mad’am also 45 years? 
A: No Mohammad. Megan mad’am isn’t 45 years old. She is younger than me. 
M: Oh, so 42? 
A: No Mohammad. I am 38, and Megan is younger than me. So she isn’t 42. 
M: Oh. ​
M: How much father is paying for your making marriage? 
A: He’s not Mohammad. I am not making marriage right now. And, my father won’t pay for my wedding. 
M: Megan mad’am’s father making marriage for her? 
A: Probably not. 
M: I am making party in UP. You coming and Megan mad’am coming. I making husband for you. 
A: So we would share a husband? 
M: No! I am making brothers. 
A: You are making brothers? Don’t you think they’ll be a little young for us? 
M: (no response) 
A: Because if you and your wife are making them, they aren’t born yet which means they would be way too young for us. 
M: (no response) 
A: Nevermind. Thanks for the ride Mohammad. 
M: Welcome mad’am
 
 

I am Bombay

Bombay is built on trash. It’s incredible story is literally buried under miles of garbage. Waste so deep that you really have to concentrate to see it’s wonder and beauty. But if you are patient and willing to put in the work, the moment you get a glimpse you can see her: glorious, busteling, creative, shining, beautiful. And it’s worth it. All of it. Just to see her true self shine.

I’ve buried my heart. Deep down inside myself, under layers of hurt and disappointment and yearning and breaks. I’ve hidden it so deep that it’s almost impossible to see what and who it really is: glorious, busteling, creative, shining, beautiful. So I am digging, breaking away the layers of detritus until my heart can sing again. It’s been silent for too long. And it is worth it, the digging. Because buried underneath all that crap… is me.

First day shoes, last day shoes.
First day shoes, last day shoes.