Arrival at Departure

Soo Choi on the place between house and home.

I often joke to my friends that when I return to my parents’ home, I sleep in a Harry Potter cupboard. The last time that I stayed with my parents for any longer than a few weeks, I was 18. When I was 20, my parents, perhaps now realizing I would be visiting even less frequently, downsized into a smaller place for themselves and my younger brother. So now, usually for two weeks, twice a year, I fly home to Auckland, New Zealand and stay in the spare room on the second floor of my parents’ apartment, which fits my childhood king single bed and not very much else.

It’s a natural process for many of us – we move away, plant our roots elsewhere, and slowly the spaces carved out for us in the past begin to close up. Or at least, that’s what’s meant to happen. But who would have predicted a global pandemic that, in March, made me anxiously search for the stability and support of my family? And so, for the first time in four years, I booked a one-way ticket home.

This wasn’t just a brief return to a memory, it was like giving in to being stuck in a past life whose flaws I could see too clearly if I stared too long

In the small doses that I got, going home had always felt precious. As I got older, the time I have spent with my parents has become more and more valuable – getting to communicate with them now as an adult has allowed me to understand and appreciate them in a way I never could have when I was younger. I get to see friends from home grow, achieve and change in ways we could never have imagined as teenagers. There’s a warm nostalgia in revisiting the bookstores and parks of my childhood.

But going home without a return date felt risky; this wasn’t just a brief return to a memory, it was like giving in to being stuck in a past life whose flaws I could see too clearly if I stared too long. I feared that I would feel overwhelmed by the feeling of having outgrown that king single bed. It felt silly and selfish to worry about whether I could handle living with my parents again as a 22 year old, but I did worry. I worried about whether seeing the few friends I had at home more than twice a year would lead to a horrible realisation that we actually didn’t really know each other at all anymore. I worried about whether I would feel stifled by seeing my old high-school, places I used to frequent that reminded me of a person that I didn’t like being.

Two days after I landed home, New Zealand entered Level 4 lockdown for a month, over which time I basically saw nobody except my parents and brother. And none of my fears came true.

I recognise that I am immensely privileged in having been able to choose to go home when many others were unable to. And it really was a privilege to be able to feel the steady support of my family in what I have many-a-time referred to as “difficult times” in email greetings. But going home in a pandemic really wasn’t anything like I had experienced.

I’d always worried that I’d outgrown that room – but how could I have when I hadn’t grown up in it?

We experienced hardship much like anyone else over the last few months. As much as I leaned on my parents for emotional support, they leaned on me to help with navigating changing restrictions for the family business. While I had been worrying about them treating me like a child, they needed me to be an adult. My brother turned 18 while I was home, and over the months I was home I thought many times that I don’t know him very well at all. When I had left home he was 12, and I had been too busy pretending to know everything there is to know about life as a fresh-faced 18 year old.  Even the city that I thought was too small to ever really change was becoming bit by bit, unrecognisable to me.

I returned to Sydney in early July, anxious about leaving the relative safety of a country that was, at the time, on its way to 102 days of being free of community transmission. It was a painful goodbye leaving that Harry Potter closet. I’d always worried that I’d outgrown that room – but how could I have when I hadn’t grown up in it?

Each time I go home I realise that I don’t know where anything is in the kitchen at my parents’ house. Even though I consider returning to my family a return to my childhood, it’s not the house I grew up in. The Harry Potter closet isn’t the room that I left behind when I was 18, and maybe it will be another room the next time I return. While I was seeking the comfort of a past that I often dismissed like an ill-fitting sweater, it was outgrowing me.

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