“Where thou art, that is home.” -Emily Dickinson
We now are just wrapping up the season of the great annual Dongguan exodus. Come July, and expats start to flee the sweltering heat and humidity of the city in a flurry. Although some of the deserters refer to the phenomenon neutrally as “summer vacation,” most will just say they’re “going home.” So, off we go to the places from where we came: to hometowns we left ages ago, to visit grown-up children or aging parents or to simply search for that mythical place called home. The implication, of course, being that home is somewhere else.
I am not an exception, I too joined the movement as early as mid-June. The mere logistics of my traveling plans, however, were reason enough to ponder upon the complicated concept of “home.” In only a month, I was to travel home to Stockholm (where I’ve lived for the past 20-plus years), home to Sofia (where I spent my childhood) and home to Barcelona (where a chilled bottle of cava always awaits me in our charming apartment), before flying back home to Dongguan.
How many homes can a person have? Which is the real one?
Cool and shimmering Stockholm welcomed me like a true home, where my daughter was there to embrace me. There, I found the familiar sight of my old books, my favorite tablecloth on the kitchen table and the pillow that somehow always remembers the shape of my head—all those small things seemingly conspired to make me feel at home.
As did the florist next door who wondered where I’ve been hiding all this time and the optician around the corner who greeted me with a hug. Time seemed to have stayed still at the office and my colleagues hadn’t quite realized that I’d been away for many months. My friends were as excited to meet me as I was to meet them. Instinctively, my feet could still find their way around the beautiful jogging trail in Hagaparken. Looking wistfully at the late-night sun, taking in the fresh smell of lilacs and savoring the first of the season’s strawberries, I almost regretted having to leave so soon—even before Midsummer, this most Swedish of all holidays.
“Finally, back home,” was how my brother greeted me at Sofia’s airport at midnight. His warm hug and happy smile embodied considerable emotion. The smell of Swedish lilacs were quickly overpowered by the heady aroma of Sofia’s blossoming linden trees. Greedily scooping the best yogurt in the world over breakfast the next day, my stomach at least was certain that it had found its way home. Not even overindulging in ripe cherries, apricots and raspberries could upset it.
I watched my youngest niece monkeying around at the playground, while casually chatting with the other moms. I joined her older and more sophisticated sisters and their young friends for drinks and philosophical discussions at night, swapping memories with old school friends and neighbors. Of course, I belonged here, I thought. And how crazy to even consider leaving this home country of mine before having finished off my mom’s delicious home-made bread or properly devouring all the latest gossip.
Leaving behind the warm chaos of a close-knit Bulgarian family, my first night in our beautiful Barcelona home felt intensely lonely. Yet, for an introvert like myself, loneliness is also is a home of some sort. The feeling was short-lived.
The very next day, it was my turn to welcome a good old friend from Israel. Showing her around the familiar streets with the natural ease of an old hand, explaining the difference between tapas and pinchos at lunch, proudly pointing out the secret view of Sagrada Familia from the steep stairs at the end of our street, it suddenly occurred to me that feeling entitled to boast about a place might be another definition for home. Enjoying the gentle Mediterranean breeze, while strolling along streets lined with the most beautiful and wildly imaginative buildings in the world (yes, I’m a huge fan of Gaudi), it was once again time to wonder why on earth I didn’t plan to stay longer.
Having crisscrossed Europe from north to south, east to west, home to home, I have returned to my lofty Dynatown apartment overlooking the lush tropical greens of Qifeng Park and the typical Dongguan cacophony of high and low buildings baking in the scorching sun. I couldn’t wait to jump on a Mobike and steer towards the market to stock up on ripe mango, lychee and passion fruit. Meanwhile, I hear WeChat chiming happily. Best of all, my husband’s warm embrace assures me that he is genuinely happy to see me again. And then I realize, it is here in his arms that I’m truly at home.
Having crisscrossed Europe from north to south, east to west, home to home, I have returned to my lofty Dynatown apartment overlooking the lush tropical greens of Qifeng Park and the typical Dongguan cacophony of high and low buildings baking in the scorching sun.