“Home leave” and complicated feelings

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December 2017, New York City.

Starting in June 2023, I’ll be eligible to take “home leave”. This is a practice implemented by my employer — an international organization — that is somewhat similar to what the State Department has for its diplomatic staff serving abroad.

Every two years, staff working outside their home country are required to return home and remain at least seven calendar days within that country. When I take home leave, my roundtrip flights will be paid for: the cheapest economy fare possible, no upgrades, and I can’t tell them that I’d like to ‘go home’ to Hawaii, ha. I must either fly to the city that I have the closest ties to (DC, in my case), or take the alternative of a lump-sum payment equivalent to 70% of the cheapest roundtrip flight to DC. We do not get paid for expenses during these seven days, because — again — it’s ‘home’.

Even though home leave is still almost a year away, I’ve already started thinking about what I want to do. As I grow older, the idea of “home” has become much more complex and sometimes painful to think about.

Home is not Georgia, where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years. When I visited my parents’ house near Atlanta last year, I wrote a couple of happy, fluffy posts about it, but the truth was that it was bad. Awful things happened there that made me promise to myself that I would never voluntarily go back to Georgia again.

I’m not sure if home is DC, where I spent most of my twenties. It hurts a little to confront the fact that after six years of working, living and volunteering there — six years of happy hours and house parties and heart-to-hearts — if I return to DC, I wouldn’t know whom to call up, whom to catch up with. Almost all of my connections in DC evaporated the moment I moved to Switzerland in 2019. A few friends kept in touch sporadically via WhatsApp, but all of those chats had faded away by that winter. I think this speaks to a lot of things: the flakiness and transience that I and many others in DC embodied. The stubborn independence in me that has made me both self-sufficient and emotionally distant.

Funnily enough, the place that I miss the most in the States is New York, even though I’ve never lived there and have only visited a few times. I harbor a constant, quiet ache for that place: the Broadway shows, the cheese pizza, the benches in Central Park, the noodles of Xi’an Famous Foods, the diner breakfasts of fried eggs and potatoes, the armor at the Met, the glass towers of Midtown — even the tourists. Every time I’m in New York, I’m stressed, overwhelmed, and happy. It’s the life I could have had in a parallel universe — if I had gotten into the right college; if I’d found a job there. But New York passed me by, and now I get to savor only its good parts, the parts that make people dream, instead of the shitty apartments, low-paying jobs, bad dates and soul-crushing subway rides.

Another place that I can no longer call home is Beijing, even though I spent most of my childhood there and still remember it fondly. But that’s exactly it: the Beijing of my memories doesn’t exist anymore. The China that I remember doesn’t exist anymore. The last time I visited China was in late 2019, to see my grandfather at the end of his life, before the Alzheimer’s had totally claimed his memories. He died in 2021, and with that, a door seemed to slam shut with finality. To this day, China is still closed to the outside world, in more ways than one. As a non-citizen, I cannot enter. I can’t see my relatives and loved ones. I can’t visit their graves. I can only stand outside and watch through a foggy window. And honestly, the fact that I am not allowed to set foot on the land of my origin — it breaks my fucking heart.

Anyway. Maybe I’ll use home leave as an opportunity to explore a part of America that I have not yet seen; there are so many. For instance:

  • Los Angeles — I’ve only been to California once, briefly, in 2013. I’m curious what this factory of dreams looks like in reality. And I’d love to take a tour of Universal Studios.
  • Albuquerque — I want to take a Breaking Bad RV tour (and also try the best Mexican food).
  • Hawaii — the reason is obvious. But airfare prices are out of this world.
  • Alaska — I have always wanted to learn more about the Indigenous Peoples and cultures there, as well as see incredible nature and scenery.

Or maybe I’ll split my time between DC and New York. Drink in the familiar, feel comfortable. If I make it back to DC, there are so many things that I want to do:

  • Spend two or three days on the National Mall alone. Pop in every day and see all of the new exhibits at the Smithsonian museums and the Holocaust Museum. Take a walk through the Botanical Garden. Eat a delectable meal at the American Indian museum. Attend talks, lectures, musical performances, film screenings.
  • Retrace my steps through all the different places I used to haunt. The White House — which I used to walk past every night after evening classes for grad school. People watch on K Street, always busy and bustling.
  • Renew my DC library card.
  • All the restaurants I loved. PoppaBox for Korean fusion and bento boxes. Siam House for Thai. G Street Food for sandwiches. Roti for Indian fusion.
  • Go to Target and get a box of 100 fruit snacks.

It’s nice to dream, isn’t it?

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