Four months ago, I left home with a promise to come back.
I left with masked tears, excitement for a new year marred by a prick of unease that never went away no matter how many times I had done the same thing. It is the same dance over and over again at the beginning of every semester, I would long to stay behind, have a little more time with my family, only to finally board the plane to the promise of new classes, better chances and busier days.
Two months ago, I left another place I called home, saying a forever goodbye.
My roommates had hastily moved out of our dorm, and I sat in an empty room with packed suitcases waiting for my ride. I stared at our bare walls. They were closing in on me, suffocating me until I forced my eyes away and glanced out of the window, feeling a bit like Rapunzel stuck in some tower waiting for an escape.
Two more destinations, a constant fear of ending up homeless, two overweight suitcases that now contain my entire life, and multiple teary sleepless nights later, I often wonder – where and what is my home?
People try to define “home” often. They do so in the form of cringy hallmark movies and romcoms, wall décor that you receive as housewarming gifts, and self-help books targeted at middle-aged white suburban moms. But I never really questioned it until I left my home – it suddenly feels like a label of false security.
Being able to call a place yours – whether that place is a country, building, a group of people, a community – is a privilege, and like every aspect of privilege, you never really know you had it until you lose it, or are confronted with the absence of it.
When I first came to the US as a college freshman and a new international student, I was constantly reminded that this was not my home. Every time I was asked where I am from, questioned about my accent or got my British spelling corrected, I was made aware that my home is elsewhere. But I didn’t mind. I had a home in Sri Lanka, a beautiful family, and supportive friends. It was a home where I did not have to explain myself every time I did something that is remotely “South Asian” or “non-American.” I did not have to mask my opinions with niceness, or constantly be aware of the color of my skin, the way my words sound and whether I call it the pavement or the sidewalk.
But when you live in a place long enough, it grows on you. It is like a vine that creeps up on you slowly and you never notice it until it has surrounded you and becomes a part of yourself. By the second year of college, I was not quite sure if my home was firmly in Sri Lanka anymore. Of course, I still had my life there, and whenever I went back, I had the comfort of walking around in flip flops under the scorching sun, familiarizing myself with the honking of the cars and casually slipping back to Tamil like I was speaking it every day while I was away. But I recognized that I missed Iowa. I missed the way people opened their doors for me, the cornfield jokes, the cheap pasta from downtown, and the rustic smell of fall. I had realized that while I had my home back in Sri Lanka, I had also made a home in Iowa, and while it felt strange – and a little scary – I understood that duality of my life, of what I call home.
Then the pandemic hit. When I got the official email from the university announcing that classes were going online and that the residence halls would be closing, I couldn’t think straight – I cried. Sri Lanka had gone into lockdown, and suddenly Iowa did not feel like a second home anymore. I thought I was going to be homeless. Kind friends in Iowa City, my savings, the stability of my on-campus job, and the sanity that online classes gave me kept me afloat.
I skipped houses, packed my entire life away in two suitcases and a hundred boxes that were all dispersed to four different locations, and stayed awake every night worried about the next day – of what I was going to do, what I was going to eat. For two weeks I lived alone, and one night I wondered if I did not wake up the next day, how long would it take anyone to notice?
Now I live in a room that is not mine, posters of people I do not care for adorn the walls. I’m afraid to mess up the order of things and living out of suitcases because I am scared to unpack, ready to be on the move once again if I need to. I feel like a vagrant, like a kite whose string has been cut adrift, lost in this liminal space of longing and waiting. I wonder if Iowa was ever my home – if that sense of comfort was so false that I had been betrayed into believing that I could make a home away from home in this country.
In late April, President Donald Trump announced the plan for an immigration suspension. There was a sense of panic among friends who had gone back home, of the uncertainty of not being able to come back. I stood in that threshold of being able to make a decision, when it was really a false sense of choice because my decisions were being made by governments and policies, while I sat like a puppet going back and forth between my desires, torn between two homes, questioning the security and longevity of both, the weight of the answer chasing me as the semester drew to a close.
Each day I feel like a clock is ticking, each morning I wake up to monotony. Groundhog Day suddenly feels like a horror movie. I pass my days and find solace in memes and Tik Tok videos that my friends send my way. I listen to the same songs over and over again and feel disgusted by the greasiness in my hair. I dream of Sri Lanka – of sunny beaches, sounds of traffic, and the heat of the sun. I wake up in a bed that is not mine, hurry up to check my phone to see if anything has changed and let a sense of disappointment and displacement wash over me, all over again.