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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Julia Zarina: Flying home

By Julia Zarina, Columnist
Published January 20, 2014

I am most at home when I am traveling between places.

In the eighteen years it took me to come to this realization, I spent hundreds of hours on airplanes, coming and going between the cities and countries I grew up in. As “third culture kids,” my friends and I moved as easily between time zones and continents as we did between languages, currencies and cultures.

Growing up, we collected information the way some people collect postage stamps. We could both curse and say “I love you” with conviction in a dozen languages and eat our meals just as comfortably on the floor with our hands as with chopsticks at a table. Like staring at a square-inch sepia print of some distant monarch and wondering about the place the letter came from, I liked having just enough information about something to be intrigued by the larger concept it represented. My motivation to be better was always the pursuit of something just out of reach — if I had all of something, there was nothing left of it to want — and so I drifted happily from place to place and from person to person. I was content with the balance my friends and I existed in. We belonged nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

For many of us, going “home” was the hardest part. It meant trying to make sense of a culture you were inherently supposed to understand and love, even when that culture sometimes made little effort to return the sentiment. I had endless questions, some big, some small. What was that song on the radio? Would wearing my favorite salwar kameez be unwelcome appropriation of a culture no stranger would immediately associate me with? Being “American” seemed to require full commitment to an identity that was clearly laid out in movies, in speech, in beliefs. Otherwise, your American-ness came with some qualifiers.

Sometimes I catch myself making up easier truths. I tell people I grew up in Texas, which, in the Midwest, is just unusual enough to invite neither suspicion nor familiarity. Adapting to a new identity comes naturally, something everyone who comes to school here has done to some extent.

For me and many others, it can be tempting to lose the more complicated pieces of our identity in favor of such a well-accepted new one. We can’t proudly make our own hands into maps of Michigan — maps of our home — when we are questioned and say “Here. This is where I’m from. This is me.” The walls in my room are filled with dozens of pictures — camels at the market, my sister and I in matching galabeyas, old friends, old lovers — not because I want to relive the past, but because I don’t want to forget it. My home isn’t as much a place as it is moments in time that are impossible to return to.

Airports are the first home of any third culture kid and are perfect environments for the kind of self-reflection that is difficult to do in a place like a university, where you are supposed to be unwaveringly true to an identity. I find myself focused on tiny details about people in a place where fleeting impressions are the only impressions. There are people who roll their sleek suitcases through terminals with a stride that carefully implies they are very busy and their suits are very expensive. I wonder if they think of themselves the way that the woman working the end of the night shift who sold them coffee thinks of them. Is the way I walk desperate to convey that every adjective I embody was hard-won? When people look at me, does a single phrase jump to mind?

I’ve always loved airports because they were our whole lives condensed, sped up and laid out before us for examination like film on an editor’s table. A rush of languages, destinations, stories never heard in full, and small corners of the world you come to know impossibly well for an hour or two. Every person passing by is unknown: in your life for a brief, shared experience and then gone again.

On the plane, the comfortable myopia fades away. As we gather speed and the dots of city lights blur into lines through the window, there’s an ambiguous sense of loss and a familiar melancholy — a nostalgia for a time that hasn’t passed yet. I am never conscious of where I am going or where I am leaving but I am infinitely aware of hurtling towards some great and obscure unknown, as though if the engines were to suddenly cut out the plane could just as easily fall to earth as it could void the laws of gravity and fall up in to the sky, an accidental spaceship destined for some nameless galaxy. I once heard someone say that they imagined dying to be a little like that and I think it must be true. It’s a little like being born, I guess, too. Or a little like falling in love. Or any number of our most important occurrences.

When you overthink your sense of time, the other five fade out. With this comes the inevitable epiphany that I will never have a moment of certainty that isn’t already in the past. From the ground it seems fatalistic and terrifying, but in the air it’s an entirely different matter. Without deciding, I have an innate resolve to do all the things a person with no fear of the unknown should do. I will run to the person I love and tell them; I will admit to any insecurity. Instead of the usual prayers to my gods — the gods of shooting stars and shiny pennies — to help direct the outcome of things I personally cannot, I think of all the times I’ve been there before. Every culture, every country, every new friend, new class and new plan I couldn’t predict the ending to.

In the uncertainty I am resolutely, perfectly at home.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu