By Julia Zarina, Columnist
Published September 1, 2014
When August ends and summer nights quietly fade into autumn mornings, I think of going home.
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Summer to me has always been a different kind of existence unto itself. Growing up, when school ended my friends and I would say our goodbyes, exchange small tokens of our friendship and pre-addressed envelopes for the letters we promised we’d write (but never did), and board planes destined for every corner of the world. We were going home, our parents told us, to the countries we associated more with a passport cover than an inherent sense of belonging. Home was a vague and nebulous concept, ever changing in location and in definition. In the summertime, home was where the distant relatives insist you eat more food, I decided.
When summer ended and the evenings of visiting family members of uncertain relation were replaced with dusty afternoons playing soccer after school, the definition was different. Home was where the friends were. As third culture kids, we came from places all over the world, trading our jeans and dishdashas for school uniforms and smoothing our accents that had become textured with our parents’ languages over the summer into softer, unplaceable English.
I imagined our return to school not as a resolute homecoming, but as a trip driven by fate and forecast towards one of many inevitable destinations, just as the tides are indiscriminately turned to shore but quickly run back out to sea and to other faraway coasts.
We were searching for home in the in-between places. Looking in the spaces on the map separating where we lived and where we were from, in the time difference dividing our new lives from the ones we left behind, and in the translation between an elegant thought in our own language and the bulky and awkward reality of it expressed in another one.
Home was an idea, a place I thought I would find one day in its entirety, established and unchanging and requiring little building or input on my behalf.
Then, suddenly, there was Michigan.
Ann Arbor in early fall is wild and full of possibility, like a summer evening before a storm, the way the air crackles with electricity, frightening and exhilarating all at once. Here, we were all faced with infinite beginnings that were entirely new and entirely our own. In the first few weeks of school, every new friend, every class, every mass meeting and every trip to South U Pizza is filled with the endless possibility of adventure — an opportunity to define yourself, to become the person you want to be, to find your passion or the just-as-important best slice of late-night pizza, shared loudly with people you have the sudden and irrepressible urge to become impromptu best friends with.
You may not find fame, you may not find the person you will spend the rest of your life with, you may not even find half your classes until a week or two into the semester, but what you will find in the searching is a home and a family, perfect in their imperfections.
I found my home in the physics class that changed the way I think about the world and my family in the faces of the people I shared 2 a.m. dance practices with in Mason Hall, punch drunk from exhaustion and consumed with a complete and limitless sense of belonging.
Home is heartbreak, it is challenging and questioning the institutions that shape your experience, it is mistakes and failures, it is bombing a blue book exam and surviving to tell the tale, and it is the people who somehow make every tear worth it.
This year is a year of bittersweet “lasts.” My last Welcome Week. The last first day of school. The last time I’ll dance on stage with the people I love in front of a crowd of 4,000. And with each of these occurrences comes the growing realization that we’ve all built homes here. I watch football now, not because I particularly “get” it yet, but because I’m addicted to the feeling of ownership and belonging that comes with standing in a maize-and-blue sea of 115,000, screaming with a passion you never knew you had. I’ve Gone Blue. I’m tearing up in the Diag. I’m feeding the squirrels. I’m spending these last few warm lavender nights sharing unasked questions, secrets, and fears of the future with the kind of friends you make not just out of convenience, but the selfless kind you do crazy and beautiful things for just to make them as happy as they make you.
Michigan is a nostalgia for a time that hasn’t passed yet. And when we do leave, we leave a home of our own; a home we will carry with us always. A home that has offered us everything and inspires in us gratitude for the places we have come from in equal amounts, with excitement for new beginnings in the places it will take us. It is a home we make, just as much as it helps make us.
Julia Zarina can be reached at email@example.com.