Roots and Ruptures: The Alchemy of Home

Art by Vera Tan

The air is bitter, but it’s not the acrid bitterness that assaults your soul, no. This bitterness is a soft reminder of the colossally suffocating warmth of familiarity. It is easy to lose oneself amidst Delhi’s enchanting chaos, but I, like others here, had grown to find solace in this dulcet cacophony.

Canberra is a complete contrast. It’s eerily quiet at times, the shops shut by 6 pm for some godforsaken reason, and almost very little unfolds in its confines. Don’t get me wrong, I love being here. I find great peace in its scenic divinity. But I also find myself yearning for the absolutely unfiltered energy that Delhi radiates. I miss the vibrant traffic and the babel of people shouting and cussing at each other and the long queues outside chhole-bhature stalls every Sunday morning.

Canberra’s too pristine and decent for my Delhi senses. I don’t even know how to function in such a low Air Quality Index. 

But more importantly, Canberra doesn’t know me and I don’t know it either. There’s this dreadful sense of mutual unfamiliarity and a fear that we’ll always remain strangers, or perhaps, at best, friendly acquaintances. And most importantly, I’m uncertain if Delhi will continue to recognise me like it used to.

I went home last break as a familiar face, but upon reaching home, the harsh reality dawned on me that by the next visit around I would probably become a guest- a distant friend you vaguely remember sitting with in class, but it could easily just be a lucid dream.

So, added to my list of things to overthink before bed is now this grappling sense of home and belonging. 18 years of existence yet, nobody ever bothered to teach me how to handle this dilemma of selfhood.

What is home now that the comfort of familiarity has been snatched away?

I’ve always believed in the succour of solidarity. You could be going through the shittiest time of your life, but knowing that there is someone out there who relates to your anguish will always be highly comforting. So, I took my baggage of emotional quandaries to go have a chat with some friends over at the ANU International Students’ Department.

Delving into the depths of our experiences on the concept of home, I spoke to Maythem Al-Anpaqi, a second-year Bachelor of Medical Science student from Iraq. Sitting next to him and speaking to him, I could sense this undaunted resolution that radiates from his very being. Within a minute of our conversation, I could gauge the deep sense of purpose that he carries along. It is inspiring. He tells me about his struggles at ANU. He speaks about this feeling of isolation that he experienced his first semester, and you could see me frantically nodding my head in agreement. However, joining societies and clubs and making conscious efforts to become a part of the ANU community, he claims, has helped significantly in dealing with the alienation. A year in, Maythem’s zeal to contribute and volunteer in the community has helped him successfully find his place.

I ask him what home is, he doesn’t have to think before saying ‘It’s about being a part of something’, you can tell this isn’t the first time he’s thought about it.

‘So, when you ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Iraq because I’m part of that something, part of that country. So, I feel like if you’re part of something that’s how you feel at home and that’s how you find home.’

I’m bewildered by how he’s found peace with home, the same peace I’ve been yearning for. He tells me it’s because very early on he came to terms with the fact that sacrifices are indispensable. He needs to move forward to succeed. This, he has realized, is the only way he can return to his family and country in a better position. He needs to sacrifice the comfort of home to grow.

I know he’s right and I know it is a great privilege for us to be here but it feels almost sacrilegious, losing a part of our identities for a better future.

Today, Maythem has found home in the peaceful moments spent sitting by the Centre for Islamic Studies, his bonds with people at ANU, and the books on his shelf that will always serve as a cherished reminder of the golden time he spent wandering around the lanes of Al-Mutanabbi. Home is no longer a place but a feeling of comfort and solitude.

He tells me to think of this time as a mission, he tells me to channel the innate human greed, the greed to succeed, the greed to provide a better future for myself, my family, and my country. That, he believes, is what will ultimately help me adjust.

I then had the pleasure of conversing with Harshita Pathak, a second-year Law/Commerce student hailing from India.

As soon as I brought up the topic of home, her eyes gleamed like stars on a full moon night. She shared with me the profound transformation in her notion of home over the past year. She spoke of the simple joys that evoke a sense of homeliness now. The soft warmth of having a cup of chai with her friends, strolling around the campus, video calls with her family, or the sublime bliss of cooking up a meal with her friends. Harshita has found little fragments of home in the mundanity of life at ANU, underscoring the crucial role her friends played in helping her build a sanctuary that is now distinctively hers.

I asked her about her time in India during the break, and her face was tinged with bittersweet melancholia. She described the dread of the ticking clock; and how she returned timebound to the place where she grew up. Her days were filled with the arduous countdown of when she was to bid farewell all over again. 

Like me, she has developed this aching fear that she’ll lose the emotional connection with home over time. But she finds repose in her family’s constant reassurance and encouragement.

From a little girl in Rajasthan who always craved the comfort of a permanent abode, she is now a woman with a spirit that glows with hope and optimism, trying to navigate the dynamicity of home.

Her piece of advice is to trust that you will find your people and your place no matter how impossible it may seem right now.

My final destination was Madelynn Zhang, a fourth-year Bachelor of Commerce student from China.

Call it the last semester jitters or whatever, but when Madelynn spoke about home, there was this aura of deep poignancy and sensitivity. After being away from home since she was just 14, she reminisces about it with a blend of nostalgia and retrospection. She has realised in all this time that it is frivolous to consider a place home. Home for Madelynn is her family.

‘Family’s all I got when my lease is ending soon and I can’t get a job.’

Talking about her time in China over the break, she tells me how devastating it is to see everything you’ve known change. The streets she grew up in are not the same anymore, they are not hers anymore. How do you even cope with this feeling of alienation from a place you once called home? Finding a place at ANU has been challenging for her, but she does claim that the international student community helped ease the journey. She finds it easy to connect with other international students despite the varied cultural backgrounds but because of this shared sense of struggle.

Her final piece of advice to all those struggling with this newfound rootlessness is to just remember to stay connected to your family, they might just be the only constant.

After all of this existential façade, my fears still haven’t waned but I think I might know what home is now. You know how they say all roads lead to Rome? Well, Rome is home. Where do all your roads lead you to? Where do you end up without trying, without fail, every time?

While thinking about all of this is daunting, we need to realise that home cannot be snatched away from us. We are all mosaics of the people we meet and the experiences we go through. Home will always be a part of you.  All we can really do is carry along all these ruptured shards of what once was home and weave out our own little tapestry of home wherever we go.

Alright so, final advice? Firstly, we’re all in this together, as cliché as it might be. It’s important to realise the beauty of shared human experiences, no feeling or experience you’re going through right now is new. People have been here, they’ve done this and so will you.

Secondly, you and your family have put in a lot of effort, time and money for you to be here, the least you can do for yourself and them is to make the most of this experience. Put yourself out there. Join a club, make plans to hang out with that friend, talk to the person next to you in your tute or just get out of bed today. Think of it this way, with a community as vast as we have here, nothing you do is relevant enough for people to remember. It is okay to embarrass yourself, simply because nobody knows you here, so who cares?

Lastly and most importantly, call your family! Like right now, do it. Stop pretending to be strong, seriously, just go cry to your mom about this. There is nothing else that would make you feel better. This isn’t just your first time away from them, it’s also their first time away from you.

You’ve got this!

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.