“Have you been talking to your parents?” Auntie Noemi and I are walking to the market. This is the third time this week she has asked me this question, but for the first time I catch the way she is asking it—slowly, in a way that cues she’s asking me something else.
I give her the same response. “A little.” I pause. “Why do you ask?”
She stops. She turns and looks at me. “You might be a little homesick.”
The word “homesick” dries up all the words from my throat. “Do I seem like it?”
Auntie Noemi turns around and brushes it off as if she’s never said anything. She moves into the market crowd, making her way through the tables of sayote and pechey, but I still stand out on the road. When she says, “You might be a little homesick,” she is actually telling me, “I think you are homesick.” And she might be right. She might be more intuitive about my current state than me, or at least more willing to state the truth.
See, the problem with the word “homesick” is that I hate it. I talked about this with a friend recently. How the image of “homesick” is a thirteen-year-old girl at one-week sleep away camps who cries every night because she misses home. “I never I understood that girl,” my friend writes. “I always thought, ‘Girl, appreciate the money your parents spent so you could be here and make friends. Also, get a life. You’re thirteen.’ When I think homesick, I think weak.”
And yet it’s weakness that I keep returning to, over and over again. This is the first time in my life where joy is distant. Even at moments where I should be happiest—riding topload on a jeepney in the middle of the jungle, my feet hanging loose over the tops of pine trees—my joy has a ceiling. I can feel it contained, every edge of it. It lives in a concrete room rather than something that roams free.
Today, while taking a jeep to Kayapa, I download a copy of the audio file of my sister’s concert that I’d missed the night before. I press play. I am in a car full of strange faces who watch vined trees lean into one another, but through my headphones I can hear the soundscapes of home. The recording captures everything about home that I love. Not only the concert, with Katie’s voice sounding so close, it almost tricks me into thinking she downstairs singing in our kitchen again. It accidentally records all of the forgotten, perfect things, things I don’t realize I miss until I hear them: my mom’s laugh over the clink of glasses and my dad telling the tables next to him that this is his favorite song in his slow, Southern drawl.
This is what is so hard about being here. I forget how unnatural my life is until something reminds me of home, and then I am struck by the familiarity of home and the foreignness of this place. I can feel the shape of my life there. Today, in between packing my car for the eleven-hour road trip back to campus and hiking up the mountain that my dad and I always climb in the mornings, I would go to my sister’s concert. I can see myself there, sitting in the dark of that café and humming along with the crowd to the familiar songs the way they do on the recording. But instead, I am here in a car where mouths speak a language that still doesn’t belong to me and we are a small dot moving through the dense jungle. I listen to the whole recording from start to finish, and then I play it again and again, not even for the concert but for the parts of my life that I miss: when my sister makes a bad pun but the audience laughs anyways, or a song that mentions the tree swing in our backyard. It feels so close and yet impossibly far away, like a lucid dream. I am filled with want so bad, it makes me sick to my stomach.
Now the jeep leaves the forest and the road opens up. There are only the mountains surrounding us on all sides. These mountains. I keep returning to them too, over and over again. I wish I could explain their magnetism to you. They are a wild breed of giants, their immense spines resting in child’s pose. They sleep on the heels of one another. Shadows make blue shapes on their faces. These mountains command attention, but they offer themselves to you, bowing toward us with their backs folded reverently. I think it’s what makes them so compelling, somehow vast and immense and unattainable, but at the same time sloped in a posture of surrender.
Maybe joy is not always something that is given to you automatically. I always thought it is something that can’t be forced, but wells up in you without prompting. It sometimes is. But maybe other times you must fight for your joy, even if it is walled in. Maybe sometimes we choose thankfulness even in the absence of happiness, and therefore we choose joy. Already, two months have passed by. I do not want to spend the rest of this time wishing for the life I already know so well, but to spend it in this moment, here and now. This life is rich, sweet, and here for such a small amount of time. The world demands your attention and offers itself to you. I demand mountains, fistfuls of them.