A Lifetime of Suitcases and Cardboard Boxes

“I don’t want to own anything until I find a place where me and things go together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like…It’s like Tiffany’s.

[…]
It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there…If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.” – Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

It’s a lonely life for a girl who dreams of airports, lines at passport control, and waking up in cities where she can’t understand her neighbors.

It’s even lonelier when she lives in a world that tells girls they should dream of white picket fences, a stable but not too flashy career, and dinner with the in-laws on statutory holidays.

I’m not sure exactly where my wander-lusting ways came from, but for as long as I can remember, my mother has enjoyed commenting on how I have needles growing on my butt (屁股長針).

“My daughter can’t sit still to do her homework.  So many needles on her butt.”

“My daughter never comes home for dinner. So many needles on her butt.”

“My daughter is flying across the Pacific Ocean for the third time this year. So many needles on her butt.”

“My daughter just quit her job and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. So many needles on her butt.”

Meanwhile, my father could often be heard exclaiming, “my princess has gone wandering yet again!”

(Ever wonder where the name of my blog and the term “Needle Butt” came from? Well, now you know!)

There’s this grainy VHS video sitting on my parents’ bookshelf of when I was a toddler. I was hobbling around the living room of our small, dingy apartment in Dallas, Texas wearing a baby-blue t-shirt, ridiculous pajama bottoms, and an over-sized scarf around my neck like a cape.

My doting father, who was not much older then than I am now, could be heard happily saying, “my princess has gone wandering (公主出巡)!”

And I, in that squeaky voice all small children have, was yelling back at him, “公主出巡!” as I sprinted around the living room, holding both ends of the cape and waving my stubby arms up and down as if I could fly.

Airspace somewhere above Russia and Finland on the way home after 6 months of travel

Airspace somewhere above Russia and Finland on the way home after 6 months of travel

Perhaps my somewhat reckless wanderlust also came from my parents.

They were immigrants who worked 16 hours a day, every day of their 20s so they could make it to America. They left everything that was familiar and moved across the Pacific Ocean so that I, and eventually my brother, could have a better life.

In particular though, I imagine I get it from my mother. She moved to the States first—to the City of Angels, alone, ESL, 5’3, barely 90 lbs., and 3 months pregnant with me. She was enrolled in a Master’s program at USC and was often harassed by guys on campus who wondered what this tiny, pregnant Asian girl was doing in America alone.

She lived next door to an old lady named Grace who helped her settle into her new life. When I was born, guess what she named me?

Last year, when I told my friends I had quit my job and planned to wander the world until my savings ran out, they all thought I had lost my mind.

“You’re so brave!” they said, “I would never be able to do that! I’m way too scared to travel alone!”

Now, I live a decade-and-a-half into the 21st century, where everyone owns a smartphone armed with…!

The Internet.

It’s essentially impossible to get lost with Google in your pocket, showing you via GPS exactly where you are at all times, live translating whatever that angry man by the Eiffel Tower is screaming at you, and telling you exactly how badly the Canadian Dollar is faring against the Euro whenever you dare ask.

So no, I am not brave.

My mother is brave.

Maybe that’s where I get it from.

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Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand

My parents like to move a lot.

Maybe they have Needle Butt too.

Within a month of my birth, they moved to Dallas, Texas where they moved 4 times. 7 years later, they made it to Vancouver, Canada. 5 years (and shockingly, only one residence) later, they dipped over to San Francisco only to end up back in Vancouver less than a year later. They had moved another 5 times around Vancouver by the time I left for university.

Growing up, it felt like we were moving every other year. Our belongings never really accumulated because we were constantly moving. Everything was always halfway in some cardboard box or other. If the item in question was lucky, it got to reside in a tupperware container instead.

In my life, I’ve been to 3 pre-schools, 3 elementary schools, and 3 high schools. Somehow, somehow, I managed to stay at 1 university for my entire degree.

Maybe that’s where I get it from.

Barcelona El Prat Airport in Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona El Prat Airport in Barcelona, Spain

When I was 17, I moved out for university.

I lived on campus, with friends, and in various spaces around the city. After I graduated, I spent a year in Asia, living between 4 different countries and hopping around another 4. I moved another 3 times in the year after I returned home.

“Grace,” my best girlfriend said to me at that point. “For God’s sake, just stop and settle down for a bit. It’ll be good for you.”

“Nope,” I replied, “Forget it. I refuse.”

I was 23 at that point. Consider the toll 23 years of being between homes takes on a person—I was so used to being on the go to settle down. Why bother taking things out of boxes when I’m just going to move again in the near future? Why not just live out a suitcase forevermore?

And yet, over the years, I’ve spent many an insomnia-ridden night thinking about how wonderful it may possibly be to, for once in my life, have an actual home where I can take all of my belongings out of boxes.

I think of how nice it may be to organize these belongings in a manner pleasing to my mild OCD, and never having to move them again.

Then, this idea of settling down immediately sends me running for the hills where I end up spending most of my days.

I cannot begin to explain what a difficult-to-reconcile dichotomy this is.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that stability, home, and family are among the most important things we can achieve in our lives.

I’ve just never dared trust a situation enough to lay down roots.

Except once.

travel aftermaths you can never really go home again 3

Gate to passport control at Vancouver International Airport in Vancouver, Canada

I tried settling down all of once in my adult life.

When I was 23, I met this guy. He promised me a life, the universe, and everything.

More importantly, he—knowing that I had spent my entire life living out of suitcases and cardboard boxes—promised me a home.

And so, for the first time in my adult life, I took my belongings—all of my belongings—out of boxes.

I wanted to create a home in our little city flat.

My clothes were hung up in a closet with a door, my books were arranged alphabetically on a bookshelf, and my computer got its own desk and lamp.

We bought furniture, household appliances, and decorative items. We cooked dinners, baked muffins, swept and vacuumed, and shopped at farmers markets on sunny summer weekends. We adopted twin rabbits and let them run around our ankles as we huddled together in front of a laptop playing Netflix on rainy evenings.

At first, he brought home yellow flowers. Then, he helped decorate our little city flat.

Eventually, he grew cool. Then, he grew cold. Then, he told me he was moving out.

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” he said.

“Why did you promise me a home if you didn’t plan on keeping it?” I asked.

“It’s a relationship,” he replied. “People promise things, then things change.”

“Remember that I agreed to all of this because you assured me I could trust you?”

He shrugged. “People change.”

Flight transfers at Frankfurt Airport in Frankfurt, Germany

Flight transfers at Frankfurt Airport in Frankfurt, Germany

And so my belongings went back into boxes. I spent a lot of time planning how to utilize storage systems so that my life could be portable. Every new storage unit I purchased had wheels: boxes, drawers, clothing racks—everything.

I refused the furniture we had bought together and moved only the necessities back to my parents’ house in suburbia.

My wheeled boxes, drawers, and clothing racks were propped up against an empty wall in an unused room with a dusty twin-sized bed that had been slowly breaking into pieces for years. The rabbits were put up for adoption.

I had been saving for a down-payment but no longer had a reason to stay in Vancouver. So I pulled all of my money out of savings and bought myself a one-way ticket to Europe instead.

After all, the wander-lusting side of me had been craving a reckless adventure for years. I had swept that craving aside in favor of creating a home. Might as well finally indulge it.

Yes, the plan was to travel with wanton abandon, but it also to see if there exists a place beyond the borders of where I was born that I could call my new home.

I found it.

Sorry if the phrase makes you gag, but there really is no better way of putting it.

Home is where the heart is.

Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite art installation in Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite art installation in Vancouver, Canada

For some people, home is white picket fences, a stable but not too flashy career, and dinner with the in-laws on statutory holidays.

For me, home is airports, lines at passport control, and waking up in cities where I can’t understand my neighbors.

Every so often though, I’m pretty damn happy with yellow flowers as well.