City As Country: On Watching Lion, Displacement, & Searching For Home
I never really understood where I was, or where I was going.
I was that dot, the you are here. I was that arrow on Maps. I bobbed every step I took. I was my town in Silicon Valley, bright and shining and aggressive. I was several thousand miles away from that town in Michigan. I wrote a lot there. Sometimes I’d be in Paris, or London, or Tokyo. Other times I’d be Google Earth, in several different places at once.
I watched Lion (starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, & Rooney Mara) on the way to New York, and I couldn’t help but feel homesick even though I’d just left. Because here was a boy, lost. Here was Saroo Brierley, who couldn’t find home, who moved to Australia because of it. Here was a boy who struggled with speaking his language, who couldn’t understand himself but was trying so hard to. Here was a boy who was saying I’m here, I’m here, and no one was listening.
There’s something romantic about the concept of place. I get asked where I’m from all the time, and I tell them I’m from California — Silicon Valley, you know the place. There’s a college prep center just down the street. There are Asian girls and Asian boys wanting to go pre-med, because by God, it’s pre-med. There are engineers and doctors and mathematicians and Stanford students and pretty Asian women who sit down and cross their legs, who always order their milk teas with boba but no sugar. There are people who speak my language. There are people like me.
Coming to New York was the first time I realized that there would be people who didn’t understand not only what Silicon Valley was, but also where it was. Here I was, ready to talk about my little ethnic conclave out west, but I’d get these questioning looks: where’s that? Where everyone else came from was a far different place than where I did. So I smiled and nodded and pretended like I knew exactly where Princeton, New Jersey, was, or that Wisconsin and Minnesota had been in a rivalry for ages, didn’t I know that? I felt ashamed. I was at a summer program for writing — not even that, really, but journalism — and I didn’t understand where these places were. I only knew about my own.
The first night, I chose not to look at the skyline of the city, visible from outside my bedroom window. Instead, I typed in my address in Google Earth and watched as the globe blurred. I spent a few minutes just looking at the Californian sun, shining through the light of my screen. I saw the front door, where our mail always came and my school textbooks would be arriving in a week or so. I’d always been comfortable alone, but this time I felt lonely.
The lights flickered in the distance.
There’s a part in Lion where Dev Patel says, “I’m starting to remember a life I had forgotten. I have to find my way back home.” He is desperate and frantic and he knows that somewhere out there there is a family waiting for him. He is lost. He is not supposed to be. His eyes are shining. He is lost.
In one of the very first classes of the program, we were asked to describe New York. I tried outlining the streets and the buildings, but I didn’t know where they intersected. They crossed at different points. The instructor laughed, shook his head. “You don’t know New York,” he said.
He was right; I didn’t. This wasn’t home, and I was lost, just like Saroo Brierley in Lion, waiting at the train station for someone to understand what language I was speaking. But then I thought about what home was, and it wasn’t just my neighborhood with the Asian kids. It was where people could speak my language. Home was our roots, and maybe those were back in Taiwan, where the night markets were always a constant negotiation of words and sound — I didn’t know at that moment. I smiled, swallowed. I didn’t have a map.
I still don’t know what home is, but I’m searching. And just like Saroo in Lion, I won’t stop until the earth blurs and I’ve found it. Maybe one day I’ll go out into the city, shout something, just to catch the world’s attention. My home exists — where there are engineers and doctors and mathematicians and Stanford students and pretty Asian women who sit down and cross their legs, who always order their milk teas with boba but no sugar. Maybe I’ll let New York know that I exist too. I’m here, I’ll say.