It’s November again, the time of year I find my friends excited and relieved at the prospect of returning home. With many of us living and working away from where we spent our childhoods — Long Island, Texas, Abu Dhabi — Thanksgiving and Christmas have become the natural, God-given reasons to break from overbooked work schedules and long meetings and days on the road. It’s a time that everyone seems to acknowledge as “family time,” when you are excused for not checking your phone.
Each season, I help opine on what dresses and suits friends should bring home to don at year-end parties. I know their itineraries of family get-togethers and dinners with childhood friends as if they were mine. I absorb the stories of friends’ surprise Christmas presents to their family, already purchased online and in transit. I imagined the gifts hovering in the same cold air as Santa. Scrolling through Instagram, I see friends’ parents, sisters, neighbors, dogs, old flames, a whole new reality that I’ve never been privy to, come open and alive at the end of the year.
For me, “the holidays” are different. I don’t have the chance to be with the people I loved. I have old memories of family dinners with chicken roasting in the yard of my childhood house in Singapore, smells of curry and pandan leaves, a home where people were poor but tender. Underneath, apparent only upon hindsight, my parents’ ambivalence about having children was growing. They were cash-strapped adults, ashamed of their finances and their relationships. They hated the pressure of buying presents over Christmas and preferred to ignore it altogether. They were unable to see how much a family reunion could offer, presents or not. Depression made one of my parents angry, irrational and prone to hurling objects, sometimes at me. I haven’t seen the other in 13 years. “Don’t bother me,” they said. I have learned not to.
I’ve learned to find other homes: Bourg-en-Bresse, Namibia, Lyon, Missouri. As my friends returned to their families, my year-end family homes sprouted around the world. The time of year that used to induce panic now brings a sense of adventure, along with some inventiveness and proposal writing.
One year, I received funding to live with two Italian wildlife veterinarians in Namibia. I spent Christmas alone in a makeshift desert estate where the next home was a mile away, and cheetahs were said to roam in between. One night, I stayed up in a watchtower with a Mexican girl, an aspiring vet. We kept a lookout as zebras, giraffes, monkeys and ostriches gathered in watering holes — their own reunion. When the sun set, we watched them corral into the safety of their herd and fall asleep in the sprawling lands around us. In daylight, I ran in the desert with floppy shoes, drawing thorns to my feet and needle-thin cacti scratches up my thigh. I nursed blisters, drank rooibos tea and got a sandals tan. I returned to school darker from the sun, brighter from the experience.
The next year, I found myself in Lyon, France, by way of Bourg-en-Bresse, where I had acquaintances. I slept on a stranger’s couch and scoured Leboncoin, the French version of Craigslist, until I found a home with an Iraqi-Kurdish family. Mother and father were scholars at a university, and added to their partnership was a shy girl and an infant boy. In the evenings, I would talk to the mother in whispered broken French as her children slept. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sweet tea between us, our knees touching in comradeship. By our sides were two snoozing babies; we gently rocked them in their cradles. Over time this developed into a rhythm between us, a metronome to the stories she would tell: about Saddam Hussein’s troops coming into her village and killing her friends; about men in French grocery stores mocking her language; about how she loved and was unable to see her husband for 20 years; how they met in secret and saved up coins for illicit toll booth calls. Each morning we started our day with hot milk tea, bread warmed over the cup, and a sense of kinship through our respective homelessness — it gave us hope through a cold winter.
A third year, after a school-funded trip to study rocks in Hawaii, I found myself on Christmas Eve and Christmas in a hostel in downtown San Francisco. The floors were sticky from beer and vice. After a solo walk with bad shoes on aggressively sloped streets, I ate pancakes at a corner diner then returned to the hostel to sleep at a saintly 10 p.m. Through the night, a shirtless hostel mate urinated in our room and then lay face down and drunk on the floor under my lower-rung bunk bed. Above me on the upper bunk, a German man and a Chinese woman had loud sex that transcended their language barrier. Depressed by the entire situation, I went to the toilet and vomited, then found an organic-chemistry book and spent the rest of the night up in the hostel lounge reading it.
The year I graduated from Dartmouth, I shared an address with French politicians and noble families in the aristocratic Septième, the 7th Arrondissement, of Paris. Having missed my chance to be a noble at birth, I decided to babysit children — an unorthodox choice for an Ivy League graduate, but I loved how France had taken me in before. The wealthy family lived on Avenue Emile Deschanel in an elegant apartment with a full view of the Eiffel Tower; on the top floor was a chambre de bonne — a maid’s room — just for me. I had all the food I wanted and — for once — my own table, where in the evenings, in the privacy of my room, I wrote down the day’s savings, lessons, transgressions.
This season of thanks, I am grateful that being unable to go home has given me more places to live. I’ve gotten to know so many people at a time when the air is dense with affection. People continue to open their homes to me with exceptional gentleness and a genuine desire to share their blessings.
If I’m not in the best conditions (a la San Francisco hostel episode), I take comfort in the transience of such absurdity. Thanksgiving and Christmas are states of mind, after all. I choose not to mull over the importance of being with my biological family. If a holiday turns out poorly, it’s but a day passing; 24 hours of Earth rotating. The animals in Namibia don’t mark the day as distinct, neither did the family in Lyon, and neither do I have to.
This year I am going to my boyfriend’s farm home in Missouri. I count this as a happy ending to a year we wrangled through. His family used to own sheep; they’ve since swapped them for two little dogs, and I can’t wait to press my face into fur and warmth while thinking of my own dog from home, Shandi. The home has a fire pit, a backyard, a Christmas tree with ornaments generations old, a family around a table — all the things that used to ache like an old memory. It will be a different sort of adventure, and one I’m dying to have.