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18 Apr 2018

Untethered – This wasn’t what I was planning on posting next, but what I originally had in mind has been taking longer to write than I expected it would. HJ and I went to see Ready Player One the Friday before last, and I have since started working on a review, but it has grown into a sprawling and unwieldy beast. I’ve also been extremely busy as of late, and as a result I haven’t had much time or energy to work on it in the evening for the past few days. This state of affairs is unlikely to change for at least the next week, so I thought I would fill the empty space here by talking more briefly about some developments on the other side of the world.

“ the end, it is not the places that matter, but the people.”

About a week and a half ago, my parents moved from New York to Texas. They are currently staying with my youngest brother, Matt, as they figure out where they are going to live. According to Texan customs, the head male of a newly arrived family must challenge a local male who already has a dwelling and defeat that male in ritual combat. This must be done while wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson (chaps are optional but encouraged). Once the defeated male has been tied to a bronco and dragged bodily out of his home, the new family can move in and take their place in the community. Good luck, Dad. We’re all counting on you.

Here, on the other side of the world, though, I find myself feeling a bit... weird. I knew last summer, when HJ and I stayed with my parents, that it would be the last time I would ever stay in the home I grew up in, and most likely the last time I would ever visit my hometown. (My brother Brian is still there, but he lives in a different place and is planning on eventually moving to Texas with the rest of the clan, from what I hear.) I have called Korea home for half of my life now, but I’ve always had the opportunity to go back and see my family in the town and house where I grew up.

I’ve often thought about that saying, “You can’t go home again.” The Free Dictionary explains this as meaning: “You can't truly go back to a place you once lived because so much will have changed since you left that it is not the same place anymore.” This is a little vague, but it seems to be saying that the place will have changed so much that it is unrecognizable. This seems backward to me, though. Yes, places can and do change. I’ve visited my hometown numerous times since moving to Korea, and every time I do something has changed, even if that change is slight. But it’s still very much the same place, and many things are more or less as I remember them. Every time I visit, though, it feels like I am seeing things through someone else’s eyes. In a way, that’s true, because I am not the same person I was when I lived there. That is what I think “you can’t go home again” really means—it is not the place that changes, it is you.

The truth is that I left that place a long time ago, and I was never going to be able to go back. I didn’t even necessarily want to go back. Knowing that my parents were still there, though, and that they were living in the house I grew up in, felt like an anchor of sorts, something that I could always count on being there even if it was no longer a meaningful part of my life. Now that my parent are in Texas, it feels like one of the last threads anchoring me to that place has snapped (the truly last thread will be when my brother leaves).

But the threads have been snapping for years. Years ago, one time when I was registering to vote by absentee ballot, I filled out a form that asked me a number of questions about my residency. One question asked if I planned to return to the United States. I answered: “I don’t know.” The next question asked whether, if I ever did return to the United States, I planned to live in New York. To that question as well I answered: “I don’t know.” When I later got my ballot in the mail, I discovered that I had become a “special federal voter,” meaning that I could vote in general elections but not primaries or local elections. This didn’t bother me—after all, what do I care about local elections in New York?—but it was a thread that snapped, and it felt a little weird.

I still have a New York State driver’s license, thanks to timely renewals, but this will expire in one year from today. I could have renewed it once again during my stay last summer, but I couldn’t see the point of going through the trouble. I have a Korean driver’s license, and if necessary I can get an international license before going abroad. When my current license expires, my last official connection with the state of New York will be severed. When my brother leaves our hometown, the last practical connection will be gone as well, and I will be completely untethered from the state of my birth—and, by extension, from the country of my birth. My family will still be there, of course, but they will be in a place that will likely remain strange to me.

All of this feels a bit weird. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that it might feel weird because I don’t really feel any sense of loss. I was originally going to title this little musing “Rootless,” but I realize now that this would be misleading. I’ve been in Korea for so long now that whatever roots may have been pulled up have long since found purchase in new soil. I don’t really miss my hometown. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a very exciting place, and the only reason I ever went back was because my family was there. Now that they are not, I don’t really have a good reason to go. So, ties have been severed, but I don’t feel all that much different. Practically speaking, nothing has changed.

If anything, all of this has served as a reminder that, in the end, it is not the places that matter, but the people. Places can be important as sites of memory, but there have been places where I formed very meaningful memories and later had the opportunity to revisit long after (roughly a quarter century after) the original memories were formed, and I’ve found that the emotions I experience are nothing like the emotions I associate with the memories. Mostly the emotions end up being confusion, disappointment, and an odd sense of loss at realizing the memories were never really tethered to those places to begin with—they were only tethered in my mind.

There is more to be said here—contemplations on the meaning of “home,” a discussion of place as a concept, and ruminations on memories in general—but the whole point of this was to keep it relatively brief. So I will end this here and perhaps save those thoughts for a future date.

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