On leaving home, forever

Could you pack everything in your life into a suitcase and abandon the world you know to enter a new one—forever? Could you pack who you are, how you speak, what you do, how you dress, who you know, what you know—zip it in a suitcase, and know that as you enter this new world, you will lose it all along the way?

It’s a strange question to ask—I know. But, I must know the answer. For me it wasn’t a question. It’s simply what happened when I left home for Detroit four years ago.

I still remember that November afternoon when I landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. It was cold in a unfamiliar sort of way. When the wind slapped my face, it felt like a thousand ice needles sunk their teeth into my bones. Layers of sweater bought from home felt pointless. I understood why my friends had insisted I do all my winter shopping in Michigan.

It was the last draw of fall. Long before I had nursed any plans of living in the US, I had seen picture postcards of Maple trees that couldn’t make up their mind what to wear. So they changed their leaves from green, to yellow, to orange, to red—until they ran out of options.

By the time I arrived, leaves had long changed color and abandoned the trees. All that remained were a trail of naked stumps. 

Strip malls and suburbia greeted my eyes as my cab driver zipped past freeways of Michigan. The only other time I had visited another country was Japan. That was 12 years ago.

I remembered walking in lush green deer parks that surrounded Buddhist monasteries in Nara, modern steel and glass towers that lived alongside traditional pagodas in Kyoto, narrow streets dotted with bookstores in Chiba, and roads teeming with purposeful pedestrians, always on their way to work in Tokyo. 

America was nothing like Japan, I thought. Of course not—they are two different worlds. I wondered why my brain was eager to draw comparison? The streets were wider than I had ever seen before. Perhaps four times as wide as the streets in my country.

There were fewer cars and they all seemed big as well. The sidewalks were deserted. I think I only saw one guy out at a gas station. Traffic seemed to move in an orderly fashion. And the weirdest thing of all was that nobody honked. 

Maybe I was jetlagged or maybe everything around me felt so foreign that I thought I was stuck in a dream. You know that feeling when you are trying to wake from a deep slumber but feel paralyzed on your pillow. Like something’s pushing you down.

Perhaps that feeling had something to do with the pool of silence drowning me.

When I got to the suburb of Royal Oak—my address for the next couple of months—the silence was so consistent it was deafening. I won’t be exaggerating when I say I could hear everything my neighbors did—sneezes and coughs, shuffling feet, keys jingling in pockets, and a little rabbit hop out its den to check on the new neighbor. 

Back home it’s never this quiet. Just like movies have a background sound score, ambient sound accompanies all life. You can hear the laughter of children in a playground nearby, the snarling of angry traffic that never sticks to its lane, the screeching of metal on metal when a train halts, and a jambalaya of sounds from the neighborhood marketplace.

It’s strange that when we enter the unfamiliar—we search for traces of a world that we left behind. May be it’s a way for our organism to cope in an alien environment.

Perhaps that’s why, for many weeks after my arrival in the United States, my ears craved noise. When they found nothing, the whirring of an old kitchen tube-light offered comfort. 

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