Fernweh

Lori Arden

USA

The first week of my freshman year of college I found myself stumped by a question I had never been asked before. ‘Where are you from?

The girl who asked me lived in my dorm and had just that weekend made the two hour drive up from Long Island, where she had spent all 18 years of her life. I remember she named her hometown a little impatiently; where she was from was a bullet point to be ticked off a list of perfunctory pleasantry, and now she was ready to move onto the next.

Like so many of my classmates at this small school on the East Coast of the United States, she spoke with the air of a hometown hero—self-assured, as if her origins needed no explication or qualification in the telling. She was used to being a local, where everyone knew the same life she did, dined in the same restaurants and walked the same roads. Where she was from wasn’t a thing fraught with ambiguity, a question that required spontaneous soul-searching for the answer or a perceptible interlude of reverie in the middle of small talk.

The pause had stretched too long now and the girl from Long Island looked quizzical, waiting for my answer as I puzzled over how to distill my origins into something bite-sized. There was no way to talk about where I was from that wasn’t more than she, engaged in her endless parade of new faces was prepared for. And so because of this, various answers scudded through my mind in shorthand.

There was Okinawa, where I had just graduated from high school and where my parents still lived. Or I could say the Philippines, the country of my birth and provenance of half my bloodline. There was Las Vegas, locus of my Filipino family’s immigration, or Chicago, where my dad grew up. And yet taken in isolation, none of these places on their own was enough to encompass the sprawling outline of the person my years of moving around had made me to be.

Growing up in the military, I was accustomed to a different version of that touchstone of small talk. The question we asked wasn’t ‘Where are you from’ but rather ‘Where have you lived?

It was a query volleyed at me in classrooms, on playgrounds, across school bus aisles, by other children whose backgrounds matched mine. We knew the perils of asking for an assertion of identity on something as indeterminate and imprecise as where one was from, and so we asked our own permutation of the question instead. The answer would be an inevitable list of former homes, each place we had infused our unique contexts, with a new layer of culture and complexity. Country by country our index of personal history would unfurl across the distance of new friendship.

Each of us knew that where we came from was far from anecdote and required nuance in the telling. And so we’d settle in for the sharing of life stories, already understanding, if only in abstract, that for us the question of home was as yet unfinished—that it was far from resolved.

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My origin story, as I’ve since come to narrate it, is that I grew up rootless, one of two daughters of a civilian librarian already embroiled in a nomadic existence. My dad was a classic case of a boy gripped by wanderlust—growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, he read adventure novels  and dreamed of seeing the world, of becoming the protagonist to his very own globe-trotting, continent-spanning tale. Ultimately he achieved his goal, completing a stint in Liberia with the Peace Corps, working for a short time on a farm in Norway, and arriving at the terminus of his bachelor life in the Philippines, where he met my mother during his time at Clark Air Base. They got married in a rainstorm, a sign of good luck; my sister and I were born a short time after.

We spent less than two years of our fledgling lives in the country of our birth, moving to Japan a scant few months before Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991. The explosion was cataclysmic, debris covering the South China Sea, ash reaching as far as Vietnam and Indonesia.  Meanwhile an avalanche of sludge created by the mixing of ash with typhoon rainwater breached the gates of Clark Air Base and destroyed the military hospital where I was born. It was a tidy metaphor to kick off my narrative: rootless, literally without a birthplace to return to, my entire life I’ve called nowhere (or is it everywhere?) home.

I spent the rest of my childhood hop-scotching from one Army post or Air Force base to the next, and the years since have sprawled across a litany of places I inhabited for never more than a few years each: New Mexico, Turkey, Germany, the Hudson Valley, Okinawa, Poughkeepsie (Vassar, where I attended college), New York City, and finally, Berkeley, California. Mine was a life of jump cuts, a jarring, rambling sequence of events. These days I sometimes lose track trying to reassemble the order.

Like my military brat peers, my concept of home was built around transience. My sister and I would begin to know a place, grow to love it, feel as if, perhaps, this time it was ours, then suddenly, PCS—Permanent Change of Station. The movers would sweep in with their trolleys and outsized trucks, swaddling our possessions in reams of brown packing paper and tucking them into cardboard boxes. Our parents’ jobs would take them to a brand new country, and we’d be plucked from what had grown familiar, often just as we had settled into our routine and new friend groups.

Over the course of our moves, we picked up certain survival skills: how to make friends at new schools quickly, how to be adaptable and open. At the same time, we built up our emotional armor and learned not to hold anything or anyone too dear. Sometimes we failed and fell in love with a place anyway, then would be forced to confront heartbreak when we had to leave.

The leaving-behind was always made harder, I think, by our implicit awareness that we would never really be able to return to the homes that had been ours. Permutation of place is a fact of life on military installations; because of the frequent turnover of personnel due to relocations, the population of a post or base never remains the same for more than a few years. Frequent renovations also alter the face of a former home such that the layout, once familiar, becomes alien to the one who comes back.

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Of all the transitory places I’ve called home, Okinawa was the one that made me want to stay forever. A tiny subtropical island in the south of Japan, it was where my high school friends and I played out the final years of an impressively drawn-out childhood. My best friend’s battered right-hand drive Toyota Previa would ferry us beyond the concrete perimeter of the base to the edge of the Pacific which, because of Okinawa’s small size, always felt close no matter where you went. During Sunset, we’d find our way to the seawall, hopping across the jack-shaped concrete breakers with delinquent cans of Orion in hand, eyes tracking the ball of sun as it made its slow-motion fall into the waiting sea below.

Summer nights, we stood at the island’s edge swish-and-flicking sparklers like wizard wands, miniature stars sparking the humid night air around us. Hermit crabs scuttled over the sand at our feet, illuminated by murky light. There were soba noodles always getting stuck in my braces—and beach bonfires, flickering shadows fading in the distance as we found our way into the cool, quiet interior of a coastal cave, or a jungle clearing where solemn old tombs looked like little gnome houses. We never felt too old for ice cream cones from vending machines or a night romp around a playground. Everything felt full of discovery and adventure, set against the backdrop of an impossibly beautiful landscape. Green hills, blue ocean. Palm trees. Oki summers were endless.

Those years and that place will forever be dear to me, and, unfortunately, beyond my grasp, suspended in the past like a thing in amber. I think my friends and I feel a certain impenetrable wall of time standing between us and our experience on Okinawa, particularly after an essential member of our cast of characters passed away in a car accident a few years ago. I can’t help but be dramatic: we can go back, but it will never be the same again. My mind goes to a myriad of high-school reunion movies where a band of friends returns to a hometown that’s remained the same, even as they themselves have changed. Home for them is a centering thing that remains constant through the metamorphosis they’ve gone through on their journey to adulthood.

Home for me, on the other hand, continues to be a persistently de-centering concept. Okinawa is the hometown I would have selected for myself were the choice mine, but it wasn’t. Okinawa was never mine to begin with, and to pretend it could be now is to rely on a certain fantasy of belonging that, when filtered through the sieve of reality, proves false.

For though I spent nearly ten years of my life in Japan, my link to it has never been more than frustratingly tenuous. It is not my homeland, nor my heritage; I haven’t returned since moving away eight years ago, and the near-decade of separation since has sequestered Japan securely in the sturdy vault of my past. Its former immediacy in my every day, characterized by submersion in and comfortable familiarity with its culture, food, the lilt of its language, has slunk into the background of my life, just one panel anterior to a whole patchwork of experience that remains ever-growing.

I lay no claim to Japan, try as I might. My Facebook profile, first acquired when I was a high schooler on Okinawa, lists it as my hometown. I haven’t bothered to change it since; it felt true at the time and continues to feel not entirely inaccurate. Okinawa is the most home I’ve ever known, even if now it’s just a place I can remember being incredibly fond of once.

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It was Thanksgiving 2017, and I was sitting in the haven of my uncle’s kitchen, warm and cozy while the desert winter shivered outside. I felt very in the middle of a hale of Tagalog banter; the syllables that volleyed around me were full and at the same time staccato. My mother’s native tongue: unfamiliar still to half-Filipino ears that lapsed in and out of the habit of hearing it. My tita’s hands rested on my shoulders, a loving pinning-in-place as she talked over my head to my other aunt, who was stirring a pot of sinigang at the stove. Air fragrant with pork and tamarind bore gales of laughter aloft itself. The mood was cheerful: my uncle cracked open a beer as my 2-year-old cousin Rosalie pattered around in search of an audience she could lecture about the excellence of her new toy.

This was a house I’d come back to numerous summers and holidays since my uncle had moved from Manila to America more than a decade ago. These were people I shared the closest history with, blood and kinship thickening the already strong bonds of immigration, the common pursuit of new beginnings. Though my dad’s stints overseas often prevented us from being present at family gatherings, home videos from Las Vegas had filled in the gaps. Over the years, my grandparents’, aunts’, uncles’, and cousins’ faces had flickered out of television screens, rendered in wobbly analog into various iterations of self. Young, then not so young. Dating in one video, married in the next. Parents now. I recognized pieces of myself in them: a well-defined jaw here, a certain kind of smile there. Facial features shared in common. Family history woven into strands of DNA.

Throughout the course of our moves, stopovers to Nevada had provided me with a grounding sense of continuity. Las Vegas had evolved into a stand-in of sorts for home and all its attendant qualities—belonging, security, acceptance. And yet, surrounded by all these markers of love and well-being, I suddenly felt an old pang punch through my heart.

I was struck, as usual, by how incongruous the sensation was to the moment. Cradled as I was in the palm of home (or a rendition of it, at least), the feeling beginning to steal over me seemed particularly out of place. Unsettling but not unfamiliar, it overwhelmed me with an alienating sense of removal from my family and the kitchen we inhabited. I imagined myself floating, alone, in the middle of a vast expanse of inky, empty space. The mental imagery was accompanied by the visceral; the sensation of my stomach dropping, or an ache that migrated from my core northward. Emotional heartburn.

It was a feeling I had experienced randomly and sporadically over the years, but I never knew what occasion would bring it on. Every time I felt it, it caught me by surprise: in a room packed with friends, its heaviness stark against the backdrop of their buoyant laughter, or while traveling, the excitement of an unfamiliar place stabbed through with some twinge of mysterious, slightly sad, yearning.

Though hard to describe, it is a liminal feeling, skulking somewhere in between homesickness and wanderlust, and borrowing from both. Like homesickness, it engenders a missingness, a desire to go someplace that feels familiar, like one’s own. Conversely, it brings to the fore an intense yearning for a change of place—a sensation akin to wanderlust. But whatever overlap the feeling may have with these more mainstream modes of existential ache, it remains elusive in the unknowns that refuse definition: I can never put my finger on exactly what it is that I am missing, or that I’m yearning for. It doesn’t have an easy fix, this feeling, the way a spell of homesickness is quelled by a return to family and friends you haven’t seen in awhile, or a sudden spasm of wanderlust calls for a trip to a new place. A question in search of an answer, the feeling is an existential awareness that always prompts in me a consciousness of being the only one in the room experiencing it.

Finally, then, it’s a profound aloneness. It had no place in that kitchen in Las Vegas.

Though its mystery remains, I’ve become accustomed to the feeling’s sporadic visits. We’re uneasy acquaintances, thrown together and forced into dialogue too intimately and too abruptly, like unwilling participants at an AA meeting. I’ve habituated myself to its nebulous pangs; I know its symptoms well. So when I saw it on a list of words in other languages that convey complex notions in a syllable or two, I recognized it instantly. This feeling has a name, and that name is fernweh.

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Fernweh, a German word sometimes understood as ‘wanderlust,’ comes closer in direct translation to ‘far-sickness,’ or ‘homesickness for a place you’ve never been.’ More urgent than wanderlust, fernweh connotes not just a desire, but an intense necessity, to travel. It’s a longing for the faraway so viscerally internalized that it becomes malady to the one who feels it.

For my dad and others like him who grew up in one place, who felt the edges of their small towns squeezing in on them from all sides, fernweh represents a compulsion to just go that afflicts if it stagnates. It’s a travel bug made literal, by depression or sadness that follows if one gets stuck in one place for too long; a virus of ennui that calls for a cure of leaving, of moving onward to the next. Its antidote is the unfamiliar, the thrill of the unknown—or should I say the comfort of the unknown, since those who feel it thrive best in uncertainty. For them, fernweh is the salve of anonymity, the ability to assert oneself in the world without context, without the hometown reputation earned or assigned. It’s the opportunity to reinvent yourself if you so choose, to shirk the limitations of the person others have understood you to be.

Over the years I’ve recognized fernweh in a few unsettled souls I’ve come across; famous people too, Anthony Bourdain being perhaps the most obvious. In the afterword to Kitchen Confidential he wrote, “I am most at ease…when alone in the smoking room of an airport lounge, coming from somewhere nice and on my way to another.” Childhood-home expats, they’re the ones who always felt a little out of place in their places of origin, who were the black sheep and the misfits, outsiders of their own communities. They don’t yearn for home because home didn’t want them. Or they didn’t want home. I suppose it goes both ways.

In its own way, fernweh has come, over the years, to mean a great deal to me. Though a discordant and mostly uncomfortable feeling, it is one that makes me wonder at life with the same sense of awe as my dreaming younger self. It infuses me with a deep consciousness of all that is happening in the world outside the grind I move through day to day, and I remember how vast existence is, how exciting, how full of possibility. Fernweh makes me want to hop on a plane, wrap a new place around myself like a blanket, and try a new city on for size. It is a feeling of bigness, fernweh.

But a delicate veil of mystery had always obscured something about it. Why should fernweh, marked by restlessness and a preternatural need to put distance between oneself and one’s roots, so compel me, a person whose conception of home always revolved around a lack of it? My whole life I thought I wanted to find out where I belonged—not run away from it.

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Here in Berkeley, I’m going on my sixth year of being a Californian. It’ll be the longest I’ve ever lived in one place, and the possibility of becoming, for the first time in my life, a local, hovers persistently in my peripheral vision. Berkeley is the first place that’s made me wonder if I can finally put down roots, call this little corner of the world my own; if I can imagine buying a cozy house fortressed behind bougainvillea and a moat of succulents, my favorite dive bar a 5-minute bike ride away. An avid rock climber and hiker, I’m lured by the soaring granite cliffs of Yosemite, by the dense forests and rustic wood cabins of Tahoe. The Sierras make me swoon.

Here the winding CA-1 carries me along gasps of beauty and wonder right back to the edge of the Pacific, that same ocean that so enchanted me on Okinawa and served as my companion as I stood on its shore on the cusp of adulthood, in awe of the vastness of the life stretched out before me. In California there’s a continuity that makes sense with my past—I always wondered if I was being called to the West anyway, spurred on in part, I think, by my dad’s long love affair with surf culture. If I squint my eyes and make my vision a little blurry, all the romanticized images seem to come true. They call me away from the wider world: I wonder if everything I need could be right here. In the words of Jorge Borges, they have changed the shapes of my dream

But not yet completely. That fernweh scuttles through my soul, and something inside me refuses to settle. I can feel that old itch like a phantom limb echoing through, beckoning me back to my trains, planes, and automobiles. Nothing here in Berkeley has ever felt as right as the unmatchable camaraderie of a military community, of the closeness that results from being in a foreign country away from home and the familiar. The military brat lives on still, believing in her twinkle-eyed way that all the adventures the West can conjure will never light her up like a dark, rainy night spent under an umbrella in Florence or in the middle of a bustling pub in Ireland. I long for what I’ve already lived.

Still I feel just a little bit outside of things, one foot eternally stuck out the door. I’m struck by my enduring inability to be, really, from Berkeley, where nobody knows what it’s like to grow up on a base, and where some people surely and justifiably regard the military with just a little (or a lot) of side-eye. I’m still too curious about what else is out there, what other delights this world has to offer, to grow those vestigial roots just yet. I want to trace the veins of maps toward the beating heart of the world, to hear the singing of the road underfoot and under wheel, to steer myself outward. Or homeward.

Indeed, more than anything I think I’m still searching for the place that can fill the void created by leaving Okinawa, that place that in that moment in time felt, without it trying or without me asking it to, exactly like home. And so the question hasn’t found its answer. Where is home? I travel to find it. Fernweh confronts me with a more urgent need to seek the answer.

Lori Arden is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.