A Handful of Nothing but Sand
When I was young, my family had no base. My father was in finance and we spent most of our lives living where the company wanted us to live. It is true that most lives are spent under the rule of some job or career, but there is no captivity other than the life of the expatriate that gives and takes in the same instant, to the same degree. By the time I was seventeen, I had lived in the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Britain. My mother always told us we were modern-day gypsies, an analogy I liked until I learned that there were modern-day gypsies and their lives were startlingly harder than our own. Nomadic cultures move geographically but when they move, they behave as one entity. When Attila rode west, he brought his community with him. We were ripped from ours every few years and forced to resettle, much like that Hun’s victims. We always had housing, but were forever without homes. It is a difficult emotion, to feel uncomfortable in all places. All possessions were substitutions and emulations of what we could have had. Every action was an imitation of something else, of a life that we were trying to convince ourselves we truly had.
I do not consider our lifestyle an injustice to myself or my family. I do not yearn for a different past with simpler history. I am filled with gratitude towards the circumstances and fortune of my birth, but this is irrelevant. This is a story about the small town of Westhampton Beach on Long Island. In 2002 my parents bought a house in that town, on the square piece of land that spans the corner of a block. It was the only American home I have ever known. There was a blue pool and a treehouse and a black barbecue for grilling in the summertime. Even today, there is no place on Earth where I feel more like an American than in that house, on that corner. It was our summer house, in the same way that a migrating goose must consider where it goes in the summer a summer house. Wherever we were living, we returned every year for the month of July. I dislike thinking of that home as my family’s one stable point. I dislike the idea of that point so much that I am forced to include it only from fear of dishonesty, for as banal as it may be, during the turbulence of our uncertain lives, there was always the promise of our American home, filled with familiar objects and the comfort of that familiarity. This certainty we felt, or rather, pretended to feel, was also an imitation. The house and our ownership of it were nothing more than abstract notions half-reified by money and confirmed by experience of those hardwood floors and tall walls. We own the house, but the home was and still is a grasp beyond our reach, an idea too far to jump for unless we left the ground behind altogether.
In that house there are four bedrooms, three upstairs and one downstairs. My room is preserved as it was when I first lived there as a boy. The books on the shelves are picture books; the bookshelf itself is adorned with teddy bears and bright flowers. My little sister’s old bed is still there, even though she moved to the adjacent room years ago. My room is a hiccup that time stumbled over and eventually forgot. The other two bedrooms on my floor are the same, fixed in time and unchanged from when we first arrived thirteen years ago. The land on which the house sits is half an acre.
To walk into the town of Westhampton Beach, I would turn left at the bottom of the driveway and walk until the end of the road. On the way, there were two houses that we, as a family, knew. One was our next-door neighbour’s, with whom our relationship was close. The other was a house from which a friend of mine had moved many years ago. The house no longer stands, in fact. It was knocked down and rebuilt. But that old house is always there on my walks to town, just like my floral bookcase and picture books. I turn right when our street ends, and this street becomes Main Street, the major artery of the town. In Tokyo, my walk from the house to the train station was right, right, left, right. In London, it was just left, and straight; then the station lay across the road.
Westhampton Beach is a transient place; a place in constant, predictable flux. It swells with the summer heat and shrinks before the leaves change colour, with the rhythmic certainty of a small wave kissing the sandy bank of a beach. It was a cycle we were all familiar with, for we were always on the crest of that wave, flotsam brought back every summer for the sun.
There was a brief interlude in my life in which we all played the role of an American family. My father had left his job in Hong Kong and we all moved to Westhampton Beach. We stayed for only six months; it was no more than an intermission between China and Japan, deemed necessary because my father was searching for a new job. In those six months I was in the middle of the first grade and attended an American public school for the first and only time in my life. I remember little except the realization that my life was different from most Americans’. In this little town, where so much depends on timing, we were permanently in a temporary place.
When that American intermission ended, the house became our summerhouse once again. And it is the summer now, and I am back at the house. I am in the living room; it is late and I will go to my bed soon to sleep. I am leaving tomorrow night and I will not be here again for another year. I do not want to leave, and maybe I have convinced myself that I am supposed to be here or that I have finally tethered myself to one place but I cannot shake the suspicion that all I have done is fooled myself again, convinced myself to mistake this imitation for reality, to see figments in the clouds as figures on the ground.