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What sorts of places did you love visiting when you were posted abroad? What places filled up your mind and heart?

What was your strangest or most disturbing or most curious experience in another culture? Recall what happened. Remember how things looked, smelled, tasted.

Bring to mind the homes of your childhood. When you think of those houses, which of them glow?

Did your heart ever break when you left a place? Think of that place and the things you loved doing there. Then remember the feeling of leaving.

Recall an experience in a foreign culture that unsettled you. Or describe your first day in a strange, new land.

Recall an arrival back in your home country. Did your family have a ritual that marked homecomings?

Think of one return to your home country. Do you remember what it felt like to go through Immigration?

Focus on one country in which you lived for an extended period. During the month before leaving that place what did you look at? What did you smell? What did you eat? Describe your last month in that place.



What sorts of places did you love visiting when you were posted abroad? What places filled up your mind and heart?

For my brother, our years in Europe were an elixir--for his appetite, for history--and particularly the history of war--was unquenchable. All over Europe during the years he was seven to eleven, we visited battlefields and castles and army museums. Andy climbed turrets, caressed catapults, and sat astride cannons--as proud as a general. On these weekend visits round and about, he beamed like a pig in mud. Because of the luck of being stationed in Europe, he was able to actually see the battlements and touch the weapons about which he read voraciously all through the school week. It was clear that these chances filled up his mind and heart.

What was your strangest or most disturbing or most curious experience in another culture? Recall what happened. Remember how things looked, smelled, tasted.

I am walking among small thatched houses down a small dirt street. I am with my mother, and there is a man with us, an eager man, leading the way. As we come abreast each dwelling, the man and my mother and I squat to greet the occupant, seated, legs extended, in front of the doorway at a backstrap loom. Beautiful red, yellow, and black patterns ripple along each loom. Each time we squat, my stomach clenches in revulsion and terror as I extend my hand in greeting. For all the weavers are lepers. Each weaver's hand is palm-studded, with gnawed-off stumps for fingers. My mother, a physical therapist come to help the inmates, holds each person's hand with almost reverential tenderness. As our hands meet, the villagers' hands are dry and scaly, like I imagine an elephant's skin would be. But once I calm myself, I lift my eyes to smiles.

Bring to mind the homes of your childhood. When you think of those houses, which of them glow?

Holland is for me what childhood should be: freedom, bikes, canals, fields. The brick row house in downtown The Hague where I spent the 5 middle years of my childhood was the best home I ever had. To think of its big, leaky bedrooms with fireplaces, its ballroom-sized bathrooms, and its furniture-stuffed attics is to bring me a sensation of sleepy protectedness--a canopy that holds fast even under drumming rain. That home had for me what Patricia Hampl, the memoirist, calls "the radiance of the past," for it was home the way it is when you are young: the home your parents give you.

Did your heart ever break when you left a place? Think of that place and the things you loved doing there. Then remember the feeling of leaving there.

Holland was my land of soggy farm fields, of Van Gogh, of windmills thumping in the wind, and frigid winter walks by the sea. It is the place I attended a Victorian house of a school, where I fell off a fat pony three times in an hour, where I read seven Enid Blytons in a week. It is the place I tasted pure freedom, zooming around Wassenaar on my bike, and the place I learned I could play soccer as well as a boy. Holland is the place where my mother wore her long, baggy raincoat and translated Dutch at a rug-covered table, and where my father rode to work on his bike. It is where I made a 12-foot gumwrapper chain, and where I ran for student council and lost because I was a girl. It is the place I first tasted the elixir of belonging to a crowd, and it is the site of my first kiss.

When I left Holland at age 13, I wept all the way in the car to Le Havre Airport. When the grief was finally spent, something in me was broken. It was the kind of fracture that hurts with the sharpest pain the first time around. Holland was my first broken heart.

Recall an experience in a foreign culture that unsettled you. Or describe your first day in a strange, new land.

When we walked down the ramp of the Fokker Friendship we were slammed by a wall of heat. Once inside the tiny Kuching air terminal, we were ushered into the VIP Lounge, where all four of us--my brother, my mother, my father, and I--were given baskets of orchids. They were delicate flowers, graceful wands with tiger-striped, salmon, and sky-white blossoms floating from them. In my almost 16 years I had never seen such celestial blooms. Along with the orchids, we were handed glasses of water.

The second day after our arrival, my mother took me to the market in downtown Kuching only a few minutes from our spacious, low, open house on a hillside of fragrant bushes. As we walked into the main market street, a narrow alley of cramped, open store fronts, it was as though the scents of East Malaysia had entered my body and sucked up all the air. The smells of incense, greasy cooking, and animals, along with the crush of bodies and the shrieking of the high-pitched Malay and Indian music mixed with Jefferson Airplane made me woozy. I grabbed my mother's arm. "Can we go back, Mom?"

I spent the next 3 days in bed, habituating my body to the heat and smells of East Malaysia. I came to love the market best of many fascinating aspects of Kuching, but that first week I had been truly shocked by culture.

Recall an arrival back in your home country. Did your family have a ritual that marked homecomings?

We rise at 5 a.m. to the sonorous chimes of the steward's bells. We rush into our clothes. My father stands on deck looking like he looks in my daydreams. He leans out over the rail, silent as the grey, cool morning, hunting for the first glimpse of land. The first glimpse of America. A steward, one of several positioned every few feet along the deck, serves us coffee, juice, and pastries from a silver tray. We join Papa and crane out over the rail. Finally we see it--a dark-smudged line out there interrupting the soft, grey sky. As we draw nearer, the land begins to take form. We see humped shapes of land, then the straightedge blocks of buildings. Finally, we round a corner, and there she is: the Statue of Liberty holding her torch high. Our hearts thrill. Andy salutes her; I wave, then we go to the steward for more pastries.

On shore, after the frenzy of finding our trunks in the jumble from the hold, after clearing customs, and securing our rental car, we drive out of the clanging dock house into New York City. Once clear of downtown and onto Route 95, we turn off at the first McDonald's we see. Under the protection of the arches, eating our Big Macs and fries, we know we are really home.

Think of one return to your home country. Do you remember what it felt like to go through Immigration?

By the time we landed in San Francisco we had been on the plane for 30 hours, counting the layover in Honolulu. I was fed up with my whole family. My brother had constantly moved around in his seat next to me while I was trying to sleep. My mother told me I wasn't helping enough when we were trying to get our carry-ons assembled for landing. Even my father's calm silence bugged me. My eyes felt itchy and sore, my temples ached, I was sick of having something heavy hanging on my shoulder. I finally slung my backpack on the floor and kicked it the rest of the way to Immigration.

My father handed the passports to the officer; my mother and brother and I packed in close so he could see us and match our faces to those in the photos. When the passport checker looked at us and beamed and said, "Welcome home," it was as though the sun had burst through the clouds.

Focus on one country in which you lived for an extended period. During the month before leaving that place what did you look at? What did you smell? What did you eat? Describe your last month in that place.

On a bright day in Taipei toward the end of the first grade, I made my way past the two houses further down the lane to the broad, muddy, magic, green rice paddy. I looked out over the open, flat expanse that seemed to stretch forever into the distance. My house, only two doors behind me, down the walled lane, I felt safe.

Here, on the muddy dike that stretched for miles along the town side of the paddy, looking out over what seemed the entire expanse of China, I felt a sublime contentment. My insides rushed out over the land, like a swooping hawk, to join it. I stood for a few moments, just watching the straw hats of the people squatting far off in the mud and inhaling the cool air from over the expanse before me.

Then, suddenly, feeling a surge of confidence and laughter that filled my body like helium, I skipped over toward a water buffalo with its head down nuzzling in the ooze. Not five feet from the beast, I stood, holding ground, and watched the tail of the water buffalo flicking flies.

I did not know it yet, but this is how it would be forever. Just before leaving each place I lived, I would go on a walk and, pausing, a surge of contentment would rise within me. Somehow, the country I lived in, its people, my life, would spread out before me, whole and verdant. The land would shine, all its beauties apparent for the first time.


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