There Are Plenty of Places Like Home, Thanks to a Passport

Dorothy red slippers
credit: Jen Peters

I grew up in Kansas, and when anyone not from my home state meets me, a Wizard of Oz quote is usually recited. In fact, I can't be sure how many times I've been reminded that I am "not in Kansas anymore."

Nevertheless, my connection to Dorothy runs deep. Once I grew up, I left Kansas for Boston and London. Then, I chose to reside in China, first in Shanghai and now in Beijing. Sometimes, I wish that I too could click my heels to avoid long airplane flights and jet lag and arrive somewhere familiar. I intimately understand the hollow sensation of homesickness that likely fueled Dorothy's journey down the yellow brick road.

Like her, I've realized that no matter how far I move away, there is really no place quite like my own bed, the hugs from my family, and jokes with old friends. But I've also learned to see home as more than just one location, which is something Dorothy never had a chance to realize.

Dorothy made new friends and had an adventure, but she returned to the same place where she started. Each step she made was on a set path to the Emerald City in order to return to Kansas. In this way, home was Dorothy's start and end, and the only lasting change she experienced was her overall perspective. She embarked a journey with a goal in mind, and that's something we don't share.

My yellow brick road may just run on forever, and home means more to me than just one familiar place.

Right now, home is a sixth-floor walk up I share with a Canadian boyfriend I met in England. Truthfully, leaving our place sometimes feels as tenuous as when Dorothy first embarks on the golden path to meet Oz. When I shut my front door in the mornings, I have to avoid my neighbors' plants lined against the walls and bikes stashed in the narrow hallway. I weave past hanging bed sheets that are sometimes still dripping from the wash, and pass front doors covered with red and gold blessings. When I emerge from the maze of my apartment building, I take to the wide Beijing sidewalks to begin my commute. Unlike most people, I haven't built up the courage to buy a bicycle and peddle through congested roads that haven't adjusted to population and economic booms.

When I've hit my stride, a graceful skip by no means, I often overtake the so-called "auntie" who has a basket full of leeks and a smiling puppy on her bike. As I near the bus stop, I see old men circle and crane their necks over an intense match of Chinese chess, with some lining up to get their hair cut just a step or two away. Pairs of students walk alongside me to school in matching uniforms, which aren't plaid, tailored outfits but rather baggy, bright tracksuits. Then I get on the bus and continue on a day — and a journey — that feels more and more natural to me.

But making China into a home was not and still is not an easy thing to do. Beyond the very real language barrier, the way of life and my surroundings can be totally foreign, even after living here for over three years. Some of the days can be unexplainably hard and make me feel like I do not belong. And there are others, like when poor air pollution forces me to wear a certified mask and stay indoors, that make me feel far removed from the wide open spaces of my past.

It's during those days when I discover that I'm more versatile than I knew. The Witch of the East had to tell Dorothy that she had the power to go home the whole time, and my life abroad has taught me that I can find connections with strangers to comfort me when I feel alone. It's taken some time, but my colleagues are now 姐姐, or older sisters, who give me financial, fashion and relationship advice — which is sometimes unsolicited. They always greet me with warm smiles and ask about my health and appetite, making sure that I am happy and safe.

I've found that fresh scents, soft chenille, dark wood floors and large coffee mugs remind me of the cozy rooms where I grew up, and I mix those touches with the souvenirs I've collected abroad. I've learned that I'm happiest in a home that has large windows where I can see the colors change across an urban horizon, watch the sunrise I as get ready for work and call my boyfriend to view the moon. It's not unlike the openness I embraced in the Midwest, and sometimes there are even rainbows.

I look forward to my next return to the United States, when I can laugh with friends, get big hugs from my brother, and take in the comforting smells of my grandparent's house in upstate New York. But for me, home will always be as transient as my passport. It's rooted in the memories and the people who raised me, but it's also a source of exploration and adventure. So while Dorothy thinks that there's no place like home, I know that there's no feeling like making a home wherever I please.

Kendall Bitonte manages external relations for a Chinese environmental NGO. She recently returned from a trip to New Zealand.