Part 1 of a Series: Away at Home
By Savannah Crichton
For Neil, family is home. The closest he felt to them was when they were 8,808 miles away from their house—in his father’s village, Devakottai. Located on the southern tip of India, Devakottai is weaved together by sandy streets, limestone buildings, and concrete walls. Warm air and mosquitoes cover people like blankets, while vibrant peacocks perch atop roofs and monkeys scamper through windows and open-air skylights.
During visits to temples and family homes, Neil was more of an observer than an active participant. He didn’t speak his relatives’ native tongue and felt alone despite ties by blood and heritage, wedged between an outgroup and an ingroup. As the air-conditioning shut down and internet connection tapered away, Neil drew increasingly closer to his older brother and parents. During these moments of isolation, he relied on the company of his family.
Although the language barrier hindered communication, it didn’t prevent connection. The houses in Devakottai sprawl open to accommodate generations of family; weddings and children’s games occur on different days in the same spaces. Stories fill rooms with memories. And whether he is witness to every event or not, Neil feels at home in this village on the opposite side of the world. The doors are never locked; he is always welcome.
Last summer, Neil found his childhood home listed online. He and his family sat together and flipped through the pictures—empty rooms where they had celebrated Christmas, watched the guinea pigs run around, and where he had fallen down and hurt his ankle. Those rooms in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia held memories of home, just like those rooms in Devakottai.
Neil remembers bike rides with his brother and his father, racing through winding paths—the sound of bike gears and trees whistling as they sped up and down streets. When they eventually skidded to a stop after dusk had finally caught them, the smell of cooking chicken would permeate the house and his family gathered together for dinner.
He remembers walking his dog when his thoughts piled up and he had nowhere to turn. But the stars on cloudless nights, the patter of dog paws on pavement, and clear air always seemed to be the cure for a crowded mind.
Neil remembers car rides. He would sit in the back with his brother and a subway sandwich while his mother shuttled them from taekwondo to swimming. Those days were tiring, but they were spent with one another.
He remembers his first day at a new kindergarten — the final bells rang out and he ran to his mom jumping in excitement. This was where he made his first friends and where teachers nurtured his love of learning.
Fundamental turning points and passing moments alike, Neil describes as “…things you just don’t want to forget. Home is something you don’t want to forget, you always want to know where it is.”
Neil is twenty years old and is learning how to define himself. All of his small experiences with friends, with family, and by himself have built up his definition of home, and now, in college, he notes “…everything around me is different.”
The freedom to select his group of friends, his schedule, and his priorities has challenged him to look inward. Without having the immediate support and comfort of home, self-definition becomes disorienting. Lately, Neil wants to “find a purpose or meaning…or happiness.” After four years in high school of obsessively crafting his schedule and slaving over homework, Neil now prioritizes introspection and self-care. He says he’s a little more compassionate to himself.
Once we leave home, we land somewhere between the comfort of being a stranger and the shock of adopting a new identity. This new home, environment, and family is temporary, but it is a part of us—and one day, we will be nostalgic and tell stories of these rooms.
Savannah Chrichton is a sophomore in Berkeley. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.