Home coming and going

Opinion by Madeleine Chang
Jan. 13, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

The first few weeks of January on college campuses are full of syllabi, un-rusting rusted bike locks, (broken) New Year’s resolutions, and three-sentence conversations in dorm hallways and bookstore lines that always begin: “How was your break? How was home?”

I usually dig up a stock answer like, “Lots of food and family; good to be back though!” What I want to say is: “Home was home.” Of course, this only means something to me. Home is as big as the map of San Francisco and as small as the chipped paint on the green chair at the kitchen table. Home is a smell, a feeling, a rhythm. More than anything, home is familiar. It never used to need words, because it was common sense — the world around me in which everyone I knew was also living.

The same loss for words arises when trying to describe school to aunts and high school friends over break. “School is school,” I think to myself, knowing they want to hear about classes and parties. But school too, is a smell, a feeling, a rhythm. Now school is familiar, just like home used to be. In fact school is in some ways more familiar than home — no new refrigerators popping up while gone, no old self to reencounter. So perhaps school is home. But then where am I going back to over break? A house where I once lived? Home seems neither here nor there.

Home, according to the dictionary, is “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.” It offers the example: “I was nineteen when I left home and went to college.” The dictionary itself defines home in contrast to college. But the reality of college is much blurrier.

First-Generation and/or Low-Income Partnership (FLIP)’s new social media campaign “#PieceOfMyHome” explores this apparently common crisis-of-home. FLIP features a picture and caption students send in showing something “connecting our different​ ideas of ‘home’ and ‘community.’” The email advertisement reads: “Has Stanford been the closest you’ve felt to being ‘home’ or having community? Have you struggled to make Stanford your ‘home’ because it differs so much from the ‘home’ and community you know?” Most of us could answer yes to both.

As FLIP points out, home and community come hand-in-hand. The dictionary would agree that “a family or household” make a home home. If home is about people, how does school measure up?

School is where people know me the most and know me the least. A funny thing happened the other day when my roommate from this year met my roommate from last year. After the requisite small talk, they started narrating my routine and naming my idiosyncrasies to each other as if recapping a funny T.V. show they both watched religiously. “The way she sets alarms at 8:01, 8:02, 8:03, 8:04!” they squealed. I realized then that they know me better than I know me, or at least, they know the things that are so second-nature that I could never articulate them about myself. This, I thought, is home!

And yet, my roommates know very little of my history pre-Stanford, and I too know only the rough outlines of theirs. A school friend just recently told me about her experience with a serious childhood illness—how she considers it a core part of her identity, and how the ordeal crosses her mind almost every day. I asked myself, What kind of friend was I if I didn’t know this massive part of her life? She assured me, preemptively, that most of her friends at school don’t know, not out of neglect, but because it doesn’t usually come up in conversation. “It’s the past,” she added.

Part of building a new home at school is accepting that all of us tenants see only the very tip of a twenty-year history. And part of going back to the places we came from is noticing what we’ve added to that history. Home, for the time being, lies somewhere in between.

Contact Madeleine Chang at madkc95 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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