Beyond the Paper Screen / Homemaking on the Go Never Really Stops

It was a typical day in Oregon in mid-May: drizzles, clouds, five minutes of sunshine, drizzles again. I don’t know how many of us received our bachelor’s degrees that day — somewhere around 300, I think. It rained in the morning, and we were crammed into the gym for the baccalaureate service. The rain stopped during lunch, and it was barely dry enough for us to sit outside for the afternoon commencement ceremony. We walked across the wet grass to receive our diplomas, one by one. Toward the end of the afternoon, when it was finally my turn, the sun peaked out of the clouds to suddenly turn it into a pleasant spring day.

My family in Japan wasn’t coming, so instead, I put down two of my friends on the commencement registration as attending family members. One of them, a professor’s daughter from Germany, protested that I lied in an official university form; the other one, a Japanese of Korean descent and a bit of a rebel, got a good chuckle out of it. We found our seats in the crowded dining hall for lunch with other English majors and their real families. When my professor came by, he looked at me and my two friends and raised his eyebrows in that British way (he specialized in Victorian literature). “Well, let’s see, who are these two? Your family no doubt?” I kept a straight face and replied, “Of course, professor. Can’t you see the family resemblance?” He liked that. Once he moved on, my German friend leaned in and whispered, “Oh, my god, I thought he was gonna tell us to leave!” My Japanese friend just smirked and kept eating his chicken.

My memory of the rest of the day is fuzzy. I have no recollection of the moment when I received the diploma, nor what I did after commencement. I don’t remember how long the sunshine lasted, or if the drizzle returned by night. Four blurry pictures, taken by my fake “family” with a cheap point-and-shoot, are the only mementos that remain of that day.

Graduation may, perhaps, seem like an odd place to start a story about “home.” To me, home is not a place or a building, not even a specific group of people. Home is where I feel safe and free, to stretch my wings and be complete as a person. I had the first taste of that when I left the home of my parents to come to the United States as a college student. That small college campus was my first home away from home. I can see that now, three decades later.

When I first arrived, I had no long-term plans beyond the college degree. I bumbled through my graduate application process and, until three days before commencement, didn’t even know where I would be living after that summer. When I finally got that graduate school acceptance letter in my campus mailbox, it felt as though a big patch of blue opened up in a sky full of dreary clouds. In those commencement day pictures, my younger self looks straight back at me with a big open smile, hopeful and carefree. She knew that her family in Japan was hoping for her to come home after graduation and stay there; she also knew that she wasn’t content to follow the blueprint of life that was given to her. She had that independent streak and needed to find her own place in the world.

After that day, I was on the constant move — literally and figuratively speaking — as my budding academic career took me through two graduate programs, seven states, and a bunch of part-time jobs. I became an expert at homemaking on the go — creating and recreating that space of safety and freedom wherever I went. Ten years buzzed by. Friendships and relationships, couches and computers, stormed in and stormed out of my life, until I finally landed my full-time faculty position at a small college in California — not unlike the one I left on that rainy graduation day. In another ten, I became a “lifer,” settled into the secure and sedentary life of a tenured college professor, bought my first house, was adopted by a cat, and then another. I had grown to think of that life as my permanent home.

Alas, I’ve learned, change is the only constant in life and the homemaking on the go never really stops. The wind of change hit my university campus hard in recent years, and a lot of people have left, either disillusioned or just plain too tired to continue. The campus feels different, no longer a “home” but a place where I work.

This column, which I’ve written religiously for 18 years, has also come to its final installment. When I wrote my first essay back in 2006, I had no idea how much I would come to enjoy sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers. But, as I conclude my last, I know it is inevitable that this home, too, must evolve with the ever-changing weather. It’s always a little unnerving when the dark clouds begin to roll in. Is it an ominous sign of a big storm, or of a gentle nurturing spring rain that turns the desert into a flower garden? I believe — I’ve got to believe — behind the veil of dark clouds, there’s a big patch of blue sky, another opportunity to imagine what my new “home” will look like.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands. Her culture column will continue on her website (