Friday, January 11, 2013

The Road Home

Images used with permission

What is “home”?  For many it is bricks and mortar, the smell of mom’s cooking, the feel of a cotton blanket on a familiar bed.  It is paintings, objects and photographs of a life lived.  On a broader scale, it is a familiar language, black pavement with straight lines.  Home is the people who know you best: family.

For a third culture kid, the word “home” becomes muddled.  The bricks and mortar one day could be tatami floors and shoji doors the next.  The cooking in this place smells different; you can’t get Chef Boyardee here.  The bed is a strange one, although the blanket may be familiar.  The language is foreign, staccato, strident.  The pavement is broken, dusty. Everyone is a stranger; you said good-bye to the cousins at an airport far, far away.  The hours on the airplane, and shuffling, sleep-filled eyes grainy, through chrome and glass airports, have left your brain cobwebbed and confused.  Even if you wanted to go home, there would be no home to go to. 

After watching “The Road Home”, (, a short film written and directed by Rahul Gandotra, (shortlisted for an Oscar in 2012) the first words that popped into my head were, “a gem” and “a delightful visual taste of a pain that I know.”  Beside the fact that the movie is filmed in National Geographic-like detail, and gives us exquisite snapshots of rural Indian culture, "The Road Home" is an affirmation of the issues of Third Culture Kids.  In this short, 23 minute story, every feeling, every longing, every search for home is played out against the backdrop of what is very likely the place where God lives.

The protagonist is a young Indian boy, Pico, who has been raised in England, and is, for the most part, through and through British.  His accent is as English as tea and buttered scones.  But on the outside, he is Indian.  The opening scene shows him being taunted by his schoolmates because he has whitened his face in a desperate attempt to erase his “Indian-ness.”  He can’t understand why they are jeering at him; you can almost touch his confusion and his pain.  “Indian!  Indian!  Indian!” they yell.  Why doesn’t he run away?  Why is he trying to cover himself up?  You can almost hear the cries of his youthful inner self trying desperately to make his outside match his inside.**

We see him sneaking out the window of his Indian boarding school, ironically named, The Woodstock School.  He is desperate to get home to England, to his “home”, the only home he has ever known.  For some reason his father, back in Britain, has decided to send him back to India, but for what?  To get in touch with his heritage?  Probably, but more realistically to get him into the London School of Economics, and then to Harvard for his MBA.  But what is the point?  An international school in the foothills of the Himalayas?  Where is the Indian heritage in that?

Don't we all feel like we're running after or away from something?

Pico sprints down the curvy road away from the school as the morning bell rings.  He is approached by taxi drivers, who speak to him in Hindi, assuming, of course, that he is Indian.  He certainly looks Indian.  Therefore he must be Indian.  Pico gets angry, yelling at one point, “I’m British!”  One sympathetic taxi driver agrees to drive him to New Delhi, and the journey begins. 

Most of us Third Culture Kids are trying very hard to do the same thing as Pico: we just want our outsides to match our insides.  We want to go “home”, like Pico, but oftentimes “home” doesn’t exist.  We spend our lives trying to find “home”, and for the most part we never get there; our lives are a constant journey.  Our Road Home has no final destination.

In my case, being an American, it should follow that America is home.  I look American, I sound American.  I can disappear into a crowd.  But on the inside, I am as foreign as can be.  To many Americans, foreigners are just that: foreign, and not worthy of being understood or studied.  (Like a Third Culture Kid?  We may seem a little weird, come across as a little arrogant.  Not many people take the effort to get to know us).  Not to say that all Americans are xenophobic, but many are.  I had a teacher in primary school tell me that Singapore was in China.  Even in fourth grade, I knew that wasn’t true.  Many people I meet here in the States don’t care about what goes on outside our borders, unless we were fighting a war or our jobs are being exported there. 

Most American religious folks believe that Christianity is the one and only way to heaven.  I have seen people cry real tears for the “lost” people.  I chuckled silently as I imagined a group of Buddhists praying for the poor Christians who don’t know the Bodhisattva.  It’s been a constant refrain in my musings, but having come to know other religions on a genuine level has opened my mind to myriad possibilities for living one’s life, and where one goes when this life is done.

I never learned how to be a “typical American kid” whatever that is.  My daughter, who has been to the same school her whole life, isn’t happy unless she is surrounded by several of her friends.  I, on the other hand, am happiest when I am alone.  I was forced to learn to occupy myself because there were so many times in my life when I was alone, either on a long-haul flight across the Pacific, or left behind while my parents took trips to exotic places.  Making friends for me is exhausting, because I had to do it so many times, over and over, sometimes with not-so-good results.  My daughter, on the other hand, does it like she breathes. 

I may never know what it is like to have a permanent “home”.  Even now, I am a newcomer where I live.  I’ve only been here a year and a half, and I’m waiting patiently to bloom where I am planted.  But it’s hard to wish for home when there never really was one to begin with.  I may look like I fit in, but on the inside, I am so very different.

Pico, in “The Road Home,” has a home to wish for.  He wants to go back to England, the only home he has ever known.  He doesn’t want to be Indian, even though when he looks in the mirror, an Indian boy stares back at him.  At the end of his journey, I think he comes to terms with his reality and reluctantly agrees to meet the Indian boy in the mirror.  In a way, all of us TCK’s are Pico.  We just want to feel like we belong.  Perhaps the only way we can belong is to realize that we never will.  

You can "rent" The Road Home for 48 hours for only $1.99, but I encourage you to buy the DVD so that you can listen to the director's commentary.  He is actually a TCK himself, and talks about what he was thinking with every scene.  

More about the film:


** Gandotra explains in the director's commentary that there have been several interpretations of this scene.  Is it a dream sequence?  Did the taunting kids paint his face white?  Or did Pico do it himself, thinking no one would notice?  You decide.

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