In a valley that could pass for paradise, a satin-scarfy waterfall tumbles into a chocolate-milky river on whose pebbly banks, under coconut palms, wild horses graze. 

Kristan Lawson, used with permission
Source: Kristan Lawson, used with permission

This river swirls past emerald cliffs and taro patches to a clear blue sea patrolled by hammerheads.

It's the Waipio Valley on Hawaii's Big Island. Nestled at the foot of America's steepest road, I saw it recently as part of a KapohoKine Adventures tour. It was my first visit. Yet those horses gazed straight into my eyes as if to say: Welcome back, pal.

I've been to Hawaii only twice, but both times, the instant I inhaled its thick, electric air I felt at home.

Reincarnation? Or just a sense of belonging? Of already knowing, without previous research, not the names of every street in Honaunau, as some past-lifer might have done, but rather how to wander local stores as if I'd always shopped there, and how to amble imperviously through Hilo deluges that looked and sounded like the end of the world.

On the Kilauea Iki Trail -- another KapohoKine Adventures tour -- razor-sharp, steam-breathing black lava felt oddly friendly underfoot. In Hilo, locals asked me for directions as if I was one of them.

Kristan Lawson, used with permission
Source: Kristan Lawson, used with permission

By contrast, I feel like a stranger in the city where I live. This cool mainland metropolis beloved by millions is to me only a college town in which I never meant to stay. Strolling its celebrated streets, I feel on bad days like an oaf, on better ones like an impostor, on others like a hostage or anthropologist. "Home," try as I might, is not home. 

Other places, where I do not live, are.

Hawaii taught me this. You might tell me all tourists feel embraced there, suckered by a few alohas. False. My father's last conscious words to me were: "Your mother hated Honolulu."

Kristan Lawson, used with permission
Source: Kristan Lawson, used with permission

Feeling at home somewhere isn't simply liking it. This was not a "vacation" feeling. Orchids and ferns in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden felt to me, in all their leaping, dripping beauty, not exotic but expected. Mandatory, as in: Were my portrait ever painted, these plants must surround me in it. Amidst those barbed fruits and head-sized leaves, I breathed easily, as in: At long last. As in: relief.

Mind you, I'm not some hotdogger affecting quasi-residency in faraway lands by speaking pidgin, say, or spreading lard on toast. I'm not the type to adopt local quirks to which I've earned no right. I would never, as did an ex-friend after two weeks in Oahu, end all sentences with "yeah?" As in: "I bought a Porsche, yeah?" and "I crave curry, yeah?" 

I cannot now or perhaps ever live in Hawaii, given its high costs and huge insects. Island life requires courage, patience and resourcefulness, and I lack two of those. I can't live there, yet for no reason, I feel that I have. As if, in some strange sense, I do. This same sensation struck me twenty years ago in Hong Kong, the only place I've ever cried because I had to leave.  

Do some of us live alternate lives concurrent with our main, conscious ones? In these main lives, we work, shave, mow lawns. But: Do ethereal versions of ourselves teleport secretly, perhaps invisibly, of their own accord to our homes-away-from-home? And do they live there, idling in Buen Retiro Park or riding bullet trains because they can?

Is ethereal me crashing a luau right now, or drinking milk tea on Kowloon Peak?

Kristan Lawson, used with permission
Source: Kristan Lawson, used with permission

I theorize that nearly everyone has places which perhaps they've never seen or even thought about but in which they truly belong. These homes-away-from-home are as such not because of ancestry or friends or "I've loved Goa ever since I saw The Bourne Supremacy" but because everyplace in the world is a constellation of ten thousand aspects and sometimes these aspects line up perfectly to suit a certain soul. Flora, fauna, history, climate, culture -- even doorknobs and clown suits coalesce to beckon or sicken us. 

This city where I live is a true home-away-from-home for some, but not for me.

Yet here I am, sipping a hot drink in my home-that-is-not-home. As are many of you.

This does not mean we don't appreciate the merits of these places where we live, which others love, which we have tried to love and which we would love if we could. Less longing, less fish-out-of-waterism: Who wouldn't want that? We aren't spoiled brats. And we understand that this conundrum has different, life-or-death meanings for political refugees.

So: Does dwelling in homes-that-are-not-homes trigger depression and anxiety? How deep might this tragedy be? Is it traumatic trying fruitlessly to feel and act at home, year after year? If so, and if we can't, won't or don't move, what can we do? 

Face facts. Accept that our "homes" aren't our homes. And yes, this hurts. I struggle with it on the street, surrounded by smug faces that make me want to squirt Silly String at them or scream.

Yet it is an epiphany. It frees us from feeling like freaks. It also frees us from blaming ourselves for anomie that's not our fault. Would we blame cream for curdling in lemonade? It is also a comfort: We, the legion of Not-Homers, can say: Whatever happens in my home-that-is-not-home, somewhere out there I would feel welcome. I would laugh. I might not know its name, but it exists on maps. Its hot lunches await me. Its wind would be music to my ears. 

Kristan Lawson, used with permission
Source: Kristan Lawson, used with permission

Maybe I'll find it -- for the first time, or again.

But for now: How reassuring just to know it's real. Harsh as it feels at first, this revelation helps us hate our homes-that-are-not-homes a little less. They're not trying to kill us. They just do it inadvertently, going about their jolly ways, sometimes.  

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