How many seashells does it take to build a home?

1. A twentysomething girl stares out of bus windows in countries far from her home and daydreams about stopping and living in one. About the specific kind of grit it would take, like trying to take root in sand, and yet how completely possible it seemed once she had imagined it. How people really had no more cause to stay in one place than a sycamore seed pod.

2. A girl in single digits, on a beach, filling a carrier bag to breaking point with pebbles and shells because they all seemed too unbearably beautiful to leave behind.


I started this morning feeling sad for a bunch of reasons and as the sadness cooled it turned to anger and irritability.

At 3.40 I was fantasising about being the kind of person who can just grab their passport and walk away without a backward glance.

Then as 1 500 children began filing back to their classrooms, I began to hear high-pitched English words.

‘Hello teacher! Hello!’

These weren’t the students who I was about to teach; they were my Tuesday students who only yesterday I subjected to the charade that is my employer’s testing system. They had absolutely no reason to remember or acknowledge me and yet they noticed me and greeted me as if I were someone wonderful. Their ‘hellos’ chirruped across the courtyard like birds and I no longer had to feign smiles, they were genuine. I am aware that a 6-year-olds standards for ‘person who makes me happy’ are probably not terribly high but those kids reminded me why I do not walk out, why I chose to do this in the first place and I will be grateful for that long after my face has blurred into the endless rounds of foreign teachers they will encounter over the next (hopefully) 12 years of school.

I walked past that school again tonight. It’s at the opposite end of the street to a vegan restaurant; not a drinks-in-jam-jars, cheeseless pizza vegan restaurant, a real no frills Vietnamese buffet where you can gorge yourself on lovely, healthy food for 20k đ (about 80p), a place where families and students come for dinner. Walking around Hanoi at night — and I mean my little neighbourhood as much as the bustling centre, is such a treat I often invent errands at night, and I fritter 1000’s đ drinking juices and coffees in the evening. Shops and cafes are draped with bright lights, friends sit at street kitchens and bier hois and park benches just passing the time of day, people power walk and play badminton and meditate, toddlers wobble their first steps. It probably seems odd to Asians how obsessed with their street life Westerners are, but we mostly come from cold countries where the outdoors is a route and not a destination (except for that one week in September, or May, or June, where it hits 25°C!) so it never ceases to delight me. It also gives me a feeling of independence; I don’t need to worry about ‘is this the kind of place where a woman can walk on her own?’ because most places are the kind of place anyone can walk, from dawn until about midnight.

And I was walking home, belly full of good food and a teasing thought reminded me how easily this could feel like home, jarring as it sometimes is. With a bit of effort, I could make this a home.

I won’t of course. At least, not now (never say never). It probably only seems doable in the way that living in India or Cambodia or, erm, here seemed doable 2 years ago — because it was just a daydream, I’d never be stupid enough to actually DO it, right?

Whether I come back or not, I think I’d have been stupid not to.

Home is where you make it


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