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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Home Redefined

As the Air Pacific 737 came into view, a whirlwind of emotions engulfed me. The flight to Fiji unfolded without any remarkable events, yet it marked a significant milestone: my first departure from Kiribati. Sadness, excitement, and trepidation intermingled within me as I grappled with the realization that I was leaving behind my newfound home to return to my homeland.


As the plane taxied down the runway, tears welled up in my eyes, a silent acknowledgment of the bittersweet farewell playing out beyond my window. The once-familiar sight of coconut trees, once a source of solace upon my arrival, now blurred past in a frenzied rush, amplifying the sensation of speed as we ascended into the sky. Within moments, Kiribati faded from view, swallowed by the vast expanse of the deep blue ocean, leaving behind a profound sense of departure reminiscent of bidding farewell to home once more.


Memories of my father's tearful farewell at the Cincinnati terminal flooded my mind, yet this time, their essence underwent a metamorphosis. What was once a moment of sorrow transformed into tears of joy as I embarked on my return journey. I envisioned his exuberant embrace, a stark contrast to the melancholy departure I had anticipated. In that moment, I came to understand that the concept of "home" was a multifaceted tapestry woven from layers of emotion, memory, and connection, each thread contributing to the rich fabric of my life's journey.


"I transferred to a flight in Fiji, which would take me to Auckland, New Zealand, where I'd catch another flight to Los Angeles, California," I explained to a fellow stranded passenger. "Quite absurd," he remarked, echoing the sentiments of many of us who found ourselves waiting to re-enter a country we hadn't physically left. As we filled out the immigration forms to re-enter New Zealand, his frustrations grew more vocal. "Hmm... country last visited, should I say New Zealand?" he yelled, gesturing towards an immigration officer. We were all in the same boat—tired, hungry, and unwilling to return to a country we had never physically left. Eventually, an airline representative informed all passengers waiting to go to Los Angeles that they would be accommodated in a hotel for the night while we awaited a new plane.


Not only was it my first time flying into New Zealand, but it also marked my unexpected debut on New Zealand television. Our landing in New Zealand proved to be a harrowing experience, exacerbated by unstable air conditions. The pilot had cautioned us about the likelihood of encountering moderate to heavy turbulence during our approach. While the initial descent seemed relatively stable, as we neared the runway, the situation took a tumultuous turn.


The turbulence intensified, causing the aircraft to sway precariously. As we braced for impact, the plane ahead of us encountered similar turbulence but had a far more challenging landing. It became apparent that several passengers and a crew member required medical attention upon disembarkation, further compounded by the need for immediate repairs to the aircraft. This unforeseen incident resulted in significant delays, causing a backlog in flights bound for the United States.


While everyone else seemed disgruntled about the unexpected overnight stay in New Zealand, I found myself surprisingly content with the situation. To my delight, I received a complimentary pass to a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet! The spread included an array of delectable options: potatoes, chicken, vegetables, cake, and even ice cream. For a food enthusiast like me, staying at the hotel felt like a dream come true.


I lounged comfortably on a king-size bed, indulging in the sumptuous feast while attempting to decipher the intricacies of a sport called rugby on the television. It was my first exposure to rugby, but I quickly learned that it held significant cultural importance in New Zealand. As I drifted off to sleep, I reflected on the unexpected turn of events, grateful for the unexpected culinary adventure that awaited me in the land of the Kiwis.


I woke up the following day and stepped outside, greeted by the scent of freshly cut grass, a sensation I hadn't experienced in almost two years. As I walked along the paved sidewalk, it struck me that I hadn't walked on such a surface in over a year and a half. These seemingly ordinary sights and smells were both familiar and foreign to me, evoking a complex mix of emotions.


In stark contrast to the sparse transportation options on my island, here I found myself surrounded by paved roads bustling with cars and trucks, more vehicles than I had ever seen in Tarawa. I stood at the edge of the sidewalk, watching the steady stream of traffic pass by, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of activity.


Despite having ample opportunities to cross the street when the traffic lights changed, I hesitated. Something held me back, a sense of uncertainty and apprehension. Memories of home flooded my mind—the unpaved paths, the familiar sight of Uncle's truck, the laughter of friends and family during island rides.


Suddenly, the simplicity of crossing the street seemed daunting. Would I get lost? How would I find my way back? The once familiar act now felt complicated and overwhelming. With a heavy heart, I turned back and retreated to the comfort of my room, where I remained until it was time for the bus to take me back to the airport.


The contrast was even more pronounced when I landed in Los Angeles. The city felt vast and intimidating, with people shouting at each other and seemingly at walls. Technology had advanced significantly since I had left. Almost everyone seemed to possess a tiny cell phone, so small it was almost invisible. Handsets were a thing of the past, replaced by sleek earbuds and tiny microphones attached to phones, allowing for seamless conversations. 


At times, it was disconcerting—I often found myself wondering if people were talking to themselves, unaware of the invisible device in their hand. The pace of change in technology was staggering, and I couldn't help but feel a sense of disconnect from this new reality.


I arrived in Columbus around midnight, greeted by my entire family at the airport. Mom brought a coat, Dad brought pants, and my sister brought gloves, shoes, and a hat—anticipating my arrival from a tropical climate. Meanwhile, I stood there in shorts and flip-flops, a stark reminder of the worlds I had straddled. As I embraced my parents, sister, and family, I couldn't shake the feeling of being torn between two versions of myself—the person I used to be and the one I had become.


The car ride home felt surreal. Despite being surrounded by familiar faces and places, I struggled to reconcile the profound changes I had undergone. Home didn't quite feel like home anymore. The more I immersed myself in it, the more distant it seemed, like a memory fading with time.

     

The two weeks passed by in a blur, alternating between moments of swift passage and agonizing slowness. Nighttime, once a period marked by homesickness for America during my time in the islands, now brought a reversal of emotions. I found myself shedding tears for my island home, friends, and family. It puzzled me. I was finally back in the place I had yearned for, determined not to feel homesick while in my own home. Yet, inexplicably, that's exactly what happened.


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