I stepped off of the bus and the google directions pushed me off a cliff, telling me simply to "continue to Valley Way." There didn't appear to be a Valley Way anywhere near me.
But there were hills in the distance, those stunning middle California hills that I love. Not quite as Shar Pei-like as their Southern California sisters, they are none the less the soft brown of a wrinkly puppy. They look as though they had come from another planet. I had come from ocean and forest. I was in a flat space, surrounded by scrubby hills that reflected the sky with violence. Strip malls held their squat shapes all around me, but these strip malls were interspersed with Korean restaurants, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian. Where was I?
Unfortunately I couldn't seem to find anyone who spoke English. I felt badly about it too. One elderly man seemed embarrassed. He looked Vietnamese, and I knew it was bad manners in his culture not to help me. But he couldn't help it. He had no idea what I was asking.
I started asking people around a certain age, since it seemed more likely. But I got a lot of smiles and a gust of air, "I don't speak English," from people. I ducked into a hotel, where an Indian man was working. He handed me a map, and as I tried to locate myself on it without putting it on the floor and stepping on it, he asked, "Where are you from?"
This question is familiar. It set me right at ease, even as I struggled to think of how to answer it.
I came up with something simple. "Canada," I said, which is truthful but leaves out twelve years of my life.
"Oh!" he said. "My brother lives in Vancouver. Port Coquitlam."
"Ahhhh," I said. We smiled at each other. We had found common ground. I didn't tell him that I also lived in India, that I am heading back soon to go back home. I don't know why. Maybe because the map was confusing me.
Even with the map it took me a very long time to find the place I was going to. Probably because I'm terrible at reading maps. And there were curved roads and highways and confusing things. And I was on foot in the sun. Quite a few times I determinedly set off, only to find that I was headed in the opposite direction that I was supposed to be headed. It occurred to me to be glad that I live in a place where people tell you to drive until you come to the Banyan tree and turn left. I can follow those kinds of directions.
Eventually I found my way. Where I was going is not important, what is important is what happened after, at the Vietnamese Restaurant I went to. I had Pho. I'm not spelling it right because I don't know how to call the symbol up for that word. It was delicious.
When I was leaving I complimented the woman who ran the place on her food. She smiled. "How do you say it?" I said.
"Phuh?" she said.
"No, Phuh? It has a question sound at the end."
"That's hard for me," I said.
"Yes, not easy for English speakers," she agreed. "Every mark is a different tone."
"How many tones are there?"
She counted on her fingers. "Six."
"And the same word is pronounced six different ways with different tones?"
"And has six different meanings."
She asked me where I lived, and I said, just from over the hill and I'm just getting a little time away, I'm moving soon, I'm overwhelmed. She commiserated.
We smiled, and I finished paying, and I left.
I left feeling energized and filled up and happy. Like I'd landed back at home base, come around a crazy circle. These interactions find me someplace deep in my heart. The easy banter, the open curiosity. Somehow I have found home in a place that is not home. I don't know how to explain much more of who I am, but I do know that.