I flew straight to Macau after Michaelmas - my first time in almost two years, and my first winter there since I left it for the UK eight years ago. Welcomed back by an orchestra of traffic noises and incessant drilling next door, I found myself conscious of my own breathing - because every breath was car exhaust.
It was a shock to the system. But I felt oddly alive.
Macau. I went to the market almost daily with my mum. Well, to call it "one market" was rather inaccurate, for I was referring to the myriad of stalls which lined side street after side street. Most of the people there were probably twice my age. The fish market was more like a massive aquarium. The splashing and sloshing of live fish was matched by the tussle for the day's best catch. "The market" is a microcosm of the place I call "home". A place always buzzing with life.
Then there’s the jolting buses. Three Macau patacas (30p) for a single ticket. Bargain. You better hold on tight the moment you get on, though. A seat? Don’t even think about it. If there was one, leave it for the elderly.
If you ever want to go to Cotai (an island in Macau), apart from the 33 or the 26 bus you might consider taking the casino transit coaches. Yes, they are free-to-use coaches which take you directly to the casinos there. The ludicrous grandeur and extravagance of these places contrasts sharply with the humility and humanity of my beloved city centre.
Here’s Macau. What used to be a little fishing town is now a city built with casino tables and slot machines. And recently, also bubble tea shops. And pharmacies with stacks of baby formula.
Home is the collection of memories. Memories of safety and security. To me, every landmark, every place and every detail is associated with memories. The days when my brother and I would "gallop" home from school on invisible horses. The days when I would get up extra early on weekends and snuggle in between my parents in bed.
Macau is a place where it's normal to share a table to eat with total strangers; it’s a place where the streets are so congested it's physically impossible to drive over the speed limit; a place with Portuguese street names no one can pronounce. Macau is the place where I can bump into people I know around every corner; where I've known the shopkeepers and market vendors personally since I was a little kid, and the vendors would exclaim, "wow, you're taller than your mum now" despite me being almost 20 and my mum being five foot one.
I spent the whole month trying out all the local delicacies, going to all the places I used to play with my brother and my cousin. Subconsciously, I did all that to remind myself of home. Of my childhood.
Home is the collective shared experience. I can so easily relate to people burning incense and paper offerings. My mum used to do that. I can easily relate to those who wear masks on the busy streets in futile attempts to save their lungs. Air actually comes in different flavours, you know.
Home is the shared culture, the language, the people, the climate, the social conventions. In 2017, Typhoon Hato made landfall over Macau. It was the most devastating natural disaster to hit Macau in living memory. My friend lost her father that day. Even from 10,000 km away, I still felt the pain.
Home is the place you grow in, and also the place you grow with. It's the place which has shaped you into the person you are. It's the place which evolves at the same time as you grow yourself.
But eventually, home is the place you grow away from. I've changed fundamentally as a person since leaving Macau. Macau has changed too. I certainly look at Macau with different eyes now. In my quest to search for memories, I notice things a ten year-old would not care about.
An untimely bout of writer's block prevented me from finishing this until I was back in the UK. In London. The place my bank would insist is my home.
Home is personal. My attachment to a place is directly proportional to how much it has shaped me. Perhaps that’s why, on the second day after arriving back in London, I felt that something was wrong. I didn't feel at home.
I've moved around a lot in my life. Eleven years in Macau, two years in Lincolnshire, five years in Essex, and a year in London. For me, the lengths of my stays are not just measured in terms of absolute time but also in terms of the intensity of the memories I attach to each place: I feel so much more at home in Cambridge – the place where I've fallen, and come back stronger.
Home for me is simultaneously Macau, Essex and Cambridge. For different memories. For different stages of my life. But for the same reason: that they have left the deepest marks on me.