August 2008. This would be my first time home since I had enlisted in the Navy. Home is wherever Mom is. It could be any corner of the world. The last time I had seen her in person was July 2003, five long years ago. I had taken a 30-day leave, packed a small duffel bag, a camera full of the pictures of my squadron jets, and stepped onto a plane.
Sixteen hours later, I landed at Hong Kong International Airport. This time I found myself waiting in line in front of customs like every other foreign traveler because my Hong Kong passport had been terminated as part of my security clearance for the U.S. military. I had forgotten to tell my mom about that, so by the time I got to the baggage area, she had already been there waiting for two hours. When I saw her, she was crying. She seemed much shorter than I remembered. I could see the top of her head up close when I tilted my chin down over her to hug her. There were unfamiliar white streaks in her hair that brought tears to my eyes. I hugged her tightly, smiled, and said softly, “Ma, I am home.”
While still crying, she laughed, “Coming home is good, very good. I didn’t see you come out and didn’t hear messages from you, I thought something bad happened.”
Reluctantly, I reassured her again, “My job is very safe, don’t worry about it. They won’t send me to carry guns. They would rather have me fix the airplanes.”
Mom pushed me back, looked deep into my eyes, and refuted me sharply, “Your logistics friend told me that she has to go to Afghanistan next month. That’s why she is going home to see her family next week.”
I was speechless. How could I have forgotten the power of gossip in the hands of a middle-aged Asian woman, especially when it comes to the safety of her own child?
“Ma, I won’t, I promise.” Of course, I couldn’t tell her that the command had considered sending me to either Iraq or Afghanistan, but my supervisor had refused and sent a volunteer instead. Frustrated, I rolled my eyes. “Can you stop interrogating my friends? How did you get their contact info?”
She dodged the question, quickly going around me to try to pick up my bag. I wouldn’t let my mother carry my stuff in a million years. I grabbed the bag before her hand reached the handle and headed to the parking lot. My mom stood there awkwardly. About fifteen steps later, I felt something was wrong, and turned to look for my mom. She stood there three yards behind me, weeping. She looked so alone and helpless there in the middle of the airport crowd.
When I took the Early Out offer in 2009, it was because that image of her weeping alone in the airport had been seared into my mind. I don’t want her to lose me emotionally or physically. Even though we may still be an ocean apart, at least we can still reach out to each other by plane. After all, the greatest distance is not between two people on opposite sides of the globe, it’s between the living and the dead.
Han Yue Emerald Liu was honorably discharged from US NAVY after served three years on active duty and five years on reserve force. She was supporting the training squadron in Virginia Beach, Virginia as an Aviation Technician in platform F/A-18. She is from San Francisco, California, and is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Physiology & Neuroscience with minor in Communication at the University of California, San Diego.