"We are beginning our final descent into Washington, D.C."
I stared through the airplane window at the red and gold trees along the banks of what I thought was the Potomac River, though I couldn't be sure because it had been awhile since I had lived in Washington, D.C., or even been in the United States. Three years, eight months, 12 days, to be exact.
As the plane glided closer to the ground, I wondered if I'd set foot in the airport, finally back in America, and feel as though I had never left. I wasn't sure if I would be relieved or frightened if I did.
I left the United States in February 2010, with a plan to teach English in South Korea for a year. After that, I wasn't sure what I would do. Maybe stay in South Korea another year, maybe move somewhere else in Asia. Though it pained me to say goodbye to my loved ones, leaving America itself wasn't a problem. This was home; I could always come back here.
Home became a relative term during those three years and change, and took on a number of different shapes and meanings: a shoebox of a studio in Gangnam (yes, of "Gangnam Style" fame) in Seoul; a drafty apartment with a squat toilet in a Beijing hutong; a guest house in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I thought often of visiting the States but kept putting it off - there was always so much to do and see wherever I was, so many reasons to stay. And as I settled into each city, there were obligations that kept me there rather than popping "home" for a visit.
But in October 2013, it was finally time. I hadn't left Asia in more than three years and I was really feeling the distance between me and my loved ones in America. And I missed things like customer service and gluttonous American meals and clean, relatively safe roads, and consistent wifi. So I decided to go back for six weeks - enough time, I thought, to visit and evaluate whether or not I'm ready to become a full-time American again.
I had heard of reverse culture shock but never experienced it, until it hit me in the face about an hour after getting off the plane. My college roommate picked me up from the airport and as we drove up 495 to her house in Baltimore, diving into an epic catch-up session, I felt the first wave of disorientation wash over me. She talked excitedly about her new iPhone and the guy she's dating, and I listened enthusiastically because I wanted to take it all in, know every detail of her life I had missed between lengthy catch-up emails and "I miss you!" Facebook messages.
But my head spun as we passed familiar signs and landmarks. I had been on this road countless times during my combined five and a half years living in the Maryland-D.C. area, yet it all felt somehow as if they were memories from a different life. I flipped through the recollections in my brain, trying to reorient myself. During the first few weeks back, I often felt I was in some weird B-grade sci-fi movie and was waking up from a dream. Everything was familiar and yet not. I had the distinct sensation of not quite belonging where I was, even though at the moment, it was exactly where I wanted to be.
Crossing the Rubicon
Perhaps I didn't allow for the emotional impact of visiting America after so long. Sure, I knew it would probably be "weird" to be back, but I didn't dwell too much on the possibility of having culture shock in my own country. I fully expected to reassimilate with no problems, and to feel completely at home as soon as the jet lag wore off. I wanted it to feel right, to know that I could dip in and out of this culture and lifestyle anytime I wanted and feel perfectly at ease again.
That was not exactly the case. Seeing old friends was happily strange in that once we were together, it felt as though no time had passed at all. Of course there were things we'd missed out in the years I was gone, but our dynamic was wonderfully the same, and that made the rest of it much easier to deal with.
I tried very hard to be an American again during the next few weeks, reassuring myself that the sensation of having been plunked down in someone else's life would pass.
"See, I remember all of this," I would tell myself as . "Doesn't it feel good to be back?"
And it did, sort of. But it also felt foreign and I sometimes felt as though I'd never left America, that everything I had experienced, everyone I had met in Asia, had all been part of some elaborate fantasy. Other times, I couldn't help thinking something just wasn't clicking. I marveled at my friends' beautiful apartments, their nice furniture, stacks of five towels for one person. It made me laugh to think of the lone beach towel that hung in the bathroom of my small studio-like space in Thailand. Their homes were comfortable, organized, and filled with so many useful things I had never even fathomed owning. All of my possessions, save one Rubbermaid filled with clothes and keepsakes that's in storage somewhere in Beijing, fit into one traveling backpack and two duffel bags.
One night I had dinner with a couple of friends from grad school who are living in D.C. They had just bought their first home and it sounded lovely. I remarked to them how overwhelming it was to be in friends' homes and see how furnished and decorated they were, how settled everyone seemed in their lives. It felt so far from where I am and what I want right now.
"You know, maybe there's a line between living abroad and being able to settle down somewhere and be happy," one of them said. "Maybe you've crossed the Rubicon and you can't go back."
I don't remember how I responded, but his words stuck with me. Had I crossed the Rubicon? Had I stayed away so long that I could never be happy pursuing a traditional path in America? Would I always feel like an outsider in my own country from that point on?
The thought was unsettling. I love living abroad and have a long list of places I'd like to live for awhile or at least visit. But it felt like a slap in the face to wonder if this life I always thought would be waiting for me if I wanted it might be lost to me forever.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
That conversation happened during my first week in America, when my head was still spinning from returning after so long. It took a few more weeks to adjust to the orderliness of life in America. When I first got back, my brain seemed to be on Asia speed, prepared to jostle and be jostled in throngs of people, bombarded by sounds and bodies and scents and exhaust. Life in suburban America was so...quiet, I tried to explain to friends. Things that had once been commonplace were now foreign to me - like using my debit card to pay for things. I've paid cash for everything from dinners to hospital visits during the past few years, so swiping my card at every store, restaurant, and bar became a novelty, and a financially dangerous pleasure. Convenience stores were their own kind of wonderland. I took every opportunity to purchase York Peppermint Patties, peanut butter Tasty Kakes, Twizzlers, and Raisinets, overwhelmed by all of the snacks I hadn't even realized I'd been missing. The amount of food, everywhere, was overwhelming. Now I appreciate all of the snarky comments about American portion sizes.
Gradually things became easier and I started to feel less like I was living a dream. Being in America was like being on vacation for six weeks. Sure, I still had to work, but there was an excitement to everything that I think lasted in part because I knew I wasn't staying.
But I considered it. Once the culture shock settled to a manageable level, I agonized over the decision of whether or not to get on the flight I had booked back to Thailand or to extend my stay in America. The location-independent life abroad still called to me, but I wasn't sure I wanted to be in Thailand anymore and I felt I hadn't had enough time to properly catch up and spend time with people. Everyone offered their couches up, inviting me to come back and stay as long as I liked. I was so grateful for those offers but ultimately decided I wasn't ready to stay. Will I wait another three and a half years before coming back to visit? No. Definitely not. But living overseas suits me, at least right now. I like the freedom of moving wherever I want, being able to work from wherever I am, and choosing where to go based on the entrepreneurial and cultural spirit of different cities.
By the end of six weeks, I was beginning to accept in a more visceral way that I had changed. I like being an expat, being part of a community of people who are eager to connect with one another, swap stories, hash out ideas on how to live a more unique, creative, and independent lifestyle. Traveling has led me to meet many people who are willing to challenge the status quo, question themselves and their beliefs, and get into passionate arguments about their favorite causes. These people inspire me to question and challenge myself, and they introduce me to places and ideas I would never have come across otherwise. Will I always want to live abroad? I don't know. Perhaps some incredible relationship or job opportunity will bring me back. Maybe one day I'll decide I've had enough and want to live in America again. But for the moment, I knew that the right decision was to go back to Thailand, for however long or short a time that might be.
The more I felt as though I remembered, really remembered, what it was like to live in America, the more another unsettling emotion worked its way in: guilt. There's just so much of everything everywhere, I kept thinking. So much food, so much booze, so many things. I knew it was irrational, but I sometimes felt embarrassed by the bigness and the abundance everywhere, and embarrassed that I was so free to take part in it. Don't get me wrong, I took full advantage of this privilege and am grateful for it.
But without getting self-righteous, I found myself thinking about some of the places I had been and people I had seen in various parts of Asia. People who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who get their health care in a bare-bones clinic that has wooden tables instead of hospital beds in the maternity ward, people who dream of visiting America but can't because visa laws are too restrictive or require them to have a sum of money in their bank account that is more than they make in a year.
I didn't know what to do with this guilt. On the one hand, there's not much I can do. I have no influence over the systems that establish the types of laws that prevent these people from enjoying basic comforts and the opportunity to travel. But I still felt sad and somehow responsible. Recognizing my privilege as an American citizen was humbling and I was reminded that I am grateful to have been born in the U.S. But perhaps that's the problem. Perhaps I feel guilty because I've done nothing to earn this privilege; I just happened to have been born on a specific chunk of land and that grants me certain opportunities denied to other people.
I am still not sure how to reconcile those feelings and suspect it's a question I'll be grappling with for a long time to come. In the meantime, I'll try to honor my experiences abroad as much as I can without forgetting where I've come from. And I won't stay away so long as I figure it out.