I was resolved to write about the experience of going home and returning to Indonesia as I had the privilege to be back in the Northern Hemisphere for Christmas and New Years. But then I wondered if I needed distance, perspective.
Here’s my first crack at the topic. The following in a mix of jumbled thoughts as I defied time and space, ending up around the world at speeds that challenge reason.
Upon arriving at O’Hare International Airport, as videos welcoming visitors to the U.S. showed Americans from all over speaking directly to the camera, my first thought was, “I love America!!!” I shared this reaction with a friend from Michigan who grew up in Nigeria. She had prefaced her questions about my visit with the wry, “Tell us what you don’t like about America now.” Incredulous upon hearing of my overwhelming patriotism when setting foot on US soil, she responded, “I know sarcasm.” I was like, “I’m being real. Everything in America is so easy! I miss that.”
As if to challenge my sentimentalism, back at O’Hare for my return flight, which was delayed, a young woman began to become increasingly belligerent with customer service at the airline counter when she suddenly screamed, “You can’t tell me that there’s no one else in this whole place who can help me?!! GET ME SOMEONE ELSE!!” It was ugly. It was American. Strikingly, it was definitely not Indonesian–where the most irritating customer service situations involve both parties giggling to spackle over any hint of a conflict.
I was concerned that staying with family and not being at my own place would start to wear thin. My concern was punctuated when I went to pick up a few winter things from my basement where my renters had graciously agreed to meet me. As I pulled into the winding entrance to my condo association, lined with the familiar white rail fence and bordered by a “lake” I ran past every day, my throat became tight. “This is not my home.”
However, what I discovered after staying with my parents and sisters, is that since I kept on the move, I didn’t feel I overstayed the welcome. At least from my end, it was fun to be a guest and share in my family’s lives in a unique way that you don’t get to do when you leave at the end of the night to return to your own place. My parents let me drive their car, which gave me independence–and a reprieve from taxis, ojeks and just plain transportation angst.
As a guest, we went out for special breakfasts. But also we just hung out–we ran errands, we walked the dog, we friended each other in Scramble then sat trash texting and playing against each other on our smart phones in the same living room. My nieces and nephews were generous with their hugs and silliness. It was better than a regular holiday season.
Anyone who has a limited time during a holiday visit knows what it’s like to try to make your schedule work. Again, my parents’ generosity with their car allowed me to schedule back to back to back lunches, gatherings, dinners, catch-ups, dentist visits, hair appointments, etc.
Being with people for whom you’re already known, with whom you have history, with whom you have met for various reasons–it’s comfortable. In contrast, moving somewhere new, being with new friends ironically gives you a clearer sense of your personality while alternatively smudging your identity as a friend. Every friend reveals a new facet of yourself. Being an international teacher is like being in a fish tank–you are surrounded by glass living in a school of various–sometimes–exotic fish.
Seeing old friends made me wonder if there was an expiration date for friendship while away. Was one year enough to generate fresh curiosity in your “adventure,” but year two may be a stretch? I will have to wait and see. But my overwhelming sense was gratitude for old friends. The blessings of reconnection cannot be overstated.
on being home
target, meijer, real food cafe, el burrito, officemax, uncle cheetah’s soup shoppe, the green well, the biscuit, red robin . . . stockings, Christmas yard lights, snow!!!
The list of reasons why I love being home and what I miss most is not food. It’s convenience. It’s familiarity. It’s cold, cold weather.
My mom kept saying, “I bet this feels really cold to you.” It just felt like I had an extra long summer. My blood had not gone thin. I did not catch the flu (Thank God!!). I wore my down coat, leather gloves and boots every day.
The first signs of being back in the U.S. was switching from an Asian carrier to an American airlines in Hong Kong, I noticed the stewards / stewardesses’ visible impatience with passengers. “Wait your turn!” “I wish I could understand what you’re saying (clearly the opposite was true).” “I can’t take that now.” Upon hearing this familiar tone, it was like being back with family–the genuine quality of this made sense. Smacked of being real. Familiar. I was back.
At the same time, on the return flight, after touchdown in Hong Kong another airplane incident alleviated my emotional bracing for the return. I was in the last aisle near the bathroom, and a tall caucasian gentleman exited the bathroom while we waited for the line to begin moving. A young Asian man started to enter the bathroom and quickly turned, waving his hand in front of his nose. Then he kicked the bathroom door closed to emphasize the point. His girlfriend and I exchanged glances while suppressing laughter as the young man looked for another available toilet. Meanwhile, the caucasian granddad stood in front of us, unaware of the drama. I had returned. Once again, back in Asia.
As I thought of the constant heat and humidity–the sameness of days in Indonesia, close to the equator, it sometimes feels like seasons and months don’t matter very much. There’s a papering over autumnal Thanksgiving and wintery December itself without the usual markers: the drop in temperature, the absence of mosquitos and the ubiquitous holiday decorations.
When I was back in the US, the change of seasons was evident in numb fingers and toes as well as images of Christmas. You watch (in my Mom’s case with suspense) the weather report for what to wear. The drifting snow creates icy patches and interferes with travel. Yet this constant change was really nothing compared to the fact that in Indonesia you usually see something new every day. Or at least something you don’t completely understand.
I encounter daily the challenges of living as a foreigner. There may be a uniformity about when the sun rises and falls. But what actually happens each day? The similarity in the structure of each day near the equator become a canvas for surprise.