A few weeks ago I posted an article about Going Off the Grid. My first international trip since 2008, it wasn’t so much not wanting to travel after living in Asia for a decade, it was more a desire to enjoy home and family after being away for so long.
Once the owner of three airline platinum cards and a passport the thickness of a small bible, I’d forgotten how to travel. Still had the passport, but I was relegated to boarding zone 8 and seats designed for hobbits. Add insult to injury, I neglected to properly fill out the required landing papers (I was a little out of practice). The immigration officer in Managua thumbed through my thick passport, looked at me and said, “Have you not gotten used to this by now?” Apparently not.
Of all the adventures overseas, and I’d been fortunate to experience many, the one adventure my wife and I still laugh at most, is our repatriation. I had completely forgotten how to live like a normal citizen in the US. Goodbye asset free lifestyle, hello homeownership and a nonstop sinkhole of things bought for it. The radon was free of charge. No more free calls to have things fixed as we came to grips with atrophied domestic skills. My toolbox had rusted shut and the lawn equipment, petrified with corrosion.
A container that had been in storage for ten years in Texas, arrived with its seal intact. It was a cave-like, Indiana Jones time capsule of cobwebs and mummified bundles. Hey honey, you know that cat we thought ran away? After a good laugh at some of the clothes we used to wear, we ended up giving two-thirds of it away, keeping only the treasured keepsakes of when the kids were younger (and more compliant). Television had gone satellite with a thousand channels of infomercials and reality shows, all bundled with cell phones so we could endure bad service from one company instead of three. None of our computers purchased overseas worked very well. The internet service lacked digital fluency in Mandarin, or so a service technician on the phone from Asia informed me after testing start up procedures akin to launching the Space Shuttle. Our new home phone number apparently belonged to at least four other people with credit collectors on their tail. How many times do I have to tell you my name isn’t Zelda Gerchenstein? Arriving in January, I’d forgotten how pleasurable winter is. I lived in long johns and a parka as if starring in an episode of Ice Road Truckers. Driving the interstates required more intestinal fortitude than I remembered, with double-trailer semis hugging my rear bumper because I was going only twenty miles over the speed limit. At least traffic signals mean something here. In Taiwan, I was convinced traffic lights were street decorations. Yes, I was home now, where restaurant food portions could feed a family of four, meat is king, and ketchup is considered a vegetable.
Our first year back, we reveled in activities we hadn’t done in years, like drink water from the tap and get pizza that didn’t have squid or corn on it. Getting lost on rural Pennsylvania roads became a new adventure, walks on wooded trails without running into people every twenty feet, a new respite. Too many years had passed without participating in the annual Druid ritual of costumed children panhandling door-to-door for candy, or the tryptophan overdose on Thanksgiving, followed by rehab on the floor, asleep during a real football game where players wear helmets. Fourth of July fireworks and burning meat over an open fire had special meaning. Instead of absentee ballots from faraway places, I got to watch the carnival first hand and vote on real voting machines. I thought Taiwan politics was goofy. It’s hard to find authentic Asian food, so much of it sugar stir-fry that goes by the name of a mythical general, but it gave me an excuse to hone my cooking skills and do it at home.
To be truthful, coming home was a bittersweet time of conflicted feelings. Our girls grew up in Asia, giving them a start in life that shaped them in ways few get the chance to experience. We became empty nesters the same year we repatriated, both girls starting new adventures out west. To assuage the emptiness, we restored their bedrooms and closets, complete with pictures and posters in a shrine-like need to keep them close. They are now part of unique society of third-culture kids who never really became a member of the world they lived in, but will never think the same way as their fellow countrymen.
Visiting a foreign country offers a glimpse of how the world spins outside our borders, but is soon relegated to scrapbook pictures and faded memories. It takes time to disable our personal and emotional barriers before we can see a different place, a different culture. It’s like a shy child who struggles to engage a new environment, shackled by the known, longing for the familiar, but when acceptance is finally embraced, we are forever changed. When we do return to the shores of our birth, we can’t help but look back with a dull ache of what and who we left behind. People shared their lives without caring if we spoke the language and introduced us to tastes that tingled with flavors uncommon here, the lingering scents of exotic places permanently branded in our soul.
Our trip to Nicaragua opened a dusty trunk of reminiscing, and got my wife and I into talking about all the fun we had, and how lucky we’d been. It had me wondering why I allowed my passport to go unused for so long. I tell everyone that I’m home from the hill and just happy to be within easy distance to family, but I neglect to mention the times I lay awake at night, dreaming of hawker market chatter, the taste of spicy hot pot, and the chirping song of Taipei’s garbage trucks rounding the corner.
Asia taught me that new beginnings are unplanned and surprising. It was a two-year assignment that lasted ten years. I don’t think of endings anymore, it’s more of a transit station while I wait to connect to the next beginning.