Monday, September 21, 2015

The "After" Life

So we've been back for about 2 1/2 months now. Day-to-day life is finally beginning to normalize a bit. But it's been a very long two months, and our time abroad feels like a dream. I have to admit, it's been pretty hard for me being back, a lot more difficult than moving abroad two years ago. Prior to our return, I already had concerns about repatriating and all the adjustments that come with it, all based on how I felt last summer when we came back to visit for one short month. From conversations with various friends who went back to their home countries and then returned abroad permanently, I also knew moving home permanently was going to be ten times more painful than simply visiting during vacation. To prepare myself, I tried imagining life in America and how I would handle things, and read articles about strategies on dealing with repatriation. But, of course, nothing can truly prepare one for reality except for reality itself.

The adjustments have been both big and small, affecting every facet of life -- physical, emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual. On a daily basis, the landscape of American life feels uneventfully familiar, yet also trying and taxing. The day-to-day routine is duller. lacking in adventure, and much less colorful (literally and figuratively). Gone are the days when, while walking down just the two blocks of my street, I encounter people of all ages wearing everything from pajamas to cocktail dresses, scooters, cats and dogs, vibrantly colored flowers and plants, and sometimes monitor lizards and other scaly beings. Now all I see are cars and maybe a few people. The buildings and landscape are earth-toned and completely lacking in vibrancy. I'm no longer accustomed to the chillier climate or dressing in layers and wearing any type of footwear other than flip-flops. Now I pay my bills the "old-fashioned" way -- electronically, through my bank account, rather than with cash at the local 7-Eleven. Grocery shopping these days is at once boring and overwhelming and stressful. I've had to re-learn everyday tasks like grocery shopping, driving with different rules and traffic patterns, writing checks, and loading the dishwasher. I've even forgotten certain common English words and expressions, even though we continued to speak English in Thailand.

I also feel much more restricted now, even with a car. I'm so used to being able to just walk, bike, or scoot for a few minutes to get to anywhere -- grocery stores, markets, restaurants, cafes, playground -- that having to drive a car just to get to any of these places now feels tiresome and confining. My son also has felt the loss of freedom he enjoyed in Thailand, where he had more independence, and was able to run off with friends for hours at a time and run of the campus when at school. Now, whenever he wants to go somewhere, he has to depend on us to drive him, and his movements at school are more restricted as well.

The bigger changes are even harder to adjust to. The biggest shift I've had to get used to has been the loss of community after coming back. Here, we live farther away from everyone; our friends are scattered all over the D.C. metro area across D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. To get together, we all have to check our busy schedules and plan weeks ahead. Also, most extended families don't live close to each other and see one another only during holidays, so there's also little to no support from family for many. In Thailand, not only did we have the ready-made support network of our school, but we also lived within a five- or ten-minute walk of most of our close friends. We could just gather spontaneously after work or whenever the mood struck us, right in our own neighborhood, where restaurants and coffee shops abound. Even living in a more Thai neighborhood our second year, we felt enveloped by a community. While out and about, we would meet and strike up conversations with Thai people who were out for a stroll or just socializing with each other, and befriend them. Even though being back home eliminates the cultural and language barriers, it nevertheless feels lonelier and more isolating to be living among people we're supposed to have more in common with than among those we weren't even able to communicate with.

Something else I've really had a hard time adjusting to is the bombardment of expectations and obligations, especially from my family. Almost as soon as we stepped off the plane, we were inundated with questions and advice that implied unspoken expectations that we will return to "real life" now that we've gotten the fun of being abroad out of our systems. Some questions and comments include: Will you be buying another house to settle down in? You're home for good now, right? You need to put down roots for your son. Why would you want to leave again, anyway? Are you doing this or that with your son? You need to get x, y, and z things for your new home. You (meaning me) should be looking into doing a, b, or c for job possibilities.

Many people seem uncomfortable with uncertainty and change, and have been quick to want to put us back into boxes that we were in previously because that was what we were and will be in their minds. When we respond that we're not sure where we will be living or whether we will be going abroad again in three to five years, so we're not going to buy yet another house, or that I'm just going to take a moment to adjust and to see what comes up for me job-wise, people are taken aback. My own mother immediately began to "instruct" me on what I should tell my relatives about our new living and working "situation," as if our choice to live in an apartment rather than a single-family house, and my preference to take my time looking for a job that I actually might be excited about, were shameful actions to be hidden. It is annoying at best and demoralizing at worst, and especially difficult to swallow after two years of having the freedom and space to be myself in all respects, without judgment or criticism. Since returning two short months ago, I've already physically and mentally felt my world and energy contract and stifled again. I feel completely uninspired, as if all the hope, creativity, and imagination I had ever had and felt for the past two years have disappeared forever. While I'm fighting like hell from being stuffed back into these confining and limiting boxes, it is still exhausting and draining to have to spend energy actively ignoring feelings of suffocation and swimming against the current all the time.

The culture of consumption and materialism that we live in is another change I'm trying to get used to. For the past two years, I lived in houses that were already furnished, and we did not buy one single piece of furniture while in Thailand. Everything that we owned could fit into ten plastic containers that traveled to and from Thailand with us. For two years, I did not spend one minute thinking about accumulating material things. Don't get me wrong, consumerism and materialism are alive and well in Thailand, especially with the middle and upper classes. There are more mega-sized, very high-end shopping malls in Bangkok than I've ever seen anywhere else. But because we mostly hung out with expats, we weren't exposed to that as much. The people we hung out with are more our kindred spirits in this respect and with other values. No one spent energy thinking about looking for and acquiring things. And as many of them are nomadic by nature and have never lived in any one place for more than a handful of years in their adult lives (some of them are only 30 years old and have already lived in five or six different countries since graduating from college), they don't tend to accumulate much in terms of possessions. Then we came home. Immediately, the amount of stuff we owned tripled because we had stored some furniture, appliances, and other things with my parents. Seeing the piles in front of me totally overwhelmed me and made me feel weighted down.

After two years with people who mostly focused on having experiences instead of things, it struck me how many people in this country spend so much of their time and energy talking about, researching, and thinking about the things they want to have or how to get more of what they have, working their butts off to make enough money to buy (more of) the things they want to have, and planning for the things they want to have. Bigger homes, nicer cars, shoes, brand-name clothes, electronic devices, accessories for everything in one's life--the list goes on. If you want it, it's out there to be bought and had. And if you already have it, there are always better and bigger things to strive for. So many people are working themselves to death just so they can have nice things and hold onto what nice things they already have. They become slaves to these things. I was never into material possessions as an adult, but after seeing all this focus on material things around me, I realized that a lot of my mental energy used to be spent on that as well because that was what was "normal." I've come to realize that I no longer have tolerance for this aspect of American culture, and I don't want that to be any part of my existence anymore. It's quite freeing, actually -- when I see ads or catalogs for beautiful and shiny new things, I don't feel a twinge of desire. On the other hand, because there's neither a sense of want nor urgency to acquire anything, most of our living room remains an open and empty space, and I have no desire to shop for things that need replacing.

Going hand in hand with the culture of consumerism and materialism is the information overload that exists everywhere I go. Even though I still had access to American news while in Thailand, I could limit my exposure to it and control how much I wanted to know from such a long distance. In addition, I understood so little of what was around me--the television, the radio--that it was easy to ignore. Our lives were simple and quiet compared to our lives here; we truly lived the maxim of "ignorance is bliss." Being back here, I'm constantly being inundated with ads, information, news, opinions, and entertainment. At seemingly every moment, there are different messages battling for my attention; there are so, so many distractions all around. I've been limiting my time on the internet, listening to the radio, reading the news, and being out in public just to stay sane and focused.

The people here also aren't what I've gotten used to anymore. After living in a very relaxed atmosphere among extremely laid-back people for two years, it's hard to get used to all the type-A personalities and uptight people in this area. Add to that those people who are also self-important egomaniacs -- very common in this area, unfortunately -- and you get what feels like a rushed and unfriendly environment.

I've also had a hard time with the narrow-mindedness of the people of this country. Within the first two weeks of returning from Thailand, I heard very derogatory comments about African-Americans, gay people, and other minority groups, from three different individuals -- a relative, an acquaintance, and a stranger! I was floored. I nearly got into a shouting match with the relative who made these comments, and I had to walk away from the acquaintance. But the stranger backed down once she realized we did not see eye-to-eye. And hearing all the discriminatory comments on the news directed at those who believe differently, those with different skin colors, women, and other minority groups makes me sad and angry all at once. It's a disgrace and embarrassment.

In general, I feel as if I've been having an out-of-body experience for the past two months. I see myself going through the motions of re-settling back into life here, but I feel as if I'm watching someone else do it and can't quite wrap my brain around what's happening. I feel numb and detached from my life--in denial. I think one of the reasons we still have packed-up boxes and hardly any furniture is that I still can't quite believe we're home for good. Then there are the times when it feels as if nothing has changed and yet everything has changed--that strange feeling my life here has always been the way it is and that Thailand never actually happened, yet feeling out of place and time at the same time. Sometimes, though, I'm reminded, with a jolt -- as if waking up from a dream--of where I am, and I miss Thailand and our life there so much that it hurts. Mentally and emotionally, I've been all over the place.

At any rate, I don't know that I want to get used to some of the things I mentioned above. I want to remember that things can be different. Nevertheless, I've taken to heart some of the advice about repatriating that I've been given and read (such as here and here), and am taking my time readjusting. The "old" me would've wanted to rush through the process, and get on with life already. But now, I'm being patient and letting myself feel the grief of what I've lost. I'm trying to appreciate what is now in front of me. And I'm allowing myself time to reflect and think. And plan for more adventures in the future, of course. Because there will be more adventures. I'm not even close to being done

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