It was just over six months ago that we took off on our travel adventure. As we approached the popular, year-end family holidays in the USA (Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as a few family birthdays) we felt a pull to visit friends and family we hadn’t seen in a while in our home country. And also an audible yelp as our travel budget gasped its last breath, its lifespan coming to a dramatic end.
So here I find myself, back in the country where I was born, survived middle school, went to college, got my first job, met my husband, expanded our family, drank my first beer and lost my virginity, not necessarily in that order. Four years ago we moved to Singapore, and our visits back here as a family were infrequent.
I expected coming back here would be like putting on my favorite pair of old jeans: perfectly formed to my body, maybe a little tighter than I remember, and soft in all the right places. But coming back, so far, doesn’t feel like that. It feels like I’m wearing someone else’s pants that are the wrong size, the wrong fit and itch in all the wrong places.
My home country hasn’t changed (depending on who you ask), but I have. Everything I know and love is right where I left it four years ago: my favorite restaurants, the best driving roads, the stores that have exactly what I need and, of course, friends and family that I love dearly. It would be easy to drop back into day-to-day life here when I already speak the language, know how to navigate a familiar bureaucracy and can easily find the best fried chicken. But this no longer feels like enough; life here is expected and familiar and maybe just too easy, whereas now I have deepened my appreciation for the exotic, the unexpected and the thrill of a new challenge. The adventure of finding your way in each new culture comes with it’s own reward and a strong appreciation for differences across people and places.
Part of me feels that because this is my birthplace, there is an unspoken social or moral responsibility to be here, raise a family, participate in the community and behave like a good American should. There are family members and friends who don’t understand why we aren’t skipping with glee to settle right back down where we used to live. A few take it personally, a possible attack on their lifestyle choices, simply because we want to consider other possible options.
It makes me question the meaning and definition of “home.” Is home where all my stuff is? Is it where my family has dinner together? Is it wherever I feel a sense of patriotism? Is it where I reminisce about good times in my youth? Or is it just like the cliched saying that hangs in every country kitchen: home is where the heart is? As we were traveling around the world, home was wherever we bedded down for the night. The kids and I would talk about our future home: an imaginary place where we collected the things we saw on our trip that we liked: a stone fireplace, table tennis, a yard with an olive tree, dirt to dig for fossils and plant a few vegetables, curved stone walls and narrow paths, a row boat, a papyrus plant, a gravel trail to ride bikes, easy access to a train, a bread shop nearby.
I also spend a lot of time thinking about the thousands of people in this country who are homeless, or the 65 million people in this world without a country, refugees who can’t or aren’t able to return to where they feel at home. I feel ungrateful that I might not want to come back to live in the country that should mean more to me than just what’s on the cover of my passport. There are people without pants and I’m whining about which pair of pants to wear.
OK, so maybe I have taken the pants analogy too far here, but here’s the dilemma I’m left with: do I wear the ill fitting pants anyway, hoping that I grow back into them? Or do I keep searching for a place where the pants come in my size?