As I write this, I am sitting at Gate 16 of Terminal 8 at JFK International Airport waiting to load up for the flight that will take Katie and I on the first leg of our trip back to Tanzania. We’ve been in the States for the last 5 weeks for a trip that saw us spending time in 8 states and traveling somewhere just shy of 3000 miles. We saw numerous friends and family, ate lots of good food, ate lots of bad food, played hours of Rock Band, met several new babies, and gave countless hugs and handshakes to those who we had the chance to see.
This was my first trip “home” to the States since we left on December 27th, 2011. Two years is a long time to be away, and I have a lot of mental unpacking to do about the experience. But I do have a few initial thoughts on the type of expatriate life we’re currently living. Indulge me a moment.
First of all, the idea of “home” is skewed. Visiting the USA was a “trip home”, but when people asked me if we were ready to return to Tanzania, I commonly said that after a month away I was ready to “go home.” I have 2 homes, but feel slightly out-of-synch in each of them. Not an unusual sentiment for folks living between different cultures.
It did strike me how easy it was to settle back into old rhythms; at times it was hard to believe that we actually ever left. Thoughts of Tanzania felt like a dream.
My last 2 years have been rough for me. That’s not news to some of you, but maybe it is for others. I have struggled with several issues, and there have had periods where I very much regretted the decision to move to Tanzania. But with moral support of friends and family, reliance on faith, and sheer force of will, I persevered and stuck it out. And I’m glad I did.
In my humble opinion, for my own mental health I think stayed away from the States too long. I’ve needed this chance to reconnect with where I’m from. Living in a culture that is different, where you cannot communicate well, where you aren’t necessarily operating at a level of any real competency at anything, where friendships are different, etc- it will wear on you. And it wore on me a lot. And one of the greatest aspects of this trip was to be reminded that I do have friends and that I’m not an idiot and that I do have things to offer, etc. Now, I don’t want this to get too much into the “call-the-wambulance” territory, (WAH-wah-WAH-wah) so I won’t belabor this point. But this trip hit the reset button in a very big way, so much so that I am looking forward to getting back to TZ because I know I can do it better this next year. I am feeling like a more complete person better able tackle the challenges of daily life in Mwanza.
The other interesting thing I have noted is how it has helped me to better observe and analyze both the cultures of the USA and Tanzania. For anyone that knows me, for years leading up to our departure in late 2011, I was obsessed with getting to Africa, some way, somehow. I always felt that I didn’t quite fit in in American culture and that I would really gel with my soon-to-be-adopted new home. But I got to TZ and realized just how utterly American I was, and was shocked to see how ethnocentric I could get. I was so out of sorts that my generally friendly nature would get ANGRY when faced with difference. I was angry at feeling like a moron all the time, angry at feeling anchorless and unnecessary, I was angry at not fitting in. A lot of that is natural culture shock, common to many ex-pats. But my feelings lingered a lot longer than I expected. The feelings passed, but these issues sadly dominated a lot of my first two years.
Now that I’ve been back in the States, I feel I have a stronger affinity to my fellow Americans. I was always proud to be where I’m from, but now I really grasped the ways that we are unique. I still can cast a critical eye on our own culture and politics, but I definitely appreciate my homeland in a way I did not before.
The same goes for Tanzania. Now that we’re away, I have had a chance to sit back and think on the place. I’m very analytical and often need time and distance to really process things fully. I was too close to be able to cast an objective eye on the place, because honestly it had pissed me off too much. But I’ve been able to appreciate my adopted home more since we've left and am quite looking forward to getting back. Again, I think I’m going to do better this next year as I approach things with a clearer head.
But I have loved being back “home” in the States, in a culture that I understand, and one that understands me. I’ll end this with a quote from Victor Hugo, written about his country of France, but applicable to all of us who have approached our homelands with clear eyes and a fresh appreciation.
"So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavements which you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements. All those places which you no longer behold, which you may never behold again, perchance, and whose memory you have cherished, take on a melancholy charm, recur to your mind with the melancholy of an apparition, make the holy land visible to you, and are, so to speak, the very form of [France], and you love them; and you call them up as they are, as they were, and you persist in this, and you will submit to no change: for you are attached to the figure of your fatherland as to the face of your mother."
-Victor Hugo, from Les Misérables