I am back in my hometown, or at least the town that was my home for more years than most other places, and during those dangerously formative years. It is pretty cool to be here: everyone can do with a soft landing spot. And now I am looking around and comparing the apparent reality to the mythology I have been carrying around with me as an expat these past few years. Everyone has a million opinions, suggestions and warnings for the expat who chooses to repatriate. The information varies wildly depending on who is offering it (what their state of mind is, where they are, when they left home, why they are in the places they are… your basic 5 W’s of life.) I have heard that there is some sort of expat re-entry shock. 48 hours in I am not feeling it. Some of my expat friends chalk this up to the fact that I always said I would come back to California, but I am not sure. It could just be that California is a nice place to re-enter. I have also heard that people who go domestic after an extended international foray find the life they left far more provincial than they remember. Fortunately (I guess?) I was always snobby enough about Petaluma that I am well familiar with its provincial nature.
I have held a lot of ideas in my head about the America I would return to. I certainly knew it was not the easiest time to come back, but sometimes you just have to jump. For a good amount of time I have been listening to people say “all Americans are fat,” “all Americans are dumb,” “all Americans are racist,” “all Americans are lazy,” “all Americans are exploitative imperialist bastards…” Of course, anyone who starts a sentence “all…” has issues (which in this case is a euphemism for being an idiot) and so there is really no reason to rebut them or engage in any way, because they are not going to hear you. But for my friends who are interested in conversations about why I would want to come back to the US, I have always been willing to share. I want to live in a place where I am not surrounded by smokers, I really, really loathe cigarettes. I want to live in a place with clean air. I want to be closer to my family. I want to live somewhere I can date. Yeah, I said it, and Imma cop to it.
Still, I listened to all these things about the US and thought, hey “All Americans are not fat…” Then I got out of Ron’s car in Novato to pick up some stuff for my cat and realized that in fact, I may have been mistaken. I told Ron that I had been telling all of my friends in Hong Kong that Americans may be fat, but not Californians. He said, “Yeah, you’re gonna have to stop saying that. Look around.” Ouch. And, uh, for real.
I thought about Americans being dumb. “Idiocracy” aside, I gotta say, I am pretty confident that stupidity, like acid rain and ozone holes, knows no international bounds. The late-middle-aged attendant at the 76 station near SFO asked me where I was coming from as I plopped my water and Reece’s peanut butter cups on the counter. “Hong Kong,” I told him. “Aha! Konichiwa then!” he smiled. I said, “Well, actually that is Japan, but…”
“Oh really? Damn! Well, alright, I learned something new already today!” He smiled at me again. “How is it over there in Hong Kong then?”
“It’s good,” I said, “It’s really good.”
“Well, welcome home young lady, we are glad to have you back! I hope you have a great day and keep smiling under those sunny skies.”
Was he dumb? I don’t think so. So, he confused Japan and Hong Kong; I doubt he has ever had an opportunity to see either place. I have been surrounded by well-educated Europeans who have no idea where California is relative to New York or Texas, Asians who think the Gulf of Mexico empties into the Pacific and Antipodeans are unclear on the difference between Washington State and D.C. Does that make them dumb or just unfamiliar with the vast span of the US? I think most people would say the latter. And at the end of the day, I would trade geographic knowledge for a sweet smile and a ‘welcome home’ any day.
In my first 48 hours back on the ground I have been helped with my luggage by a Filipino-American, processed through immigration by a Latina-American, directed to Cathay Cargo by an African-American, reconnected with my cat by a Native American, cleared through customs by an Asian-American and reminded of the name of the lovely Janet Napolitano whose mug decorated the customs office by a Latina-American. I was assisted at the DMV by a Latino and a Caucasian, set up at AT&T by Ramiro, and served coffee at Starbucks by a very overwhelmed, pasty little hipster named Jared. Are we racist? I don’t know. But we sure are diverse and so being a devoted racist would be really exhausting. I had to learn that acknowledgment of race was not the same as being racist; that you could notice differences without being prejudicial and in fact ignoring differences was not only counter-productive but could be interpreted as ignorant at best, totally offensive at worst. I like that people are different, it makes things a little more interesting to me, like when I look at my little village and see French, Brits, Hong Kong Chinese, Mainland Chinese, Canadians, Aussies, Scotsmen, Russians, Filipinos, Thai, Pakistani and Sri Lankan people. California certainly has that to offer. And people still seem to really want to come, so maybe it is not all that bad.
Lazy? I suppose that is fairly subjective, but all the people I am around are making things happen all the time. No six-day work week here, but that is not lazy that is SANE.
Exploitative? Imperialist? I am going to have to say probably yeah. However, a good way to stop that could start with people watching less television. F’real. Oh, and wanting to get in on a piece of the action so much that people let bad behavior go on the outside chance that they can get exploitative themselves. Looking back on this, I am wondering if I have just inadvertently identified why everyone still wants to get into the country they hate. Go America.
I have always considered myself a pretty well-balanced realist when it comes to my state of origin. I love that I can articulate the things I like about it as well as the things I do not. I don’t think anyone would consider me a blind patriot, but you know, absence and the heart and all… It got me wondering if I had created a mythology around California that was of classical Greek proportions. After a couple of days here, what have I determined about my constructed mythology?
- Myth One: People do not smoke here. This does turn out to be the case, at least in the circles I run in – thus far smoke-free. Win.
- Myth Two: The environment is way better here. This is true. The skies are blue, the air does not tickle my throat and my hair looks so much better sans 114% humidity.
- Myth Three: People are fit here. Categorically, I am going to have to say: No. People here are really big. REALLY big. In a way the Schadenfreude in me is not totally bummed about this but in reality, it is really disheartening to see people in such serious states of bad health.
- Myth Four: The service here is better. True. No question; more efficient, more friendly, quicker, and just more logical (meals come at the proper time ie: together.)
I am sure I have more myths (maybe better stated as expectations), but I think I’ve made my point. Did I create a utopian ideal based on some false sense of hope? Meh. Maybe. But I am glad to be here and open to whatever. Plus hope is cool. It has been said that the expat life leaves repatriates in a void, unable to find a place that feels like home. At this point, I cannot say. My circumstances are so much in flux it is not possible to get a sense of home in that vein. Still, I have to admit that there is a little part of me that believes home is the place that can always provide a gentle landing pad and smooth segue onto something new. Mythological expectations or not, I am here, and it feels pretty okay to me.