As of today, I will have been back in North America for 23 days–nearly two years of being being in an alternate universe known as Cambodia (or rather, a few different universes, considering it’s been many, many countries in the developing world since I disappeared in 2012). I could handle the malaria and dengue, the landmines and gunshots, the muggings and chaos on the streets, because it gave life meaning as I was there to directly experience the impact I made in the work I’ve done helping others. But the biggest challenge is finding that place I belong when in civilian life, where the world I come from is practically science fiction or a Hollywood movie, and people trivialize my life by whatever stereotypes they see on television and make funny assumptions.
Part One: Parallel Universes
“Living abroad is like living in a parallel universe”, an expatriate friend once said to me. I disagree–repatriating is like going into a parallel universe, because the “home” you left is not the same.
I don’t need anyone to understand me or pat me on the head these days. I’ve embraced that I am an outsider, and quite honestly, I am most comfortable being an outsider. As an expat, if there’s anything I do not know or understand, I’m just excused for not knowing because I’m not expected to have been brought up in the values or norms of a community and society. By that, I do not mean subscribing to Puritanical views or forms of political culture–I mean knowing things such as calling a motorcycle taxi by raising my hands and clapping them as in Indonesia, pointing with my entire hand, palm facing up as opposed to with one finger (as in Thailand and Cambodia).
One can never go home again, because things change, like a river flowing. Yet, I am expected to know exactly what point in time and the collective journey each society and community is on. Only now in San Francisco, where I write this missive, do I finally meet people who know what I mean: this is not the city we remember it to be, from the bus routes that changed, prices spiked for rent and food, and the view of the bay being gone as new apartment buildings have been built for gentrification.
This experience is not unique to San Francisco, because I have seen it happen in every place I have passed through the past month since returning. This is also not strictly reverse culture shock or repatriation troubles, it’s also the complexity of being forever an outsider, in a country people assume must be mine and quite honestly, why the First World urban environments are full of people who seem to revise the social contract at their whim. Whether it’s a person judging me by my hair, my current role as a server in a restaurant, and saying things like, “You should know this” or making assumptions about the so-called glamorous expat life, I knew and continue to find reinforcing experiences that tell me I do not belong here in America.
It has been cathartic, however: I no longer hate America and Americans or the First World, I simply am a gorilla taken out of the jungle and expected to know how to swim because I’m surrounded by minnows who all think that they are sharks in the sea of life.
There are plenty of fictitious characters whose stories and experiences are parallel to mine now, people of a different era who wake up in a world different from the one they remembered.
Goodbye Lenin: the mother character goes into a coma before the fall of the Berlin Wall and wakes up after capitalism and society have changed–her family tries to prevent her from seeing those changes because it will be too traumatic for her. Oops, nobody is here to fill me in–I’m expected to know what’s going on in their world and called an idiot living under a rock (which I technically was) because their country is the center of attention.
Captain America: a young, patriotic soldier from the 1940s, fighting for the ideals of America, falls into the ice and wakes up in the 2010s, a world of greys and no clear sense of morality, community, or responsibility, and a government that does not reflect the ideals he embodies. Because he’s behind on events and pop culture, he keeps a list of things in his pocket notebook, and I’m doing the same thing. People laugh at me for this, but damnit, I need this because I don’t know what’s going on. Like him, I struggle with the modern world, which is changing too rapidly for me to understand.
Rambo: He’s a Vietnam War veteran who is unable to reintegrate into society. This is not far from fiction–some Hmong people in Wisconsin, while hunting, have had flashbacks to the war and started shooting people. For me, I remain jumpy around the corners of every sidewalk and street. I’m not used to the rudeness of Americans–people here tell jokes because they think that they are funny, and find it even funnier that you don’t get their esoteric, juvenile pop culture references. People act ruder to strangers because they don’t know you, whereas elsewhere, I’ve found people are exceptionally nice to strangers because they could be important people and due to basic hospitality and kindness. Therefore, I have to guard myself in case I flip out and get into a brawl, because the only rude people I’ve met overseas were people who were going to be stabbed or shot for being imbeciles.
Mean Girls: A Third Culture Kid (TCK) girl repatriates to American high school life after growing up in Africa. Everyone makes assumptions, and nobody knows why she doesn’t think like an American, despite her passport, and how she could possibly speak English as she does and still be an outsider in her own country, thinking Africa will never affect her.
Blast from the Past: The Webber family locks themselves in their shelter, believing that the unthinkable has happened and that they are the sole survivors of a nuclear war. The locks on the shelter are timed to open in 35 years and cannot be overridden by anyone inside or outside the shelter — for their own protection. A few days after the locks have been engaged, the wife gives birth to a baby boy that they name Adam. During the 35 years they are in the shelter, the world above drastically changes, while the Webbers’ life remains frozen in 1962. Adam becomes highly educated, learning several languages, all school subjects, dance, boxing, and many other things. In 1997, the timer releases the locks, and Calvin ascends to the surface in full protective gear. The suburb in which they once lived has turned into a ghetto of Los Angeles, which Calvin mistakes for a post-apocalyptic world. This is me returning to cities and places that have changed drastically in only a handful of years, sometimes less than two years.
Mega Man/Rock Man Zero: The song pretty much reflects me and my endless, lonely fight in a world I don’t know anymore. All I know are the jungles, oceans, and dirty, streets of death and poverty, ones that I saw improving with every small act of kindness I and my team did, and found people eternally grateful. Here, in America, kindness is laughed at and viewed as weakness, and worse–called “impractical” because there is an overwhelming view that we live in a hopeless world and nothing can be changed.
The list goes on, but I need not continue–my point by now has probably been reinforced enough: this is not my world, and I do not belong here. Their (absence of) values, their pettiness, their parochial mindset, their rudeness, their complacency and pride in ignorance–people here are content with buying things and designating value based on a paycheck or an online persona instead of their every day conduct towards all men and all places.
Part Two: Notes from Underground: A Short List of Observations
Bill Bryson once wrote a very heartfelt and humorous account of his repatriation to America from twenty years in Britain. Here, I think I can share the details of life here that I notice the most in the past month I’ve been back, rather than what I need to catch up on.
- Why does every woman think that when a man talks to her that he’s hitting on her? I’m only asking a simple question and I’m told, “No thanks!”
- Furthermore: why do women dress and act like flappers at a bar, bragging to other girls how they like to tease men, then when the men do flock to them, they laugh about rejecting all of them because they “aren’t interested in men, they just want to annoy them?” That’s the behavior of a specific kind of woman that draws men towards women in Bangkok and Phnom Penh–professionally known as prostitutes.
- Why does everyone think they are funny and act rude towards strangers? When I asked for Vegemite once, the server had never heard of it, and when I say it’s yeast extract from Australia, the woman makes a bad Australian accent impersonation and asks me if “I’m from Down Under”. I don’t need to be mocked for not knowing if something is here or not–it’s just a simple question.
- Why do people complain about being broke all the time, yet constantly go out to eat, take pictures of it, and spend heaps of money on food and their phone and data plan, then waste it, throwing away from as little as a quarter of their huge meal to almost entire dishes?
- Why does everything revolve around using their mobile phone applications or social media? Everything is posted on Twitter and Instagram, people never look each other in the eye (people assume I’m flirting with them for making eye contact), and people don’t make decisions, they make assumptions, and don’t do anything until they’ve got a consensus.
- Why do people make assumptions about the countries I’ve been in and what I’m doing there? Just because I lived in Thailand does not mean I went for prostitutes and pub crawls–there is more to the country than Sukhumvit Soi 11. Everything people think they know about a place is based on terrible movies, compared to what I have lived through.
- Why do people group by race here instead of values? I’ve had people tell me to meet up with their friends because they are Filipinos too. By ethnicity, we share something in common. By experience, values, or interest–nothing at all.
- Why do people think travel is only for pleasure and vacations? People don’t realize it’s my career–I work for it. If they see pictures of me traveling, it’s because unlike them, who buy cars, video games, shoes, and eat out all the time, I save and use that money on travel instead. And I use less money because my tickets are paid for–I earned this life.
- Any sort of criticism is considered anti-American, un-patriotic, and ungrateful, because they have an inflated view of themselves and their lives.
- The American accent sounds foreign to me, and many people don’t know if I have an American accent or not, because of code switching, and I’m seen as disingenuous–it’s something that happens automatically because I’m adapting my speech patterns to people whose native language is not English, and I may pronounce certain words in a Brit/Aussie way, and other words in a Texan/New Englander way, but I can’t help this because I grew up hearing these words or slang from them first.
- Nobody understands that anyone living here can be an expat instead of an immigrant, someone who has no intention of staying here forever.
There’s a booklet in my pocket becoming crumpled, beaten, and bruised by barely two weeks of use, pages filled and torn here and there. These thoughts are what stay with me for the moment. I find it difficult to express myself here because I’m seen as unpatriotic, anti-American, and weird, and people want to force medications on me because I’m seen as strange and like a bad seed. But I know I’m not a bad seed–the soil here is just sour.
Part Three: Losing My Voice (Again)
I’ve been unable to write the past seven months. My blogs and the absence of posts are an indicator of two things: firstly, that I am busy writing for others instead of myself (paying bills is the priority), and secondly, it feels difficult to express myself, knowing inevitably, people will read, see, and believe what they want to instead of actually thinking things through and asking me to elaborate.
I cut off a lot of people regularly, especially my family (who may as well be my my enemies), such as aunts and uncles who do nothing to me but judge me for what they think they know (but don’t). In their eyes and most people (like my parents), I’m seen as a truant who does not have a “real” job (since when was a cubicle job a “real” job and why does America have a monopoly on “real” jobs?), that this life of vagabonding can’t last forever, volunteering is not a career (I’m not a volunteer, I’m a social entrepreneur working in international development, helping people around the world).
I don’t want this life; I don’t belong here. I’ve been emotionally numb since returning since life is just a routine here and people like me are not appreciated, valued, understood, or wanted.
I’m not a Buzzfeed TCK–those are the rich, privileged kids who never had to endure the things I have as an unprivileged kid who struggled and was homeless, begging on the streets to survive.
I’m not an Asian American–I was always an expat, not an immigrant, and the Asian Americans are their own cultural amalgamation, whereas I do not have that same perspective of reconciling ancestral heritage into an American life–American life makes no sense to me, and Asia is a continent full of cultures and complexities that people are at least aware of instead of making assumptions as they do here.
A sense of loss of self and self-worth grows every day that I am here. I am at peace with all the people whom I once scorned–Americans, First Worlders, Asian Americans, rich and privileged Third Culture Kids, but this isn’t my life.
Next year, I will leave for the Peace Corps if during this year, nothing pushes through. So far, I have not found anything of my abilities, interests, specialty, or with people who give me that fulfillment I had in Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. That is my life: a suitcase full of books, laptop full of music, DSLR camera, prayer beads, and guitar.
If people here ask me where I get so much money to travel, again: this is my life. I don’t need to accumulate material goods or eat out all the time. I live a very Spartan life, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the far reaches of Ceylon, Java, and Angkor mean more to me than weekly escapism.
Here, people push their criteria for what defines my value, and in their eyes, I live in poverty based on what little I earn. I define myself and my value when I am abroad, because anyone with a nice pair of shoes or a car and iPhone will find me and a group of people counting down to when she gets mugged and her car hijacked. By that same criteria, in America, since I don’t wear designer clothes and don’t have a car, I’m seen as a loser.
Here, I don’t have a Master’s degree, I’m seen as a dropout, and my work helping people is undermined because I “criticized the system” that privileged kids whose mom and dad paid for them to get a piece of paper that denotes no skills other than sycophancy and cronyism. It is a system they say they sacrificed and went through hell to finish while saying I made a half-assed effort and therefore deserve mediocrity in life. It is a system they defend so personally without realizing how idiotic they look posting publicly on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook how they grade papers on a surfboard floating in the middle of the ocean on a sunny day at a San Diego beach. It is a system these people completely unaware of their obvious lunacy defend, and I want no part of the medicine they’re forcing down my throat, because apparently, sensibility here is seen as a sickness.
Part Four: Hedgehog’s Dilemma or Path of the (Super)Hero?
Angkor, Ceylon, Siam, and Java will all change as I am away. New stores, rail systems, hangouts, and slang will pop up. But at least as an outsider, people will be happy to teach me (except in the Philippines–being there is the same as being in America) since I am not expected to know.
Despite this all, my friends love me and welcomed me with open arms. My old graduate department was happy to see me. Los Angeles remained a city of peculiarities. San Diego was the beautiful muse I pined for day and night while I was gone the past two years, but even in the same building I lived in, it wasn’t the same as it was in 2011, for the world was different and the people there at that time will never be back. And as mentioned before–gentrification has changed San Francisco into an entirely different city.
I’m blue now. It’s affecting my friendships and romantic relationships alike as people ask me why I’m so distant. People say I have hedgehog’s dilemma: I need people close to me because of my loneliness, but when they get too close, I push them away, just as the hedgehog protects its soft underbelly and stings people with its quills. I’m not unhappy, but I do not belong here.
I personally feel that this is the superhero’s life: most people will never understand this, can not, should not, and will not. My friends are 1) people who can’t/don’t/won’t understand these complexities but wish to help and are unable to, 2) people who do understand but can’t/don’t know how to help, 3) a mixture of both, and rarely 4) people who do understand and can help simply by reminding me that I’m not crazy–we all know that this is not our place.
Perhaps I am meant to keep traveling and helping people, because I cannot set up roots in the First World. Two times, I almost had a chance to, in 2008 and 2011 respectively, but that could never be, because the two young ladies who would have motivated me to stay and integrate couldn’t accept me, or the circumstances never allowed us to even start something together. The conclusion from this is that even if I am financially stable and own a home–this is not my place.
I instead hope that someone important to me understands that my life (and hopefully our life together) will be one where I/we travel frequently continuing to help others through development/nonprofit/social enterprise work as I have been, with the Peace Corps or Angels for Angels. And she tries, oh she tries–but this is not my place, and I have too many instances reinforcing that to me.
When I am here as a visitor, I have a grand time–when I am in America as a denizen, I am uncomfortable and can’t live the way these people live. I need value and I need purpose–and that does not exist here for the work I do. Help a suicide hotline in America where I already am instead of Uganda? They have resources here and I can do more for what we already started in Uganda, and still need more help. I am wanted and needed, and am also transient–because I belong to nobody and everybody.
Part Five: Flight
“I always wonder why
in the same place
when they can fly
anywhere on the earth
then I ask myself
the same question.”
– Harun Yahya
In the end, nobody has to stay anywhere forever. America is no longer a prison to me, but I am simply here as long as I must be, until I leave for Africa in a few months or for wherever I am deployed next year with the Peace Corps (in the event I don’t get the job suitable for me).
I don’t need friends around me all the time, I need the company of people who love and can be patient with me. I enjoy my solitude, yet it agonizes me when people are hurt knowing they can’t help me, and don’t understand that I’d rather be alone than a burden or around others whom I just can’t stand. I don’t need to socialize and waste money as people do, I prefer to be on my computer writing, reading a book, playing guitar, training in martial arts, or walking around with my camera.
But does anything I say mean anything? I’m absolutely certain most people will distort this to suit their own misunderstanding and parochial mindset, will attack me and ridicule me, and make assumptions. I won’t respond, though–I’ll just know I have my Flickr photo albums, with memories of people I’ve helped and adventures around the world. I’ll know I’ve at least done good for a couple years, and if anything happens, nobody can say I was useless–I did good not for society–but many societies, and hell: even the planet.
For them–they either got drunk and got multiple degrees that do nothing for them, or they waste their time scratching their crotch composing insults and tirades attacking me. But I’ll continue being me–it’s all I know what to do and the only role I play best.