“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Returning Home After Living Abroad
I never would’ve imagined returning home after living abroad as so refreshing and well, fun. What happened to the person, aka me, who was running away from a supposedly unhappy existence? What changed? Is it the place or me who sees things differently? I promise that you’re not reading an instant millionaire’s essay or anything, but the support that’s come from family and friends has helped. It’s been a process of adjustment, and repatriation isn’t easy. Each day is a series of “going for no” and reading rejection letters, but in order to achieve freedom and happiness, you have to fail along the way.
I still struggle every day but couldn’t be happier. That’s a part of life and something Christina and I knew when leaving our cushy life in Korea. After a month of living in the U.S. again and thinking about our time back at home, I never thought the following words would reach my fingers to be placed onto a piece of paper and eventually out into the world. I’m okay with returning home after living abroad. It took some processing and work to reach this point, but I have absolute confidence in the previous sentence. Getting there started with the last moments of our trip between Korea and Home.
Exhausted in Hanoi
The final days and nights in Hanoi are bittersweet and pressure-filled. I’m in love with the crowded sidewalks and busy streets that surround this senseless paradise. After two months of traveling through Asia, we’re exhausted and have been trying to keep up the pace since somewhere around Chiang Mai. Maybe we need to toughen up, but life is calling back home. After four years in Korea, and now this, it’s time. We power through these final moments and gulp down as many bowls of pho and bun cha as possible. Hanoi is an exercise in overstimulation and perfectly enjoyable between moments at the hotel pool. We booked here just to relax around that pool.
As we wait for our car in the lobby, the feeling still hasn’t come. For the moment, Christina and I are still living abroad and in “travel” mode, even as the car arrives at the airport. The exciting journey is still moving forward and the flight home is just a part of it. I get a final glimpse at the Vietnamese flag and walk into the airport with passport in hand. Our nerves skyrocket when the clerk explains that there’s been some sort of mistake. Our flight, that was booked months in advance, left yesterday. The kind, and very, patient airline representative eventually realizes we are here at the correct date and time, and my stress levels drop back to normal.
Worried at the Airport
Our extra bag goes on the conveyor towards the baggage car while we walk towards security and farewell point. A group of school-age girls are standing there and going through some emotional goodbyes with family. I wonder how long they’ll be away and where. Hopefully, friends and someone to take care of them will always be there during the journey. My concern for these kids overshadows our own life abroad that was shaky at first but turned out okay. Maybe they need to hit bottom like we did in order to grow and remain strong. The quick trip through immigration takes us to the terminal where I’ll never understand people’s fascinations with duty-free goods.
We walk around, wait for our plane to board. Overnight flights are never fun for me, and I don’t plan to sleep even though we search around and buy a neck pillow. In case you never want to wake up with massive pains up there, buy one. You’ll thank me later. I realize that there’s a slight possibility of sleep during this flight, but history is not on my side. Thoughts pop up filled with screaming babies and drunken old men who constantly need to get up and walk around the cabin. That’s really what happens unless you’re either lucky or fortunate enough to reach business or first class.
Drowsy and Hungry in Japan
Our first flight goes to Tokyo and the scene of so many memories but just for a few hours. A quick scan of the movie selection leads me to Jurassic World, a choice that’s all too fitting for this journey. This was the movie of choice for our return boat from the Gili Islands to Bali after the first one showed the more likely disaster movie adaptation of Life of Pi. I’ll save that for another time because the lack of sleep is convincing me that Chris Pratt is the star of an epic picture. Say what you will about this movie, but anything with a raptor whisperer part wins in my book.
I wake up after dozing for a few minutes, and the plane is already approaching Narita and Japan for our final layover. To this day, I still don’t know how Jurassic World ends and refuse to watch it on anything that doesn’t have my life in its hands. Narita is the same airport where my time studying abroad in Japan began. Back to the present and we’ve sat down to a nice bowl of ramen and think about our trip to the Kansai region over New Year’s. I felt like I was walking through Japan’s kitchen during that trip and want time to stop so we can hop on a train to go back.
Overwhelmed and Happy in Dallas
The last flight is with American Airlines and the people are nicer than I expected, thanks to the world’s perception of traveling with U.S. carriers. I find the staff to be almost overly polite, if that’s even a bad thing. They must’ve been low on native Japanese speakers, but the flight attendant on the speakers does well enough to impress even the sternest of businessmen. A woman and her boyfriend sit in front of us chatting about things in English, and a thought forms inside my head. Are all conversations going to overwhelm and confuse me at the same time? When will I get used to this?
In Korea, I’d grown accustomed to tuning out the local language and was fine to get work done in full coffee shops or restaurants. Somehow I was able to turn inside and avoid the stares that always pointed my way. Now I’m just another guy sitting on a plane getting overwhelmed by a simple conversation as the plane taxis into Dallas-Fort Worth. Those feelings get pushed to the side because of all the things I want to consume in the airport. Can I really order a perfectly toasted bagel that’s filled with the rest of breakfast? The convenience and speed of serve-yourself coffee makes me happy in Dallas. My senses are on overdrive.
Back in the South
The airport shuttle picks us up in Charlotte after I stare at Bojangles’s signs and realize that I’m back in the South. We arrive to our hotel and remember that this is America. In Southeast Asia, I can’t imagine the luxury that would’ve greeted us, but in Charlotte, it’s nice enough but about as basic as one can get. In Hanoi, we spent $50/night relaxing in a fancy Old Quarter hotel with a rooftop pool and surrounded by some of the world’s best food. In Charlotte, you get a motel for twice the price and it’s only within delivery distance of a gastro pub and every pizza chain that’s known to man, or woman, for that matter.
Christina and I pass out as soon as we fill our bellies with good greasy food and wake up for the first time in America in two years. It’s nice to write that even now if you ask me. I spend some time at my mother’s and write, pitch, and fill out resumes. Midlands South Carolina hasn’t changed too much, but I have, and walking around it with a renewed curiosity is fun for that week. Moments like these are the life through travel that I hope to continue and also, to write about. My mother and I reconnect and go for road trips through the countryside, visiting old relics like our family’s country store.
Reunited and Scared in Durham
After days of scouting old restaurants that serve shrimp and grits and barbecue that’s cooked in a pit right, life calls and I know it’s time to leave. This time with my mother is extremely valuable because she’s missed me and has always been there for me. This is the least I can do. However, my wife is working very hard to get things moving for us and needs my help. We are no longer living in cozy and convenient Korea where things are normally handled by whoever owns our visa. My mother and I have one last drive together and I’m still looking at this place like a tourist. Arriving in the Triangle Area and Durham is a pretty awesome feeling.
I see people walking on Duke Street’s sidewalks with smiles on their faces. Christina meets us, and, until reality sets in, we’re back and ready to create that happy life at home we’ve wanted for so long. Weekdays are spent writing and pitching like always while Sundays are reserved for hikes in the forest that surrounds us. Drives around the area are still confusing and our little Honda gets lost, though on a less frequent basis. After years of living abroad in a completely foreign land, this should be easy. We are one month into living at home and opportunities are knocking. Life is moving along. I can tell you now that it can be done. We can do this.
Do you think we can? Have you ever returned home after living abroad? I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts in the comments section.