There and Back Again, Part 2: Reentry


Day 1: I get in my rental car and review my list. On this list, everything has to be checked off before my first California meetup, this with a friend for drinks. I haven't gotten a hair cut in three months, haven't shaved, don't have a working U.S. cell phone, and my clothes consist of shorts, t-shirts, and a single pair of flippy flops. As I make the turn from the hostel, I casually accelerate and merge onto I-5, which isn't so casual since I've just gone from walking the shabby streets of Costa Rica to driving on one of the busiest highways in America. I roll down my windows, turn up O.A.R., and coast down the highway as the rest of L.A. speeds past me. I take in a long, deep breath, as I feel some sense of satisfaction and home, even though this isn't home. However, it's my first stop that reminds me that I'm back. I see those big, white capital letters on the horizon. I drive past it twice. And then once more. And then I go to In-N-Out Burger. And then, I slowly and reluctantly pull up to it. No, it's not the Hollywood sign; instead, the letters W-A-L-M-A-R-T are spelled out.

Has anyone ever seen the movie Elf? If you have a pulse, then I hope so, and if not, then it's a tragedy and you should stop reading this, go watch it, and come back. As Buddy the Elf arrives in New York City for the first time, after years of living at the North Pole, there's a certain awe and wonder about him as he explores the city. Life is speeding past him, yet he doesn't shrink back, but instead goes at his own pace and is awestruck by even the simplest things. While I didn't hop across the crosswalk, pick up used chewing gum from stairway railings, or don an elf outfit, there was a certain simplicity and wonder to the states as I arrived back after a brief hiatus in Central America. Things that were once everyday, mundane activities, sparked feelings of wonder. There was a certain thrill to driving down the highway with the windows down and the radio blasting, eating a burger, and even...wait for it...standing in line at Wal-Mart.

I've come to find that during the times of life that we learn the most, we typically don't realize we're actually learning. Doesn't make sense does it? Hang with me for a minute. Think about the times in your life when you've learned the most about yourself, relationships, life, and so on. What was it? It was often when you were out of your element. Right? Maybe it was a breakup, a difficult job, or even traveling or living in another country. It's once you're back to some semblance of "normal" when you realize: "Hey, that experience was groundbreaking and I'm not the same person I was."

Sausalito looking to San Francisco
Sausalito looking to San Francisco

I've had similar experiences as I've re-entered my home country of the United States. It's been while driving around, shopping, eating, and waiting in lines that I've noticed the difference. I may find myself in less of a hurry, getting frustrated less, walking more, eating better, and so on. Some of these things don't last longer than a couple days, like being carefree when someone cuts me off on the highway. Other things, I hope last a little longer as I remember my cross-cultural experiences and hope to implement the good parts of them in my own life as they better serve me and those around me.

I find there are a few different possible responses when you come back from living or traveling abroad. One is to dip out on your home country. You experience the culture of another and the call of living as an expat heeds. Another response is an unbridled excitement from the country you've visited, talking about it at length and trying to relive parts of it. The third response, and the one I hope would be characteristic of my own return, is that of balance. If you come back from an extraordinary experience abroad, kissing everyone on the lips because they did it in the country you visited, you're probably going to get some strong responses, and maybe a few forehands to the face. However, I think there are certain travel experiences learned abroad that can be effectively used when back home as long as they better you and others. Nonetheless, the other side of this balance on returning from abroad is a deeper appreciation and love for your own country. Does this mean I'll still have a strong appreciation for burgers next month? Probably not, but it does mean that travel can and should give me a deeper appreciation of my own country and how I can be a better citizen of it.

All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.-Samuel Johnson

Last night I had the pleasure of experiencing one of my favorite pastimes: Attending a MLB game, this an exhibition between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. There's just something about the smell of hot dogs and cotton candy, the bright lights, and the camaraderie of people who don't know each other. However, within me, an event both unusual and somewhat beautiful happened as everyone stood up for the national anthem. There was nothing extraordinary about this particular singing of the anthem, and I don't even remember who sang it. However, for the first time ever, as I scanned the crowd and observed the American flag gently swaying in the wind, my eyes started to water. I paused for a moment, and with a proud smirk mumbled to myself: "Nope. Not only am I not a long-term traveler, I'm not an expat. There's still more for me here."

What have your experiences been like when returning home from traveling abroad?

There are few things pure in this world anymore, and home is one of the few. We'd have a drink outside, maybe run and hide if we saw a couple men in blue. To me it's so damn easy to see that true people are the people at home. Well, I've been away but now I'm back today, and there ain't a place I'd rather go. I feel home, when I see the faces that remember my own. I feel home, when I'm chilling outside with the people I know. I feel home, and that's just what I feel. Home to me is reality, and all I need is something real.-O.A.R., I Feel Home