Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Repatriation: Life back in Portland

Bag: from Seoul, magazine and agenda: from Tokyo, pen case: from Stockholm

My last memory of Chiang Mai is boarding a midnight flight in the airport. There is only one terminal with one large waiting room that was crowded with people and birds were roosting in the rafters above. I could not wait to get home.

Three months earlier from my hot mosquito tent of an apartment in Saigon, I skyped with an American friend who had gone on a multi-month sabbatical through South America. At the time we Skyped, he was 6 months home from his journey and already wanted to step out again on another adventure. He told me that he missed walking through corn fields in Nicaragua looking for a bus stop. He was already bored with his day job in  Brooklyn, he wanted to go back to South America so desperately. He told me to cherish every moment I was away, and that once I was back to the grind I would be missing my time in SE Asia and longing to get away again.

I took his words seriously. I had three months left in my trip and I enjoyed them fully. But by the time I had purchased my ticket home I was so ready to be home. Ready to wear more than three outfits. Ready to communicate fluently in my native language. Ready to not be dependent on buses and rickshaws and my own feet for transportation. Mostly, I was ready to work again.

At that point, I had spent two months unemployed, followed by a year in an gratifying job, followed by two more months of unemployment, followed by six months of travel. It sounds incredulous, but I was dying to get back to working. Not only is it satisfying to make money, but having a job is part of my identity. I need to feel tethered to the place I am living. I need to feel a sense of purpose and having a job helps me achieve that. 

I didn’t go to SE Asia with any idealistic hopes of “finding myself” – though I fully acknowledge that a journey anymore is mostly an internal one – but I did hope to return with a solid game plan. By my last month there, I knew more or less what I wanted to do and where I wanted to work, so I set about applying for jobs on my last two weeks in Thailand.

Looking back, I regret having begun my job search so early. I wish I had waited until I returned to the US to begin working on my resume and taking interview (I even work up at 4:00am to do a Skype interview) from Chiang Mai. I should have spent those precious last weeks doing what I was doing the whole trip: reading, writing, and hanging out. But ultimately it worked out and I ended up at a job I love, that is challenging and fulfilling in different ways.

One of the things I missed most about being away was having an anchor, a stable place to call my own. I missed being surrounded by my stuff and being comfortable in my dwelling. When I departed on my 6 month journey, I didn’t really have a home. Physically, I was living half in my dad’s apartment, and half with my partner. Emotionally, I knew I loved Portland as a city but didn’t know if it was my forever place. By the time I returned I knew I wanted to be there. My partner and I bought a house just two months later and moved all of our things into it. Now it’s hard to image life without such a dwelling. And I’ve gotten to love Portland as a city more and more, though it continues to change before my very eyes.

The lifestyle I had in SE Asia was also not a lifestyle that suited me. I like to be busy. I like to have plans and definite things to do. I don’t like waking up each day and wondering how it will pass. I like having lots of different friends and meeting with each of them from time to time. I like doing things alone and coming home and telling my partner about it. It was hard being each other’s only friends for six months. It was hard not being alone as often as I would have liked. We enjoyed our brief experiment with this lifestyle, but it would not have been sustainable for either of us.

It felt good coming back.

The repatriation process looks a lot like culture shock. The first stage is bliss, then aguish, then a gradual move towards adaptation and acculturation. My first six months back in Portland were glorious. I loved being unemployed for two months, volunteering and job hunting. I loved working and forming a new identity from my job. I loved taking small vacations and weekend trips. But after six months my mood took a dip and I started missing my life overseas again. Work got stressful and I was again fantasizing about being someone else, somewhere else. It look a year for me to accept my new identity fully.


Accepting doesn't mean settling. I know I won’t be this exact person forever. But I like who I am now, and I like how I'm living now. My six months in SE Asia is within me now.

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