Monday, September 21, 2009

Re-entry

A few days before I came back to the States, I said goodbye to a friend of mine (whom I tend to see every couple months or so) at a party. We did the European cheek kissy kissy thing, and I told him, “Goodbye—see you in October!”
He stepped back and looked at me with a slightly perplexed expression. “October?” he said. “Why October?”
“Because I’m going home on Friday,” I told him, “and I won’t be back till mid-October.”
“But this is your home,” he said.
I hesitated. “You’re right,” I admitted. “This is my home. See you in October.” I saw him out the door and then walked back into the room with the party. But something was different. It was as if this friend had just articulated a concept I’ve been wavering about for the past couple years. But coming from him—someone I’m not all that close to and don’t see on an über-regular basis—it finally sunk in. Austria is my home.

For the past two years, I’ve been living in a state of limbo. Since I knew my position as a Fulbright TA was only temporary, I’ve always had the feeling in the back of my mind that this arrangement wasn’t going to last. Consequently, I allowed Graz to become my new home, but with certain boundaries in place. I wouldn’t spend money on a bike because I knew I’d have to leave it one day. (Actually, I waited until I inherited a bike for free. Now I wish I’d had one way sooner.) I didn’t put that much effort into going out and making new friends, because I wanted to cultivate the friendships I already had—why pursue mediocre friendships when you know the good ones you already have will turn long-distance again anyway? (Rather, I made some great new friendships but let most of them come to me.) Occasionally I would look around my room and groan, thinking of what a pain it would be to one day get all this stuff home. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve loved my life in Austria and have been able to connect here in a really deep way—but it changes things when you know that your days are numbered.

So in spite of myself, I let Graz become more of a home than I’d anticipated. It wasn’t until this friend from the party, whom I see on only a sporadic basis, pointed this out that I really realized this. He’s right. No wonder I want to stay in Austria a bit longer.

And the thing about making your home in another country is, well, that that’s where you feel at home. There are many things that I really love about Austria, but there are just as many things that I dislike and complain about. Yet despite all of this, it’s the place I now feel connected to, for better or worse.

So there’s nothing like going through U.S. border control after a long absence to make you feel like you don’t belong anymore. I found myself waiting in the shorter line—the one full of American citizens and permanent residents who don’t need to get their fingerprints taken or take eye scans or offer up their firstborn child just to come be a tourist in this great and wonderful land—and feeling completely out of place. The miniature American flags hanging from every officer’s counter as well as from the walls and the ceiling feel so out of place coming from a country whose expressions of patriotism are siphoned into the form of regional pride because open national pride, as history has indicated, can sometimes be a dangerous thing. And it started here, in the line for border control, that I once again found myself surrounded by American English. It should have felt natural, like coming home. (Since, after all, I was.) But instead, there was some tug inside me, urging, “Distance yourself. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t reveal yourself as one of them!” It was this same inner urge that prompted me to unintentionally act foreign in other ways—to assume that confused, lost look of one who doesn’t understand their surroundings, to ask for directions in shockingly misconstructed sentences, or to say “Excuse me!” in the wrong language when accidentally bumping into someone. And to come back for the first time in a year after a two-year stint abroad, even the things I love most about my country—like its diversity—can at first seem out of place when you see people of every size, shape, and color speaking in a perfect American accent.

But not all of the re-entry process is weird. It was clear before I even left the airport that I was in a country full of friendly people again, where strangers talk to other strangers, where questions are answered with a smile, and where someone can make a joke in a crowded elevator and not come across as a crazy person. It’s refreshing that someone might start a conversation with me because we’re both waiting in the same line at the store, or that the doorman to some fancy Central Park West apartment building can wish me a good morning and tell me my hair looks great as I hurry by with a friend. I love that I can call a customer service hotline and hang up feeling like I just made a new best friend, and I get warm fuzzies to be in a culture where people greet each other and say goodbye with hugs.

Yet there’s still the nagging feeling when I look around that somehow I just don’t belong. And in all fairness, part of this is probably due to some residual cultural snobbery in me—though whether it favors the U.S. or Austria depends on the day. But despite the differences and the impressions of reverse culture shock I’ve experienced in the past few days, there’s a disconnect between me and my country that runs just a little deeper. This is the disconnect of realizing you’ve already made a new home for yourself and it's far beyond this bustling city block or suburban strip mall. And even if this current home changes, as it’s very likely to do in the near future, I realize that I’ll just set up a new home again. Despite myself.

3 comments:

Food Blog for New Cooks said...

What an expressive way to describe the awkward homecoming that feels so unfamiliar! Now I know you weren't a foreigner when I first met you, but you definitely are now! :) Welcome to America. Be sure to taste a hamburger and the fried chicken, two American foods that cannot be replicated by anyone else. Then sit back and listen to local politics and the most recent gossip about some celebrity breakup. You'll be thoroughly doused in Americanism. Right? And enjoy your whirlwind trip "home."

miss clara said...

Totally can relate. Good luck with the transition. Think of it as a positive - a part of you will always be Austrian now, and have that non-American perspective, as well as having the American one. In a weird way I feel like I'm a better global citizen now. :-)

Sam said...

Bring back the blog