back in the u.s.a….how strange it is.

Saturday, March 26: Well,  here I am.  Back in the U.S.A. I arrive at Dulles International Airport at 3:30 pm on Tuesday, March 22, to find Alex and Mike the same in appearance as when I left home a year ago.  Adam, however, has grown by 2 more inches and looms over me.  I’ve become a midget.

my giant son Adam, me and Alex in my kitchen
my giant son Adam, me and Alex in my kitchen

Thursday morning, I am wide awake from midnight to 5 a.m.  Saturday afternoon, I sleep for 3 hours, and go to bed at 9 p.m. My body obviously hasn’t made the leap from Korea/India time to Eastern Standard Time. Not only must I adjust to the physical effect of being in a different time zone.  There is the mental discombobulation that comes from reorienting myself to home.  Everything feels bizarre and off-kilter.  I have no balance.  I’m lost.

I am a stranger in my own land.  I think people really believed I died and was gone forever, into the eternity-land of heaven (or hell, depending on what they think of me).  I return to my house in Oakton, which I still share with my husband (from whom I’ve been separated for 4 years now) and my two sons, to find total disarray.  One thing I can see is that over time, and without my highly evolved organization skills to lead the way, everything has degenerated to chaos.  A tornado has swept through our house, redistributing all our earthly goods in the unlikeliest of places.

My sons have changed rooms numerous times in the last year, even moving into my room at various times.  In my room, I find computer keyboards and monitors (why do we have so many computers, anyway?), boxes of Proactive for Adam’s acne, a lost and forlorn bed headboard and foot board, dirty towels, piles of books, glasses and dishes.  Apparently, Alex has slept in my room, then Adam, then Alex again.  With each migration, various belongings of theirs have accompanied them and then become fixed furnishings.  There is nowhere to even unpack my stuff.  Clutter is king.

my house in virginia
my house in virginia

A long hot bath beckons.  After enduring the shower-bathroom of Korea for the last year (a bathroom with a shower head mounted above the sink which sprays water all over the sink, toilet, and bathroom floor), a long hot bath is something I crave.  It’s one of many things I took for granted my whole life until suddenly, when I moved abroad, I didn’t have it anymore. In 5 days, I’ve taken about 8 long hot baths.  I soak and soak in hot water until my skin in shriveled and hot pink.  I even fall asleep one time and wake to find myself shivering in room-temperature water.

Everyone walks around me as if they don’t know what to make of me or what to do with me.  Interactions are awkward.  I don’t quite know how to pick up where I left off, how to fall into a groove in our interactions.  Patterns which I’m sure they take for granted are a mystery to me.  The boys have grown, they’ve changed, and I don’t quite know how to have relationships with these kids whose personalities have rearranged themselves into fresh versions of their former selves.

the living room ~ the least cluttered room in the house
the living room ~ the least cluttered room in the house

Mike has trained the boys well, better than I did while I was here.  It used to be I was the one who did everything, the cooking, the cleaning, the grocery shopping, the organizing, the bill-paying.  Now, they’ve adapted.  The boys help prepare dinner, help with cleanup, walk the dog, run errands.  Mike has been too tired after work to do it all, so he enlisted their help.  I’m happy with what I see here; my boys are becoming helpful young men who no longer expect someone to take care of their every need.

I thought I couldn’t wait to drive my car, but honestly, for two days straight I don’t even want to venture out of my house.  I am too cozy here, and I want my bed to be nearby in case I have the sudden urge to take a nap.  I am quite nappy all the time.  I feel a slight anxiety because in order to even unpack, I must do major rearranging and shuffling.  I tackle a small bit, but each time I move something somewhere else, I must also move something in that spot to yet another spot.  It’s a domino effect.  One thing leads to another to another.  There is no easy way out.  I think I will have to be ruthless in my purges of this ubiquitous clutter, this junk that is encroaching upon every inch of space in the house.

In addition to the suitcase I need to unpack from my trip to India, there is a huge suitcase full of stuff I sent home with Alex when he visited me in Korea in December.  Another box full of stuff I mailed at the end of January. One box I sent my last day in Korea by airmail with my computer and important papers.  And on Friday, a Korean guy knocks on the door and delivers two more boxes I mailed by “surface” in mid-February.  It’s as if he carried them all the way across the ocean and across continents himself from Korea.  Six more boxes are still to come.  Where will I put all this stuff?

my 13-year-old Toyota Camry with missing hubcap and a fresh dent in the rear
my 13-year-old Toyota Camry with missing hubcap and a fresh dent in the rear

On Friday, I venture out in the Camry for my first spin.  I’m afraid I may have forgotten how to drive.  But it comes back quickly, just like riding a bicycle or swimming after a long hiatus. It is so exhilarating, I feel the urge to post a status update on Facebook, after which my friends admonish me not to “Facebook and drive!” I feel like I felt when I was 16 and first got my driver’s license. I notice immediately that the gas tank is well below empty.  I’m driving on fumes.  The Camry is in this perpetual state when Alex drives it, as he has no job and no money. I hope I can make it to the gas station; I call Alex and ream him out and tell him to stand by in case he has to come and bail me out.  A heavy metal CD blasts scary & disturbing music into the car.  After searching frantically under piles of debris, I find my CD case with my mix CDs and replace Alex’s music with mine ~ an unmarked CD.  Quite by accident, I’ve brought India into my car with a mix CD of Slumdog Millionaire and Jab We Met soundtracks. The car is stuffed with a jumble of plastic Safeway bags, hamburger wrappers, french fry boxes, and green moldy copper pennies. I gather the garbage & toss it at a gas station trash can, reclaiming the car as my own.  Then I fill up the gas tank and am shocked that it costs $55 to fill up the Camry tank!! This is more than I’ve ever paid to fill up this car.  Sticker shock in the U.S.A.!

Friday night, I venture out to see a movie I saw in India, Tanu Weds Manu, at a Bollywood movie theater at Loehmann’s Plaza.  In India, I saw it without subtitles, and though I could get the general gist of what was going on, I couldn’t understand the conversations.  Before going to the movie, I meet my friend Margie at Artie’s in Fairfax, where I order a small glass of wine, one beer, an appetizer.  It costs me $28, including tip!!  The movie is $11 (!) and since I am falling asleep during the movie after the wine, I also buy a coffee for $3.50.  For one night of entertainment, I spend $42.50!  America is expensive and I absolutely have come to HATE the tip culture.  One thing Korea does right is NO TIPPING!  No taxes either!  When you buy something in a restaurant and it says 6,000 won, you pay exactly that, 6,000 won!  I forgot in one year just how outrageously expensive life in America is.

I haven’t made much effort to call friends this week as I just needed some time to settle in.  I do call my daughter Sarah and arrange to visit her in Richmond next Friday.  She’s running a 10K Saturday morning and wants me to come cheer her on.  She says we’ll go out and “carb-load” the night before.  I can’t wait to eat at a Richmond restaurant…they’re the best!  I’ll see my friend Ed from the State Department one night next week.  And next Sunday, some friends from the sushi meetup group have planned a little welcome home party at a “drag queen brunch.” Crazy!  Deirdre posted on the event page: “Hell’s Yeah!!! I will make an exception for my Lent for this (Sundays are free anyway, right?) – There with bells on!” To which Kathy replied: “You’ve given up drag queens for Lent, Deirdre?”

Fun times!

I speak to my friend Lisa in Pennsylvania who was my roommate in Egypt for all of July 2007.  She, who has lived abroad in Middle Eastern countries off and on, says she knows how strange and disorienting it is when you come back home from living abroad.  You get on an airplane and instantaneously you’re in a different world, with a whole new cast of characters and a spanking-new script. You’re the same character you always were but you’re now in a different story. It’s as if you change the channel and you’re in a thrust into a sitcom…or drama, one not of your own making. Feeling lost and unsure and not knowing any of your lines. A perfect description.

dis·o·ri·en·ta·tion ~ n.

1. Loss of one’s sense of direction, position, or relationship with one’s surroundings.

2. Mental confusion or impaired awareness, especially regarding place, time, or personal identity.

Culture shock: a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or set of attitudes.  I have the experience of “reverse culture shock, being exposed to a “familiar culture or way of life or set of attitudes,” but one that has become unfamiliar over a year away.

I never thought my life here in America, the life I’ve had for over 50 years, could feel so strange.  How long, I wonder, before it feels like home again?  And how long before I get the urge to venture abroad again?