This expat life can feel like a circle of never-ending goodbyes and welcome backs.
June weekends were a series of goodbye and see-you-soon parties in Da Nang. It was similar to the end of the school year in college, with some friends graduating and leaving for good and others coming back for classes in the fall after a summer internship or study abroad. July was full of welcome home gatherings in Michigan. Before I knew it, July was over and I was saying goodbye to Michigan. If it weren’t for the long plane ride I’d pretend I merely snapped my fingers and found myself drinking La Rues with friends at a beachside bar in Da Nang again, but I’ve been taking baby aspirin to deal with the delayed swollen ankles. Yes, I wear compression socks, and no, they aren’t the most fashionable item in my wardrobe.
July has been compartmentalized in my head. I saw mostly everyone I wanted to see and did most of the things I wanted to do. I bonded with my family and my doggy and ate Mexican food and fresh northern berries and drank lots of good beer. I crammed a year’s worth of shopping and doctor’s visits into a month, and my credit card statement reflects it.
In July, I found myself confused as to what place to refer to as “home” in conversation. Da Nang or Grand Rapids? When in Grand Rapids, my parents’ condo that I’ve never lived in full time, or the condo I’m renting out to near strangers? It kept coming out wrong.
When I got off the plane in Chicago, I immediately noticed that everyone is bigger in America than in Asia. There are a greater variety of shapes and sizes and colors of human beings. People didn’t look at me as much—I blended in for the first time in a year. Throughout the month, I enjoyed people watching and eavesdropping in a language I could understand; however, I found myself more easily distracted in public simply because I knew what everyone around me was saying and couldn’t NOT hear it.
I remembered how to drive a car, no problem (many people asked about this). I got cold more easily and cursed the insanely high A/C settings businesses use. Why should I have to wear a sweater, long pants, and socks in a cafe when it’s 80 degrees outside? I don’t want to think about what will happen to me my first winter back.
The people I know had changed a little bit, but mostly not. Same with me, I guess. Perhaps I move slower now. I don’t walk as quickly—I was always a bit of a speed walker—and my family decided I was, in general “more chill” (my sister’s words). The former I’d attribute to the heat of the tropics; the latter to not working 50+ hours a week and heaps of time for introspection.
Much as an insert causes a magazine to always open to the same page, permanently divided it into chunks, so did my month-long visit home divide my time in Vietnam into two halves, Year 1 and Year 2.
While in Michigan, I pulled out the insert and lived that bit, leaving this hypothetical magazine resting open on the coffee table. It allowed me to look at my Vietnam experience with candid distance, seeing it for what it is—a chapter in my life. The pages in the first part, Year 1, are dog-eared and crinkled from too much wear. Damn, did I search hard for Meaning and Purpose and Justification for the Experience and some List of Important Stuff To Do With Myself last year. None of these things were buried in the table of contents, nor were they hidden in the bright ad on p. 18.
My point is, I found peace in returning to Michigan. I basked in what is perhaps the best month to be home but was reminded that things aren’t perfect there, either. My struggle with purpose wouldn’t suddenly be settled if I were to stay in Michigan this year. In fact, as hard as it was to say goodbye to my family and my dog yet again, going home solidified my decision to do another year in Vietnam.
I’m not done with this issue quite yet.
This year, I’m going to try to read the articles and look at the pictures in the second half, Year 2, appreciating them for what they are, and move on. Plus, the first half of a magazine is often full of blurbs and short articles, easing readers in. I have a feeling the real meat—the features and the lengthy spreads—will come this year.
Phil (my boyfriend) once told me that cliches are cliches because they’re often true. Going home reminded me that “home is wherever you are”—and not in the cheesy-but-romantic Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes song way, because that way requires you to be dependent on someone. I prefer to think this adage means that you can choose to take home with you.
My spirit animal, at least for this time in my life, is a butterfly. Make fun of me all you want, but my cousin took a few of my family members on a little mental journey, and that’s the animal that stuck with me. Butterflies are all about times of transition and embracing change. They take their home with them, finding shelter wherever they happen to be at night or if the weather gets bad. Butterfly totems also encourage people to approach change from a place of lightness, with a lighthearted and playful attitude. They remind us that life is a journey to be experienced with as much grace and joy as possible—whether you’re being flooded with goodbyes or welcome backs.
I’ve always been better at being light and playful with others; I tend to be more serious with, and sometimes even hard on, myself. Why not give myself a break and take it in, trusting that what’s meant to be will be, and enjoying the beauty of this colorful dance as I go, hmm?
That’s my goal for this year.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.