Six month review

It’s been a little over six months since I’ve returned to American soil, yet it seems like forever ago. I find myself feeling as though I never left the US – as though all I learned from being away has simply vanished into a different reality. Was it only a year ago that I went out into the desert and rode a camel? Went snorkeling in an amazing sea? Seemed to have all the time in the world to contemplate both everything and nothing? That person who enjoyed those things doesn’t seem to exist anymore, yet here I am in (somewhat) the same body that I occupied there and then.

When I first got back, I wrote about what I had taken away from my travels in terms of shifting priorities and focus. Since I’m due for a six-month review in my job, I figured I would do one on these aspects of my life (original goal in italics):

  • More minimal living – I want less space and fewer possessions, especially when it comes to my wardrobe.
    I’ll give myself a passing grade here, but barely. I have enjoyed buying more than a few items since I’ve returned, but part of that is due to, ahem, a slightly “fluffier” body thanks to a bit of overindulgence of Mexican food and beer upon my return. I really missed a good ale and some tacos. I also find that I enjoy dresses and skirts more than slacks now, so I am letting my wardrobe shift in that direction. I’m late to the game, but am discovering the wonders of tights and leggings (this means they will be out of fashion in 3…2…1….).
  • Appreciation of food for its variety and simplicity.
    Yup. Doing this and happy about it. Cooking more vegetables at home and spending more time with friends in the kitchen. When I first got back there was too much dining out (see above), but I am enjoying a wide variety of foods and am still enjoying the not-too-fancy. And soon it will be roasted vegetable season! Hooray!
  • Friendship and the need to be present with those I love.
    I’ve seen most of my friends since I’ve been back with a few notable exceptions. I sense a couple of Happy Hours in my future, and I am hoping to revive a version of the Toddy Tour now that the weather is colder; this is where a group of women get together once a week at a different bar to sample the Hot Toddies across Portland. Yum! My brother and sister-in-law were just in town to help celebrate my birthday (of course there was karaoke). Many weekends are spent on my block, hanging out with neighbors who are also my dear friends. Going to their plays, cooking food, lazing about while enjoying Sunday morning bubbly. I’m also trying to see one of my closest friends as much as possible; she’s sick and every moment of being with her is precious. Texts about the mundane are enjoyable, wonderful moments. It would be nice if I thought of all my interactions that way.

    bday celebration

    Me and my amazing sister-in-law sipping tropical drinks at a karaoke bar. Magic!

  • The awareness that there is little I can control. Letting go is something I will continue to struggle with and I look forward to the challenge.
    Not sure how much I’ve been challenged here (knock on wood), but I think I’m getting better. My basement flooded this weekend and I didn’t have a complete meltdown. I consider that a victory!
  • Taking day trips/weekend getaways. Even one night somewhere else does so much to recharge my mind and soul.
    My knee-jerk reaction to this was that I haven’t been getting away much. Not sure what the ideal bar would be for me, but when I review what I’ve done since I’ve been back, I think I’ve been doing OK actually. I spent some very fun weekends with my father at the stock car races this summer, which then had me staying at my parents’ house overnight (they live about an hour away). While not exactly the stereotypical “getaway weekend,” going down there does recharge me. Also, I’ve been up to Seattle a couple of times to visit a friend and attend intellectual events (a talk, conference) – while Portland has tons of talks, for some reason I haven’t really gone to many. I don’t think about them here; I bet it’s a neat way to explore the city in a different light. I’ve gone to Sacramento to visit Dave and ride around in his Singer – ah, sun. Hmmm, why does it feel like I’m in Portland all the time?

    IMG_3800

    The most enjoyable deathtrap ever.

  • Meditation practice. Haven’t revisited this yet, but planning on it! Really. Someone hold me accountable! Or perhaps it will naturally happen when I am ready.
    Fail in this department. Who’s the ass-kicker who will help me with this? I find it funny that I want someone to kick my butt about meditating more. Seems wonderfully inappropriate and paradoxical.
  • Tea breaks. Wherever I went, people actually stopped for tea. “To go” was rare. I want to take the time to sit and enjoy.
    So-so here. I sip tea at my desk constantly, and enjoy using the mug that I co-opted from the college (Lipton, the sign of good taste). When I work from home, I have morning tea while I answer emails. There I use a mug with Snoopy on it that says “Canada.” I bought it at Incheon airport in South Korea. But I am not actually taking breaks while I have tea. Still, the tea itself makes my work more relaxing. While I think it’s doing what I need it to do, I still could benefit from the occasional break from my desk.

    IMG_3839

    Sipping tea from my liberated Omani mug.

  • Writing. Though no longer an expat, I hope to continue to write about things I did while overseas, and things I experience here as a result. If there’s anything you are interested in learning about, I welcome questions and inspiration.
    Thanks to NaBloPoMo (National Blog Post Month), I am planning on stepping up my game. Writing makes me feel better. Sharing it even more so. As I said six months ago, please send me your questions/ideas for writing! I have a full month to go of daily writing. It will be interesting to see what I end up posting.

Huh. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I’ve maintained a lot more of these shifts than I feel on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this is something I can meditate on in the future.

 

 

Taking chances here and there

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a truck driver. Out on the open road like BJ and the Bear, without a care in the world except my haul. Then, my career plans changed – I wanted to be a van painter, traveling around the US turning people’s vehicles into pure magic through scenes depicting wolves, cougars, stallions, and other majestic creatures. I remember seeing a magazine article that featured someone who actually lived in their van (yes, there were shag carpets and lots of colors inside) and I thought that was the best way to live (apparently I wasn’t too concerned about showering and using the toilet back then). Kudos to my parents who just smiled and nodded as I planned my future – if they ever panicked on the inside, they didn’t show it, nor did they shut down my dreams.

For whatever reason, I really didn’t see these two wishes as a part of me that remains – until I read a blog post from a friend who is currently traveling a good chunk of the world on a motorcycle. She opened her story with “As a kid I wanted to be a truck driver so that I could be always on the road…” And that was it. My early life plans, although different, were about wanting to live freely, not being tied to a particular place. Wanting to experience new places, people, moments. I can even throw in my 4th-grade goal of being an archaeologist into the mix (thank you King Tut exhibit) – a job with travel as a primary focus. Until today, I honestly saw all these ideas as simply trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and just figured those jobs were the coolest I could come up with at the time (read more on my thoughts on the career decisions and paths of youth, here). Turns out, truck driver, van painter, and archaeologist have more in common than I realized. And even though I am trying to settle back into the US, the open road keeps calling (photo credit).

van-paint-jobs-wildammo-11

This could have been me.

A recent blog post from the Wall Street Journal helps me in my struggle to understand what draws me away: Away from security and loved ones. Away from establishing myself. Away from, what seems to be on some level, common sense. Here’s a quote from that blog explaining why expats are so drawn to their lives away from “home:” “Across all walks of expat life, many foreigners are united in their hesitation to “go back,” a description that often means more than just going home and implies returning to a previous state.”

Yes! That’s a huge part of it for me. There are many ways in which I’ve changed after traveling for two years. I like those changes. I don’t want to go back to the way I was before I left. But I feel myself slipping into that familiar role, into those same reactions to things I worked hard to shed. It’s all well and good to come back to my favorite cocktail at my favorite bar, or an Al Pastor taco – but coming back to certain aspects of my “previous state” is NOT something to savor. I accept the things that I did when I did them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do them again. Yet, in some ways, that is exactly what I am doing. And I’m not sure what to do about it beyond being mindful, noticing, and trying to practice self-compassion.

Another point in this WSJ post is about how living as an expat allows more opportunities to take chances, fail, try something else, and learn from the experience. The environment of another country can be so different that somehow it can “soften fears of failure. Foreigners are sometimes granted unspoken permission to try things that might be discouraged in their home countries. The combination can lead expats to take more risks…the expat life always offers another chance to make it all different…you can make amends with the mistakes you’ve done or miscalculations and start anew.”

By no means did I live without fear when I was overseas; there were experiences I passed up because I was nervous. I didn’t eat ALL the foods (sorry boiled chicken feet, but I couldn’t get passed your clammy texture and doughy beige color), and I didn’t push hard to have a camping experience while overseas (then again, I barely camp in the US). And I found it difficult to travel alone, so I know there were things I didn’t do in New Zealand and Australia that I could have done had I been a little more brave. But there were a lot of things that I DID do that I wouldn’t have done before: I went skydiving. I ventured into – and used – toilets too scary to recount here. I figured out how to do day-to-day stuff that before I would be too nervous to try because I might have screwed it up. I tried anyway. And sometimes I did screw up. But, as the quote above implies, that’s OK to do. In fact, in many ways it’s sort of encouraged. Try, screw up, learn, rinse, repeat.

IMG_0662

Silly tiles distracted me from the icky toilet in Cheonan, Korea.

In theory and in practice, I could take that mindset and apply it in the US. But somehow it’s more difficult. I can’t explain why yet. Yet there are things I want to do and try, but for whatever reason I can’t. It seems weird to say I need the safety of living in a strange place to have the courage to take chances. Maybe it’s because every day there are so many little challenges when you live abroad – a trip to the grocery store is an adventure. Trying to get a key made becomes a story in and of itself. Taking these little chances as part of daily living builds up confidence to take bigger ones.

Now I am in back familiar territory, looking for the unknown in the everyday. The challenge here may just be the search for challenge. Or maybe I can take up van painting after all.

Souvenirs

I’ve been back in the US for two and a half weeks and am starting to settle in. The moments of reverse culture shock and general feelings of being overwhelmed lessen each day, but remain. I am learning how to live in this country again. Although I am settling into a level of familiarity being back in Portland and taking a job in research again, I am not quite the same person. I feel a little different in ways that are hard to describe.

It was an amazing year and a half/two years and I learned so much about myself and others — some stuff I want to cherish, while other things make me grateful for the culture I grew up in. There are things I want to hold onto, and things I want to leave far behind. Here are some of the things I hope to incorporate in my life back in the US.

  • More minimal living – I want less space and fewer possessions, especially when it comes to my wardrobe. Yes, I will invest in a new pair of jeans, but otherwise I hope to wear only the items that are easily accessible to me without going into storage to retrieve more.
  • Appreciation of food for its variety and simplicity.
  • Friendship and the need to be present with those I love.
  • The awareness that there is little I can control. Letting go is something I will continue to struggle with and I look forward to the challenge.
  • Taking day trips/weekend getaways. Even one night somewhere else does so much to recharge my mind and soul.
  • Meditation practice. Haven’t revisited this yet, but planning on it! Really. Someone hold me accountable! Or perhaps it will naturally happen when I am ready.
  • Tea breaks. Wherever I went, people actually stopped for tea. “To go” was rare. I want to take the time to sit and enjoy.
  • Writing. Though no longer an expat, I hope to continue to write about things I did while overseas, and things I experience here as a result. If there’s anything you are interested in learning about, I welcome questions and inspiration.
IMG_1170

I need to spend some more time with this guy.

 

Slow down, you move too fast

I took the bus for the first time since coming back to Portland. It made the city feel more like home again. I like the idea of sitting down, staring out the window, and letting someone else deal with the traffic. Yes, it takes more time than driving, but in some ways that’s good. The bus has helped me feel less rushed about things. If I miss one, I need to wait for the next. If it’s late, I wait until it arrives. I have no control over its exact timing. I can plan a schedule, even look up real-time arrivals using TriMet’s website or texting center. But overall, the timing of the bus and when it takes me where I need to go is out of my hands. It’s a freeing sensation that I welcome in my usual tendencies to stress about stuff. Taking the bus is one small step towards learning what I can and can’t control, and my responses to such situations.

IMG_0097

At a nifty bus station in New Zealand. I think Wellington.

 

I also use bus time to do nothing. Sometimes I message friends or listen to NPR, but usually I am just spacing out or people-watching. The pace of the United States is so much faster than anywhere else I have traveled (I have never been to Japan so there may be some places more hectic than my home country) and riding the bus slows me down. In Korea, it was more common to see people drinking their coffee at a table than taking it to go. In the hotter climates of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Oman, things literally come to a stand-still in the middle of the afternoon as shops close in the heat of the sun. In New Zealand and Australia, the cashiers always seem to take the time to really say hello, and no one behind you in line seems to mind. While the times and specifics may vary, each culture seems to have a break built into people’s daily routines. Even Toronto, Canada – a major Western city – didn’t seem as rushed as it does here.

I don’t see America’s fast-paced lifestyle as a good thing, at least not for me. I benefit much more from a slower way of life; I feel better, I’m more creative, and I’m generally happier. I believe I’ve somewhat of an empath (just like Deanna Troi!); if I am surrounded by people who are stressed, I tend to feel the same way. Living a slower life for the last year and a half has really helped me in many ways. I just hope that I am able to recall this way of being and know there are other ways to live, even though I am rooted in a culture that doesn’t seem to value this. Looks like I am going to have to build in my own break times. I’m thinking tea. Pretty much every country sits down for tea except the US.

But for now, there’s the bus. I may be the only person around expressing gratitude when I wait for it.

Everything Old is New Again

The old airport carpet was still there to welcome me despite its busy social calendar. I am back in Oregon. Reconnecting with friends, listening to sports radio, drinking good wine, enjoying rain. Relishing the fact that I am wearing a skirt that exposes me knees. So far, the culture shock has been minimal, but I haven’t done too much. Brunch with friends, time with family, sleep, and a happy hour. Oh, and I went to a crab feast for a high school fund raiser – a true sign I am back in the US.

It hasn’t hit me yet that I am back here for a while at least. It still feels a bit like a visit. Probably because I haven’t settled into my living situation yet. It will be a while before I am in a place I can call home.

I will still be writing about here and there, changes inside and out. There were so many things I experienced but didn’t share; journeys in nine different countries gave me the chance to reflect and learn so much. I’m looking forward to seeing which memories will come back to me as I build my life back in my hometown. Which ones will shape me the most.

For now, I am filling my calendar with friend time. Friends old and new. We will share stories in favorite haunts and I will find the new places that have sprung up since I’ve been gone. And of course there will be karaoke.

Stay tuned! I have no idea what will be next.

IMG_3378

I took this before clearing customs and was scolded by security. But she did understand my excitement and let me keep the photo. The carpet will be gone from here next month.