A friend who has been living here in the Netherlands for twenty years went back to Sri Lanka to visit her parents a few weeks ago. Since immigrating here, she has, with the exception of the last, returned to Sri Lanka with her husband and children every summer. Having travelled with my own mother to her native Japan a few times to then follow in her expatriate footsteps, I heard about my friend´s trip in June and had to sigh a little.
“It must be nice to go home again,” I murmured.
“Yeah, right. Tamil Tigers, civil unrest, political instability? That sounds like a great vacation.” My husband, the political scientist, had spoken.
“If you lived abroad for twenty years, you might get it.” My thoughts drifted back to a television interview we had both seen on my favorite Dutch show, Hello Goodbye. A journalist had approached a random couple at Schiphol Airport and asked about their situation. They were Iranian immigrants to the Netherlands, and the husband was going back to Tehran to see his brother, who was ill. It was the first time he´d be returning since he had fled Iran during the revolution, and he was risking arrest by doing so. He told the interviewer that he had never forgiven himself for staying in the Netherlands when his mother had passed away. Tears then welled up in his eyes, and he looked away from the camera.
During those few minutes of television, I visualized his homecoming in a flash of imaginary scenarios. They were based on my own experience of having a father from Iran, and on an atmosphere I had collected through Iranian literature and film. Having yet to own a passport from anywhere other than the United States, I had not dared to visit Iran myself. Nevertheless, I knew Iranian family life through and through.
Whenever my parents returned to their native countries after decades of expatriation, their visits were riddled with cultural hiccups. My mom had grown too outspoken for my aunt, and my aunt had stayed too demure for my mom. My dad had become too irreverent to attend church in Tehran, and the Tehrani authorities too corrupt and Kafkaesque for their Americanized, prodigal son.
In my daydream, I watched the Iranian at Schiphol return home. I envisioned him enveloped by family and tradition in such a way that sometimes left him feeling like a fish out of water. This reaction probably took him by surprise. But I also imagined him embracing moments of utter relief. Returning to the place where one is from can be like sitting in a gigantic, cultural armchair that fits and pads the prodigal in most of the right places.
He might find, for example, that he doesn´t have to explain himself as often. Whereas he´d grown accustomed to the quizzical looks of foreign peers who´d nod as if they understood, just to keep the conversation going, there would be people in Iran who could finish some, if not all, of his sentences for him.
Abroad, he had also adapted, with difficulty, to a different kind of hospitality. He had stopped bringing cakes to friends´ homes, because most of them would be left on the kitchen counter, untouched. He had tried to stop judging his hosts for making exactly enough food, no longer associating the availability of “more than enough” with their degree of generosity. But in Iran, oh Iran, he could come laden with gifts that were cooed over and kissed for in appreciation. While the edible treats were quickly unwrapped and served on hosts´ finest china, the baklava that had been baked for the guest would wait in the kitchen, untouched, for presentation at a later opportunity. As for food, there was always too much. Before his plate was empty, the matriarch of the house would be up from her seat, holding the serving platter under his chin and insisting that he accept more servings. Whatever he didn´t eat would be packed into foil and pressed into his hands as he left, hours later.
There are, namely, parts of us that remain neglected by our expatriation. We learn to live with the neglect. It´s tolerable, because abroad, alternate parts of us are stimulated, challenged, and nurtured, while they would never see the daylight of our places of origin.
I don´t know if it´s a question of time or character, but I have not managed to quiet the neglected parts of me. Perhaps this is because I have only lived overseas for nine years. Maybe after fifteen more, the perennial itch will be less prominent than the foreign things I have grown to cherish. But what if I am, simply, not cut out to be cut off from California?
I am not even allowed the privilege of wishing I could be like my mom, who left Tokyo at twenty-five and never looked back. She never regretted leaving Japan, never once missed the life she had left behind. Surely, she continued eating Japanese food, had Japanese friends and worked at a Japanese restaurant. She took her shoes off in the house and attended a Japanese church. But her explanation for why she never considered returning to Japan doesn´t help my own situation: she praised California, declaring it by far the best place to live on the planet. The sun never stopped shining in California, she´d say, beaming from ear to ear. I am less impacted by her ability to leave “home” than I am by her claim about the place where I am from. Perhaps I will never achieve her lack of regret, because she was right about California.
I announced the other day that I was missing America. There was a small ripple of response from some friends in the States, one of whom wished me a happy Independence Day weekend. For the few who were so relieved to hear me say anything remotely positive about the United States, who then pointedly asked me to explain, please, what is was about the American life that I missed so much, I have written this piece.
My missing America has nothing to do with my feelings toward life in Europe. It was very much so when I first arrived – in both Berlin and Amsterdam – because I rode the emotional curve that people do who relocate to another country. If one looks at the academic year as a model for the time away, the autumn is euphoric, but the winter absolutely desolate. Around Christmas, the expat is cursing bad weather, taking herbal anti-depressants and threatening to book tickets to go home when travel has plummeted to affordable post-holiday levels.
I stayed on past January, though, because I came here for love. I kicked and screamed and made my partner promise me we´d leave in two years´ time, but I did stick it out. Two years came and went, during which I collected reasons to resist throwing in the towel and just keep on truckin´.
So now that I am happy here, now that I have a child, a house, a husband, a church, a calling and another baby on the way, what do I miss about America? I miss really mundane stuff, like driving two blocks to the next Starbucks to drink fattening coffee. I miss peering through the glass door inside that is often shared with a major franchise bookstore. I miss succumbing, drink in hand, to those aisles of unread books, only to be surprised by the air conditioned quiet on the other side.
I miss using my credit card for everything, even if it´s a charge of seventy-five cents, and I miss that the person ringing up the charge bats no eyelash at my decadence. I also miss salad bars overflowing with dressing and toppings that Renee Zellweger ate to gain thirty pounds for her role in Bridget Jones. Count on Americans to find a way to get fat from salad.
Finally, I miss space. I was born and bred in suburbia, and I love driving through it. The traffic lights hang high up in the air there, suspended from giant, mantis-like arms that stretch across the half dome of sky hanging over my desert valley. While waiting for red lights to turn green, I gaze at the way those arms tremble in the desert winds. At green, I begin to cruise and watch how, after every few miles, the suburban strip repeats itself: Applebee´s, Del Taco, Walmart, Kinko´s, Drive Through Starbucks, 24 HR Fitness.
Most of all, though, I miss being around people who´ve known me from the beginning. I haven´t seen Kim in a few years, but we were close friends in junior high and high school. We´ve kept in touch enough to know what we have been up to since then, and I feel like we still understand each other, despite the distance of time and years. If I were to go to Pasadena next week and meet her for Indian food at a restaurant off Colorado Boulevard, we would take a few minutes to get accustomed to how we look now, to being separated by a mere surface covered with baskets of naan and glasses of mango lassi. But after that, it would be so easy. Oh, to share space with someone like me, from the place where I am from, who knows my roots by default, simply because she shares them – the streets, the shopping malls, the customs, the manners – someone for whom my “normal” is normal!
What a relief that would be. To be understood again, in my own language, both literally and figuratively. To be with someone whose everyday company requires no effort at interpretation, from her or myself. I don´t have that with anyone in my life abroad. I don´t even have that with my husband, who is my oak in the alien river. I don´t blame him. How could I? He stems from a different framework, and we met when I was twenty-four.
I have taught myself, instead, to rely on internal sources of identity affirmation without resenting the external relationships that do not provide it. But when I find the affirmation outside of myself again, it´s because I am back in the place where I am from. This is why, while I am away from that place, I long for it from time to time. If, at that Pasadena lunch, I were to look down to the floor around the chair I would be sitting on, I would see scales, armor and bricks lying on top of each other in heaps.
This is the topography of my life. It is as Baudelaire said, that “this question of moving is one that I discuss with my soul, without ceasing.” Maybe my missing the American life will be cured by time, or maybe it won´t, because of my incapable character. Perhaps it has nothing to do with me, because California actually is the best place to live on the planet.
But if I were to return to only discover that, no matter where I lived, there would always be something on the other side of the ocean to miss, I´d then have to ask myself what I´d be least willing to live without. If it were up to only me, I just might choose to surround myself with more people who understood me without cost. It just might add years to my life – years that caloric coffees and Ranch dressing could happily claim back.
© 2009 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.