Before stepping foot in a foreign country you’re asked why, and although the visa entry card choices are meaningless, empty designations such as “tourism” or “business”; they at least force you to self-identify a purpose. Even if it’s a made-up, or poorly thought out one. But, oddly enough, when you return home nobody asks or cares.
If I were asked my current purpose for coming home, I’m not sure what I would say. Except perhaps to stutter out that after nine months of living in the Philippines it was time to move on. Homecomings are supposed to be joyful, cinematic occasions where a triumphant return is punctuated by tearful reunions and regaling adoring friends and family with entertaining travel anecdotes. But in real life homecomings seem to happen not with a bang, but a whimper. The build-up is always sweet – anticipation, heightened by a longing for the familiarity of home embedded as deep in our neural pathways as any other basic physical need. But coming home seems to always be a letdown. A punctured deflation of the fantasy we construct in our heads of how nice everything will be when we return – a desire so pervasive it often compels us to forget the issues that prodded us to leave in the first place.
It seems not accidental that travel writing so rarely focuses on the return home part of the journey. When mentioned at all, the act of being home again is usually presented as a contrast to the recently completed adventure, or as a vague background to the required post-travel rumination of how one’s experience fit (or didn’t) preconceived notions about the world. Or worst of all as a passive setting for the realization that “it’s all about the journey” or some other hackneyed sentiment. Coming home is almost never viewed or described as its own journey, fraught with awkward encounters, emotions, and human frailties – domestic demons some of which are only uncovered because of one’s absence. For me, in many respects coming home is harder than leaving.
Once, an U.S. immigrations official, noticing the two-year absence stamped in my passport, smiled and said “welcome back home” – a tiny gesture which normally wouldn’t have meant much, but one which after 28 months abroad unexpectedly filled my eyes with tears. This time, after nine months away from American soil, the official waves me on and is already looking behind me as I say thank you. Past the baggage claim and customs a couple of kids run up to greet one of the businessmen, and a girl gives a brief, perfunctory hug to a young man. I heft my bags and walk past everyone to the bus stop.
I suppose the cynical reason why homecomings are given short shrift is because travel writing wants to get you there, not necessarily take you back. Or perhaps it is hesitance to tread on T. Wolfe’s “You can never go home” pedestal. But the reality is the majority of travelers always go home, and find it and themselves comfortingly unchanged. Daily life has a way of instantly cradling you back into its repetitive and boring embrace, which we somewhat shamefully embrace back, relieved that things haven’t changed.
Mr. Wolfe of course wasn’t referring to a two-week jaunt to Paris, or a week loitering on the beaches of Baja. But the self-discovering journey that led to his famous line is what we imagine and yearn for when planning real travel, and not just work holidays. However that deep realization requires not just the intervening years of wandering, but also coming home and reflecting one’s internal change onto the canvas of what was before.
At the bus station I easily spot a familiar truck, and for the first time in almost a year give my brother a hug. The first few days back are a blur. Maybe it’s the antibiotics, or the cold I immediately contract less than a day after landing. Or maybe it’s something else, but there is a fog of cognitive dissonance as I stay in slow motion while everyone revolves around me in a hyperspeed blur of work, children, yoga classes, camping trips, charity events. Everyone says so nice to see you, promises to get together, and then realizes how busy they are. I can barely handle the simple chores of re-activating my cell phone, and making a doctor’s appointment.
After months of being an outsider in a foreign culture, it’s weird to be afloat in your own society, tenuously tethered to people who go about their lives in a manner completely incongruous to how you’ve lived yours. Homecoming requires a shift in perspective, an assessment of if things back at home really have changed, and if so how much. As well as a window of opportunity for the returned to take their lessons learned along the way, try to forcibly meld them to the familiar life they are returning to, and find out which of their fantasies they will continue to hold onto and which ideals dreamt up in foreign lands will be lost into the iron ether of reality.
As fast-paced American life races by and around me, with foreign eyes I scour everything for changes, and find very few. Friends catch me up on the presidential race, which had begun in my absence yet requires only a few minutes to summarize. A few people mention the thawing of relations with Cuba. No one mentions Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. I ask friends about their lives, and they shrug and point to their families, their houses, their jobs. They ask me about the Philippines, and I give equally unsatisfactory answers.
In the age of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook it is perhaps getting harder and harder for us to deeply describe our lives, goals, dreams, ambitions. My friends, family, and I struggle to articulate to each other what has changed in the past year – besides babies and weddings. Does life really move so slow? Yet we chuckle in astonishment that memories we dredge up are now ten, fifteen years old.
It is so tempting for us to fall back into our old routines and patterns, to pretend nothing has changed. To get an office job, and apartment – go back to the quick days full of enervating work and hurried social life. The drawbacks to such as life are large and many, yet the limited meaning it presents is known, comfortable, and with at least a sense (though likely false) of personal control. The allure of slipping back into the safety of a shared society and culture provides an anesthetizing effect like that of slipping on an old shoe perfectly melded to your foot; after hobbling around in a new one all week. On the other hand to continue drifting offered no comfort, no security – just continued isolation, separation from the shared camaraderie of culture and society. Yet – I have to keep reminding myself – the freedom induced by that separation is exactly why I travel in the first place.