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Coming (Back) to America

Although many hold on to the old adage that you can’t go back home again, we did exactly that this summer with a trip back to NY. Now mind you, the expressed promise of this trip back to our home country has held us together and kept us going through many of the emotional moments abroad. It also filled us with a lot of questions. Will we feel out of place when we go back? Will things feel strange? Will life back home be drastically different? Will we still fit into the mix of friends we left behind? Will we miss our life back in Asia? Or worse, will we not want to go back to Asia after a taking a delicious bite of summertime in America? All of these questions swirled in my mind, as we anxiously waited to see and hold our family members & friends that we’ve missed over the past year.

After taking the longest direct flight in the world, we quickly made our way out of Newark airport, starting our U.S. visit with a 3 hour drive to a Delaware beach house (who thought that was a good idea? Dad, I’m looking at you). On the drive, we began to take in the familiar sights, sounds, smells and all of the makings of what makes home feel like home. For me it was the familiarity of the landmarks, cars driving on the right side of the road, restaurants I loved and strangely the radio DJs. Yet some of it can’t be pinpointed, it’s more like a song that you’ve heard playing on the radio since childhood. You don’t even know the name of it, but you can sing it word for word and instantly you’re back in your childhood home. In many ways it felt just like that.

What were we looking forward to?

For the kids, they were thrilled that they would get to see their grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends. We took turns voicing what we would do first. Would it be the ice cream shop they love, going to eat “real” pizza, running to the “big park” with the fun slides or visiting our old house and neighborhood? Or how about a really long hug with our family members and catching up with friends in person? The list was long. But what were we all really seeking? Was it that place/experiences or was it more the feeling of familiarity/home/belonging/being known? Perhaps all the above.

Expat friends who started their journeys abroad before we did, told us to expect some version of this experience. Where you are simultaneously happy with your new life but also very happy with your home country experience. It’s a bit confusing for the kids (and the adults) as you almost feel guilty for saying that you are happy to be home or liking the new country, as if that would be a betrayal to one of these places. Like we are somehow cheating on our new host country with our home country. In this instance, you have to hold two opposite experiences simultaneously as desirable and that can be hard to comprehend. Any other time they were happy to go somewhere for vacation, that excitement about going would always supersede anything you are leaving behind, at least for the moment. On the return, the opposite may be true, as you may feel the tiny heart strings pulling at you while you leave your spot at the beach. Nothing at home is making that feeling go away in the moment. But this time, it felt different. We were both happy with our new life and being met with all of the things we loved from life before the move. I reminded the kids that this was kinda part of the deal and ok to feel this duality without guilt.

So, what’s changed??

With almost a full year behind us since the moving vans pulled away, there were some monumental changes within our family (births, deaths & sickness) and then the small changes that we assumed would be bigger when thinking about the length of time away.

For the monumental changes, those were all hard to take, yet felt ever so present in our lives abroad. Regardless of whether the change was something that was being added or subtracted from our lives, we were able to be pretty intentional and dialed in to those events.

How we handled the BIG things:

We are so lucky to be living in a time of high tech so those phone calls can actually be couples with photos, videos & video chats tying us together as tight as we can be while not on the same time zone. Throw in my incredible ability to shop online anywhere in this world and you are suddenly able to show up with flowers on your friend’s doorstep, make sure your parents get a delicious meal from a favorite local restaurant or send your nieces and nephews presents for Christmas. I even felt connected to the birth of my new niece through pictures and minute by minute family chats.

Yet it’s not the same as being there in person. Not the same as holding that little newborn in your arms or dropping by to see a family member or friend that's having a tough time. Nothing is and that’s the trade-off. One I’m sorry we had to make. But you can get close enough to make your presence and their presence felt whole heartedly, until the time comes for another reunion.

How we handled the smaller changes:

There were quite a few assumptions about all of the things that we would miss while we were away. We each had our own subset that held some weight in our minds over the year away. For me it was all that I would be missing at my last job and social events, for the kids it was friends and school/holiday events and for my husband it was extended family occasions that we’d have to miss. Like any choice, you aren’t just choosing to do one thing, you’re also choosing not to do another. Sometimes those choices are easy to make and others sting.

However, I think the big surprise to us was that although we did indeed miss those things, they didn’t change quite as profoundly as we feared that they may. For the most part, we were able to get “caught up” on what we missed pretty quickly and feel like we hadn’t missed a beat. Almost like a long running soap opera or reality show, you can step away for a quite a bit and get caught up with a few episodes. The fact is that we know that life well and have lived some version of that for decades so nothing was so different in comparison to the year we just lived abroad. That gave us a feeling of solace and like we could sort of live these 2 lives simultaneously, at least for a little while.

How were we different?

Once we stopped looking externally at what was so different back home, we had to confront how we were different. As with many ways in which your identity forms, it is mostly shaped by the people around you. You are the funny one in this friend group, the quiet one among other friends, but maybe seen as the studious one in your family and yet the leader at work. As we started to feel comfortable back home again, others started to comment on how you seemed different in this way or that.

Stress points that maybe were so concerning to you before are no longer pressing on you. Or roles that never crossed your mind before this (like being the main caretaker) suddenly are very much your reality. As we surrounded ourselves with so many new people that have radically different views on how to live, work, have fun, etc., you start to change too. Each trip to a new country and region or friendship with someone abroad, opens up your mind, your heart and your ability to understand another facet of the world.

My life is so different from how it was a year ago and maybe that’s why we expected this drastic change within everyone around us. But this shared experience is one that is really unique to our nuclear family and familiar to others who’ve taken this kind of journey.

What I did NOT miss…

One of the things that I have found jarring upon returning, was how quickly someone asked me where I was from. (Literally 4 days into our U.S. trip) Mind you, I’ve lived in NY my entire life. Born and bred. But I’ve been asked where I was from almost as many times as I’ve been asked my name (I'm from NY…no no, where are you really from? Which is just code for we can’t place your racial/cultural identity so now let’s break out the 23andme kit and dig in)

The thing that shocked me was that for 10 months, I’ve only been asked my country of origin and once I said American, occasionally someone asked which state, but nothing beyond that. The obsession with race in America is exhausting and though there are issues in Asia too, I finally feel like I’m not being interrogated. Bizarre to have my status as an American so easily accepted only when I’m not in America….

Anyway, let’s end this one on a good note:

The following weeks were a whirlwind in which we tried to soak up all family stories, events, jokes, LOTS OF PICTURES, annoyances, hugs, kisses, and experiences that we possibly could. It was fantastic, funny, sweet, annoying, exhausting and at times WAY too much but with the knowledge that the clock was ticking away there wasn’t nearly enough time with anyone. Kind of like an incredible dessert that is way too rich, but so delicious that you have to keeping eating past the point of being full because it's just that good.

Alas, it’s not possible to soak up an entire year in a few weeks, as much as we tried. We had never been so far away or felt like each interaction could be our last, although that’s always the case, isn’t it?

Going back to our new home:

Being that this was the first collective family trip back to the states since our big move, I wondered how everyone would do with the thought of having to leave again. I had this fear of a dramatic goodbye that traumatized them even more than the first time around and in which they decided that now that the mystique of the move had been lifted, they no longer cared to continue on this journey with us. As I write this, I realize how ridiculous that fear was, especially since the kids are both under 8, yet it was in the back of my mind nonetheless. How would we convince the kids to leave NY not once but twice? Would I need to whip up another deck to persuade the littlest of Team Harris?

To my surprise, no one was falling apart. The grandparents held it together for our departure and sent us on our way with big hugs and smiles this time. After almost a month of traveling, everyone was ready to go back home to Singapore. And when we finally landed in Changi (after a 18 1/2 hour flight) we all really felt like we were home again.

This time a little more comfortable with calling both the U.S. and Singapore home. More secure in our love for them both and knowing that our idea of home didn’t have to compete but was actually just growing.

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