10 years ago this month I moved to the US. I wanted to write a bit of a summary about what it’s been like, being away from home for a decade. Nothing more.
The pain of leaving home comes in waves. It starts with a big wave of fear and foreignness, mixed in with some excitement, like before any trip. With a feeling that you fell out of your world into a parallel one. Like you stepped into a movie. A part of you feels like you’re just on a very long vacation, but you have a growing knot in your stomach that says “this is what life is now.”
This wave hits you when you try to order something at a restaurant and have to repeat yourself 3 times. You feel so sorry for the waiter who’s being so nice about it but is still completely unable to understand you despite their best efforts. It hits when you don’t know how to get a cellphone or bank account or where to buy anything and you don’t understand why there are special stores for wine but you can get beer at the grocery store. It hits you, hard, when your family back home gathers for a holiday dinner that you used to dread, and they call you when it’s still the middle of the day on your side of the world. And you step away from work or school or whatever it is you’re doing here and try to pretend like it’s the same as being there. It hits when you listen to songs you used to love from back home and no one around you knows them, although you can swear they are so famous.
Before moving you thought your English was great, but you find yourself constantly on edge, trying to make sure you’re not missing anything. Conversations are exhausting, you usually just try to keep up, but when you try to participate you can feel the thinness of your vocabulary shrinking your personality. You stick to words you know and can pronounce well and try to mold yourself into this new, uncomfortable, limiting language. You can see people are uneasy talking to you. They need to speak slowly, carefully, sometimes they have to repeat or rephrase themselves, and you feel sorry for being a hassle. You worry that they’ll think you’re dumb. You plan out every word in every sentence you want to say before you start talking.
You keep trying to put the key upside down into the lock in your front door because locks are upside down where you’re from. You find one grocery store that carries a food that’s considered a staple in your country. You get excited and buy a bunch of it although it’s so expensive. You go home and find out it doesn’t taste good. You don’t understand why Americans put mayonnaise in everything. You feel homesick, actually physically sick, every few weeks or days or hours.
Eventually you find that people do the same general things here as they did there. They work and go to school and eat dinner and drink coffee, but there’s something just a little off about how they do it. It’s foreign and exciting and strange. You compare everything to “back home”. You say “well, where I’m from we do this…” or “we have that” at least once a day. You worry about people getting bored of hearing about this place you’re from that has no bearing on their lives, but you can’t help yourself.
And then you start getting used to it. You never think you would, but you do. You start developing new habits and rituals, you have a coffee shop where they know you, you have friends from places like Massachusetts and Connecticut and Arkansas and you practiced pronouncing those words enough times that you almost don’t have to pause in preparation before trying to say them. You learn local slang and cultural references and stereotypes, and you can repeat them back to people and they almost can’t tell you’re not from here.
And then you go home, and suddenly you feel a little foreign there too. It’s so unbelievably obvious and so very true. Back home they don’t know those new references you’ve picked up and you’re not sure if you should say your American friends’ names in your American accent or your real accent. You miss some of the comforts and habits of your new home. People want to hear stories about your life but everything you say about it sounds hollow and not real and just so incredibly far.
In some ways, you do feel at home. The view from the car on the way home from the airport, having dinner with your family around the same table as when you were a kid, lazy Friday mornings at home, the food. Always the food. The smell of the air right as you get out of the plane is so familiar it’s overwhelming (for me it smells like humidity and salt, like olives and my parents’ laundry detergent. Like the beach and gas stations and pine trees and fresh challah). You try not to regress into an old version of yourself, although you wonder if it might actually be the better version.
And sometimes you think maybe you broke something. Maybe you broke something that you can’t fix. Maybe you split yourself in half and planted yourself twice and now home is here and home is there and you can’t be in both places at the same time. But you realize that the world is not going to pull itself closer just for you. People in your new home will always think of your foreignness as a funny little piece of trivia about you, and people in your old home will always struggle to visualize your new life in this far away place.
You try to maintain some version of a full life both here and there, go back and forth often enough that it almost seems like you actually are in both places at once. Have family here and family there, friends here and friends there, home here and home there. Surprisingly, it doesn’t really work. You make your parents so sad every time you leave. You miss birthdays. And weddings. And funerals. And Saturday morning coffees on the porch. You get passed around on an iPhone in family events in a video call on Skype or WhatsApp or FaceTime or whatever app you use to make you feel like you’re right there. And there’s always some problem, you can’t hear them or they can’t hear you or the line drops and it’s 2019 goddammit how have we not figured this out yet.
You inevitably end up realizing that the small nuances of where you grew up have to be translated into broader and broader strokes the further you get from your home. People who live in New York know about the subtlest differences between the East Village and the West Village, Murray Hill and Midtown East, Crown Heights and Prospect Heights. They can discuss the impact of that new Whole Foods in Williamsburg and the one street that still doesn’t have enough street lights. They have a totally different opinion of you depending on which side of the Hudson river you’re from or if you get off the C at 81st street or 96th.
But you have to try to communicate your home and the first how many ever decades of your life in the most general of terms, and it makes you cringe every time. It’s no one’s fault, you’re from a small place that’s so far away, why would anyone know about it. So you come up with some digestible one-liners, “oh, about 30 minutes north of this big city”, or “yeah, right between that big city and the other”, and “not exactly a suburb, but I wouldn’t say rural, something in the middle.’’ And people are generally okay with that and every time you repeat that sound byte you feel like you’re lying.
And you feel like such a cliche. Yes, you feel uprooted. Yes, you feel not fully yourself in either place. Yes, you’re torn. It’s all so obvious and basic and true and you feel almost silly for letting it happen to you.
And suddenly you look 10 years back and realize you never really made the decision to leave. Life somehow happened around you and now you have history in this place and you’re not sure if you could ever undo your non-decision.
But overall, you don’t feel so foreign anymore. You don’t get homesick quite as often. Sometimes, for a few moments, you forget that you’re not from here. Sometimes people ask you where you’re from and they mean which state. You don’t feel like you make everyone uncomfortable merely by being anymore, people don’t seem quite so nervous talking to you. You have your own style, personality, your own way of being in English. You dream in English. When you go back home you feel a bit like a tourist.
There’s obvious comfort in that, in finally feeling like you belong here. But it’s also when you realize that this has been your life, not a vacation, not an adventure, just your actual life. When you realize you can’t just buy a one-way ticket back and everything will go back to normal. When you realize that going back, if you ever did choose to do that, would probably be as painful and difficult as moving here was, some 10 years ago. And that one day, not too far in the future, you will have to admit that you’ve lived here longer than you did there, and this thing that defines you so much will just keep taking up less and less space in who you are and how people see you. That your kids, if you ever did choose to have them, would pretty much just be American, with a little fun fact about how their parent was a first-generation immigrant.
And you come to terms with it all, somehow. Because, as much as you resent that fact, you can only live one life at a time. You have spent the last 10 years of your life here, and hopefully you don’t regret it. You found enough of a home, developed a version of yourself you like enough. And although your otherness might become less noticeable, you keep bringing it up and can’t help yourself from still constantly thinking about it.
“Well, where I’m from we do this”. “Back home we have that”.
* My story is one of the easy ones, a best-case-scenario kind of immigration (for many reasons). This post is just about being away from home, without talking about any of the legal, social, and financial challenges so many immigrants face. If you’re able, please consider donating to an immigrants’ rights organization, like the Immigrant Defense Project or the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.