I love to travel. That much won’t be news to anyone who knows me, or has read this blog. What may come as a surprise is that, in the most literal sense, I also love the process of travel. Bustling airport terminals, never-ending plane rides, rectangular trays of airline food (minus the rage-inducing plasticware). Nevertheless, there is a point on every return trip that I dread, when the reverse culture shock kicks in and when I realize that the adventure is over: the American domestic terminal.
Those first few steps past customs can be isolating and disorienting, even if colored with a modicum of relief.
Until this point, you have something in common with all the strangers surrounding you. International travel–exciting, uncomfortable, perhaps even mind-altering–forges a common bond. But more than that, the shared experience of life in the same city brings you together. Even the tiny things reflect converging worlds, a sense of camaraderie and understanding. At the Cape Town International Airport, we could hold a conference about Stoney Ginger Beer, the best way to braai, and the pros and cons of Wellington Sweet Chili Sauce.
In Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 3, however, there is no one who I can nudge to communicate my appreciation of my first cup of Starbucks coffee in over a year. I try to share with the barista, but receive no more than a blank look in response. I pause in a row of seats with cold metal armrests to try and figure out what day it is, what time it is, and why am I so tired? My neighbors–the airport requisite one seat interval between us–do not seem to have the same problem. The airline asks me to take a bump. I explain that I will need to use their phone to inform my ride. The attendant stares in disbelief: how can you be traveling, yet not have a phone? “It’s in South Africa, with the rest of my life!” I irrationally want to shout at her.
But that’s too forceful, of course. And untrue. Home is glorious in its familiarity. Family that loves you. Old, comfortable relationships. Places of (personal) historical significance. The food and drink your taste buds were raised on. The morning newspaper which looks the same as it has for twenty years. The sports teams you grew up cheering for. Even old clothing you forgot you owned. Re-acquainting is joyful.
Yet, it can be a bit lonely when your world is different. It is always with mixed emotions that I return home. I have changed. Home has changed.
In addition to relational isolation, returning home also involves, preeminently, a broader cultural disorientation. Whereas on one hand, previously harmonized mates struggle to understand your context, on the other hand, it is more complicated to understand the now estranged cultural milieu.
Contemplating my relationship with home, the old break-up standard enters my head: “It’s not you, it’s me.” And with that in mind, I refer you to Sarah Menkedick’s reflections on her recent homecoming, Encounters With Ex-Boyfriends, in which she compares the United States with a former lover. Bracing myself against that icy metal in a bustling O’Hare terminal, trying to figure out where all the snow came from, Menkedick’s article helped structure some of my beleaguered emotions. If you get a break from your eggnog, give it a look…