Coming “Home”

What I hope is the hardest part of our journey to the States (leaving Manu’a) is over. We still have a week left on the main island to tie-up loose ends, buy those impulsive souvenirs, and prepare for our repatriation.

I’m thankful that we have these two weeks in Tutuila before we leave for the States to focus on re-entry. Tutuila is a small island, too, but it is far larger and far more developed than Manu’a. In some ways, being here is like being in another country entirely. There are big all-in-one stores, side roads, too many cars, countless restaurants, thousands of people, and a whole lot of noise. The other day we were in Forsgren’s (which is kind of like an old Walmart–how they were before everything got “super”), looking at a huge selection of vitamins, and all I could think was that Tutuila is just like America. Here in Tutu’ila, we can have salad and V8 and hot showers and two-ply toilet paper and internet-at-home. But we still have to pay $9 for a head of iceberg lettuce; we still have to be aware, vigilant even!, of the terrifying feral dogs everywhere. It’s a perfect transitional phase: two weeks on an island that is somehow neither and both American and Samoan.

I have been reading The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti to help me prepare for our transition back (thanks, Alison!). The first chapter addresses the ways in which home, by its very definition, is no longer home at all–and all the disappointment and disillusionment that come with such a realization.

Home [is] the place where you belong and feel safe and secure and where you can accordingly trust your instincts, relax, and be yourself…the place where you feel “at home.”[…] This place you have arrived in can become home again, even as it once was before you went abroad, but in the meantime it will feel very much like a foreign country.

Despite the excitement and joy I feel about returning to Georgia, there is a sense of dread, of uncertainty, clinging to me; it is not unlike the feeling I had when I first came here three years ago. (All that self-doubt and overconfidence swirling around inside–are we really going to do this? what if it sucks? what if i’m just terrible at my job? what if there are spiders?! oh my gosh this is going to be awesome!)

Some of the reverse culture shock can be anticipated–I have experienced it here in Tutu’ila, in NZ on Christmas breaks, and every summer when we’ve been in the States. The book warns that home visits are not really small glimpses into repatriation, though, and I’m trying to prepare for that. Yes, the stores have an amazing selection of vegetables. Yes, the pace of life is much faster. Yes, being on time is important. All of those things are understood and processed easily enough. What I’m more afraid of are the larger distinctions between this culture in which I’ve become so enmeshed, and the culture in which I spent the first 27 years of my life. I’m afraid of the materialism and the waste. I’m afraid of the pervasive technology. I’m afraid of the go go go, the not having time to talk, the not knowing the neighbors, the oh-so-direct communication, the complaining, the excess, the emphasis on perfection, the stranger danger, etc.

Storti makes a distinction between people who have enjoyed a typical ex-pat lifestyle abroad (company car, household help, tight-knit community of expats) and international volunteers or service-oriented expats, who are more likely (by necessity) to become immersed in the local community and culture. I think we fall somewhere in the middle as far as comforts go–we did have a TV after all. But we have made every effort over the years to become as involved in the community as we could. We have worked hard toward a deeper relationship with our neighbors and students, a deeper understanding of the fa’asamoa. I never stopped to consider that one day I’d have to stop diving deeper and swim back up to the surface. It seems so abrupt, like I finally figured out how to live here and now we’re leaving.

Needless to say, for these volunteers the foreign culture becomes home in a much more profound way than it does for the typical expatriate, who normally lives much more on the periphery of the local culture. And the readjustment to their real home, therefore, is likewise much more intense.

This book lists a few of the particular challenges that returnees face, including the shock of abundance and excess materials, the unappreciative attitudes, and the quick pace of life. (All things I’m worried about!) and ways to adjust more smoothly back to your home culture. He gives a particular word of warning for those who, like us, have become more involved in their host community/culture:

You will probably want to give yourself more time to readjust than typical expatriates, and you should also take special care not to be too hard on your compatriots or your home country. After all, you used to like these people and this place, so you can probably learn to do so again, if you’re patient. And patience, God knows, is the one thing you surely must have learned when you were overseas.

He couldn’t be more right about that last part. Just a quick example: in order for the local government to complete my returning travel arrangements and exit clearances, we were given an exit form to take to every gov’t office in Tutu’ila and have signed. It’s basically just a form saying we don’t owe any money. So, our friend let us borrow her truck and we spent about 5 hours one morning running all over this island to get our signatures (hospital, tax office, water, electric, phone, development bank, police station, etc etc etc). We finally bring our completed exit form in to the personnel office (so incredibly stoked that we were able to get it done in one day!) and just as the woman is finishing everything up for us, she turns to The Beard and asks “Where’s yours?” The gave ME a form, but not my spouse. So we had to do it all again. (This is all very funny now, just days later, but at the time it was not funny at all. Not at all.)

So yea, we’ve got a bit more patience than we had before. But I’d like to ask our friends and family back home to be patient with us, too. In addition to the weird reverse culture shock adjustment stuff, we will be going through a lot of other changes. Jet lag, career changes, moving house, etc.

We will be home next week. To be honest I’m already a little overwhelmed by the requests for face-to-face time. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had actual hang-out plans with friends in the last year, and usually those are made very last-minute. Now we’re struggling to schedule weekends in July and August and I’m just so amazed that you guys already know what you are going to be doing then. I still feel hesitant about telling people the date of our return flight, just in case, ya know, the plane doesn’t come.

So, please, have patience with us. We want to see you, but it may not be right away. Just give us a few days to adjust. We want to get to know you guys again, to rekindle all those awesome friendships, to admire your Dominion skills, to hear about your new job, to meet your new spouse and/or kids, to check out your new place, to break more than a few loaves of bread with you. We really do. Forgive us when and if we are weird or awkwardly quiet or overwhelmed. And please, if we talk too much about Manu’a, tell us to stop.

About Cat Q.

For three years, I lived on a tiny little island in the South Pacific called Ta'u, where I taught elementary and high school English. Much of this blog is a chronicle of my time there, and of the travels we were able to do while we were on that side of the world. Now, I'm doing a different kind of travelling in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia with my husband and two children.
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2 Responses to Coming “Home”

  1. Tim says:

    Just be yourself and take it one day at the time. Worrying will not change things, and it’s a total waste of energy. :-) Be safe.

  2. Sasha says:

    I was only home for 2 days, but the thing that hit me the hardest was how impatient everyone was. I went to Target, and something was wrong with the cash registers so it took twice as long to get through the line. Everyone was complaining and arguing, and we were all given $5 coupons for our trouble… I was just amazed that I could buy so many things, all in one place! I went out to eat with my parents, and they kept complaining how slow the service was- I didn’t even notice, it seemed totally fine to me. I feel like now that I’m back, that patience in a slower pace is one of the things I most hope I get to keep.

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