Settled: Chronic Homesickness and Moving Back After Two Years Abroad

It’s been three weeks since we arrived in America and it feels more like 3 months because of all we’ve crammed into those 21 days.

“Are you all settled in?” people ask.

Am I settled? I’ve unpacked. I’ve decorated. I’ve figured out where the bank is and the grocery store and the closest Chinese takeout place. Is that settled?

“You must be so glad to be home!” they say.

Glad. Yes, I suppose I am. I was glad to see my family and my in-laws. Glad to reconnect with old friends. Glad to have a car and the ability to drive where I want whenever I want to. I’m glad to have more space and glad for an apartment with central air conditioning. I’m glad to be surrounded with our old things and glad to have our cats back in our home. Glad to start making new friends and building a new community. But glad to be Home? I don’t even know what that means.

I crave Home like water. Like air. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn my head it fades like smoke in the night, leaving only a shadowy outline where it may have been. I’m unsure of its shape, much less its substance.

In Korea I was homesick for my family and for America. In America, I’m homesick for my family and for Korea. I’m comfortable here, and yet, I’m homesick. And who says I can’t be both?

I miss the river and the mountains and the park by our house. I miss life in a city and the energy of downtown and the ease of the subway and how completely safe I always felt in spite of all the people. I miss my friends and I miss the luxury of two full-time incomes and how little we had to worry about paying for groceries or going out to dinner. It takes my breath away, how much I miss it. While in Korea I thought of America as Home and yet I’m realizing that on a subconscious, maybe even visceral level, Korea is Home as well.

Last week I went to Publix, a local grocery chain I’d never been to before. I walked along the aisles of produce and marveled at the abundance, the novelty of such easy access to foods both familiar and foreign. I stopped in front of a cold case of artichokes, green beans, and asparagus. I picked up a bundle of asparagus, felt the weight of it in my hand – succulent green stalks with their knobby purplish heads that I can never look at without thinking of Junior the Asparagus from Veggie Tales. It wasn’t until the man stocking produce asked if I was OK that I realized I was crying.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m OK.” Embarrassed, I put the asparagus back and wandered down another aisle where I was assaulted by an overwhelming 10 varieties of Oreos. I left without buying anything.

Science tells us that adaptation is crucial to survival. We bend and change and mold ourselves into new shapes, learn to breathe the air and drink the water of a new environment. But I can only bend so far and sometimes I think I’ll never quite fit this mold again, although it once fit me like a glove. I feel stretched thin, spread across cities and continents, straddling an ever widening gap between the world I’ve loved for the past few years and the world I’m trying to love now.

I don’t know if Home is here or there or if I will ever stop feeling homesick for some other unnamable place, but I do know this: Who I am and Where I am are not the same thing, but they are connected. Who I am is a work-in-progress. Who I am has been shaped by Louisiana and Chicago and Raleigh and Korea, and now it’s being shaped by Columbia.

Maybe I’ll never truly feel settled, but I will always know where I’ve been and who I am because of those places. Here’s to the next stage of becoming.

When You Feel You Don’t Belong

I moved out of my parents home when I was 18-years old. I left my life in Louisiana and headed off to college outside of Chicago. Other than for a few months the summer after my freshman year, I never lived at home again.

When I left home my sisters were 13 and 11. My parents were in their mid-40’s, and known for being the strictest parents among the other students in my graduating class. My grandparents were building a house next door to my family’s house. My brother was 25, still newly-returned from deployment in Iraq.

I started college and I grew and changed at an almost alarming rate, absorbing everything around me, then cracking off the shell of myself like an insect shedding its exoskeleton again and again, crawling out of my old self, growing into something new that seemed to have only just solidified when I burst through it again. Through the end of my teens and the beginning of my twenties my opinions on almost everything changed. Sometimes more than once. I learned different ways of thinking and acting. Different ways of handling conflict and disagreement. Ways that I could love better and more truly. And ways that I was deeply flawed and broken. I am still learning these things, but at the time all of this was accelerated by my environment. I was surrounded by good people who were different than me, challenging my mind and my heart in a million ways.

I lived far away from my family during all this change, but I was still tethered to them. I grew into adulthood and falteringly learned to have respectful disagreements with my parents. I learned to give words to feelings I hadn’t been able to express in my silent and submissive teenage years. I tried to know my sisters even as they became unknowable to us all, draping themselves in this or that garment of adolescence. Trying on identities the same way we tried on ball gowns together in the JC Penney’s dressing room when I came home each Christmas. I felt tethered to them when my grandparents moved into the house next door and became an everyday part of their lives. I felt tethered when we lost my brother to shadows for a time, flying home from school, waking my mom up to surprise her and crawling into bed with her so we could cry together.

And then I was in love and there was a glow around everything, and my sisters didn’t understand what was so special about this, why I was so serious about him, why I wanted to get married so young, how I could possibly know he was “the one.” My parents were cautious, but kind, and my heart broke open to let in a new love and I started the halting process of bringing someone new into our family.

All of these changes came and yet, to me, my family was constant. Seeing me change and accepting who I was now. And now. And now. But in these last few years since I’ve taken this bearded man’s name as my own and tried to learn how to build a home big enough for just him and me – and also, all of his family and all of mine (because we never truly go into marriage alone)- these last few years I’ve felt my family changing too- becoming people I no longer know.

I visited my parent’s house last spring for my youngest sister’s high school graduation. I felt like I was in a house full of strangers. My parents’ bodies are fit and strong, toned from the hard workouts and clean diets of people I don’t recognize. My sisters are women now – something that, to me, has happened breathtakingly fast, in the mere month’s worth of days I’ve spent with them over the past few years. My brother is 32. He owns a gym that my parents go to every day and has a kindergartner who runs around catching frogs and calling him, ‘Dad.’ My grandfather has somehow begun to look frail inside of his large frame, and though my grandmother is as beautiful as ever, I can see that the death of her sister last year has marked her, made her more aware of life’s fragility. Both of my sisters and my mother are in college now. My mother is chasing a dream she gave up for us long ago. And my father has relaxed into life – without the responsibility of raising children, he has found less use for his stern face and loud voice and has more time for laughing. He has mellowed, less concerned with being right and more concerned with loving well.

My family is beautiful and yet, it’s a family I can no longer find my place in. They have changed and I have changed, but they have changed together, in each others’ presence, and in some of the same ways. They have grown together. And I have grown apart. They speak a language I can’t understand. My parents aren’t the people I grew up knowing. In many ways, they are better people. I don’t begrudge them that, but they still feel like strangers to me walking around inside my parents’ skin.

Somehow, I failed to understand that my family, particularly my parents, could change too -that I wasn’t the only one. I was unprepared and, oh, how this has hurt me. Awakening to find myself outside of the one place I always felt I belonged. But they are still my family. They are the ones who loved me when I dressed up like Laura Ingalls Wilder ever day for a year or more. They are the ones who reserved judgment when I totaled my mom’s car 3 days after I got my license. They are the ones who didn’t laugh when I accidentally dyed my hair green. The ones who cheered for me when I graduated from college and danced with me at my wedding. The ones who send me care packages in South Korea, even though it costs a fortune to mail them.

They are my family. For years, they shifted around me, making room for me in all my various forms. Maybe now I am the one who needs to shift. To get to know who they are now, and find out if there’s still a place for me. If there’s somewhere I might fit. If I can still belong.


Sorry that this is a picture of a picture, but I didn’t have anything recent and digital where we were all together.