new beginnings

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.

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