During the 24 hour flight back to Thailand from my holiday visit home in the States, I had a jarring identity crisis. It’s possible this was caused by some combination of claustrophobia, jet lag, or the dangerous combination of drinking coffee and wine simultaneously, but personally, I blame the inflight slippers.
On the second leg of my flight back to Bangkok, a Korean woman on my left asked me how to work the seat belt. With a haughty chuckle I showed her and wrote it off to a funny coincidence. However, almost immediately after that a young American woman on my right asked what the inflight slippers were. On my way home from a trip full of culture shock, this is when I realized seat 44E might be the closest thing I had to a home.
When I left home for Southeast Asia, my dream wasn’t to see everything the region had to offer; my dream was to stay long enough to become a local. I wanted everything Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig preached. Trials, tribulations, cultural knowledge, true loneliness, the whole kit and caboodle.
Well, I’ve lived in Thailand for more than two years now, and I still manage to occasionally thank food vendors with a thoughtless “gracias” or leave my shoes on when entering offices and shops. Truth is, you can speak the language, master social norms, cook the food, do everything that makes you look like a local on the outside, but you’ll never be a native.
It was hard to come to terms with that for me. I think I realized it when the national news ran with a story of a Thai national who looked foreign being repeatedly for rejected services reserved for citizens. Although, by that point I had a Thai girlfriend, a (very) small business of my own, and several months of language education to convince me that maybe I had found other reasons to stay.
About a week before Christmas day, I took the long journey home to spend the holidays with my family. The flight went by quickly and easily and I continue to question why everyone seems so bothered by air travel.
During my layover in Seattle, I grabbed one of the things I missed most about home: a Pacific Northwest microbrew. Sitting in the airport bar, trying to savor my first quality beer in almost a year, I began to feel more and more unsettled. There were so many things to take in all at once. More English was being spoken within earshot at that moment than I had probably heard in all of the previous month, people were wearing clothes and haircuts that I couldn’t recognize, and strangers were asking me which beer I had ordered and how it was.
I felt overwhelmed and confused — like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room, but I was the only one who noticed. Being a backpacker, I had read a handful of blog posts about what it feels like to come home after prolonged travel, but nothing prepared me for the anxiety of feeling like a foreigner in my own home. It’s like waking up from a tense dream only to find everything looked different than when you went to sleep.
Hometown Language Barriers
I spent most of the time at home, catching up with friends, seeing homes they’d bought, spouses they’d married and children they’d added to those new homes and new families. They asked about life in Thailand, and I tried to paint an accurate picture of beautiful temples and flooded freeways. Most of them hadn’t spent a lot of time abroad and we were mostly speaking different languages to each other.
I made a spectacle of myself by occasionally bowing to extremely confused strangers and responding in a language that must have sounded like a Kanye West album played backwards. I could only handle a certain amount of social and English interaction before feeling overwhelmed and retreating inside my shell. Swap out the English for Thai, and it was the same as my first few months in Thailand — only my hometown was the foreign land now.
All those articles I read about being an expat on a trip home seemed desperate, scared and lonely. But on my flight back to Thailand, when I realized that seat 44E made more sense to me than Bangkok or Portland. I felt content.
I had left home looking to experience more of the world than a two week vacation could afford, warts and all. Traveling does strange things to our lives. That’s why most choose the trials and tribulations of mortgages and diapers over language barriers and mystery meals. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with either, but don’t let those blog posts everyone shares on Facebook deter you—inflight slippers and homelessness are a lot better than they sound.