Monday, August 24, 2009
I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson
God, it's nice to know that not all my experiences living in Germany were entirely unique.
I'm not the first person to say this, and probably not the first person to say it like this (so apologies to anyone I'm paraphrasing or unintentionally quoting), but it's true that the best way to notice, to understand, and to appreciate one's homeland is to leave it for a while.
My year abroad cannot pretend to match Bryson's twenty, but we've both had the singular experience of living abroad -- not merely traveling there, or staying for a while, but living there -- and returning home again. And while living abroad was (and will again be?) incomparably valuable to the development of my world view, of my self, of my intellect, and of my excessive collection of ticket stubs, and while I would never trade my time outside the United States for, honestly, anything, there is just something so darn special about home.
Sometimes, it takes leaving to fully realize that fact.
For me, home means ice in my drinks and free refills on my water. It means not having to think through how to say something before opening my mouth. It means people wear deodorant and change their clothes. It means the pillows are a reasonable size, and it means that customer service isn't a luxury, and if it's an inconvenience, well, that's not shown.
But just because home is special doesn't mean it's perfect. Home now also means an extreme lack of usable public transportation. It means having to tip twenty percent because servers make crap wages. It means buying food in bulk, and probably with more preservatives. It means a daily routine always threatens, because each day isn't a linguistic or cultural challenge.
Whoever said you can't ever go home again was wrong. But just like you can't step into the same river twice, home won't be the same when you come back -- because both you and home will be different. Or at least they ought to be, because living abroad and coming home isn't just for personal growth. It also means seeing the best of the world (for me, peanut butter, and for Bryson, garbage disposals) right up against some parts of the world that could, and should, be a whole lot better.
Recognizing that is one thing. Doing something about it... well, that's part of what intercultural and international exchanges -- of ideas, of people, of concepts, of worldviews -- is all about.