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Returning Home

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 3/03/2016 Lucas Spangher
PLANE WINDOW © razihusin via Getty Images PLANE WINDOW

"Are you OK, man? Where are you?"
Casey's voice piped through the speaker of my phone. All around me, a pink sunrise gleamed off of the gorgeous techno-utopia before me, lancing off the river over which I was walking and making Tokyo's immaculate spires sparkle.
Yes, everything was fine, I was safe. In a voice more emotional than usual, I said that I had just called because I was flying home in a few hours, and my first steps inside the US in nearly a year loomed. I feared the worst.
"Ah, man, I totally understand." Casey had just spent a year working in the capital of Bangladesh and had hiked with me in Nepal and Vietnam. Of course he would understand. "It's really rough. What bothers you the most?"
I said that I did not know. There was so many things.
One fear was that, so entrenched in the ivory-tower academic criticism of American society, I had used travel simply to escape white, middle-class, male guilt. Some part of me had believed that, in India, I didn't have to worry about my friend group being largely non-black. I didn't have to fear that private college was a training grounds for the elite class. I could ignore the number of security blankets against poverty I inherited merely by being born middle class. Because in America, I had power; all my actions either validated or oppressed minority groups, but figuring out which was which was almost debilitating. Was it better to be silent and let a woman speak disproportionately during a meeting? Or did this patronize her and devalue what she was actually trying to express?
In some ways, travel did help me to escape: Indian hierarchies were just so different and alien to me that I needed a few months to adjust. In those months, I was like a wide-eyed baby. I had to learn to eat and use the toilet in different ways, to speak the language, and how to greet people in the morning.
But hierarchies abounded, and I found myself at the top of even more than I was in the US. I was Western, I spoke English, I could read and write, I had the US exchange rate. My time abroad didn't magically reveal how one could perform ethical action within a hierarchy. If anything, it had muddled the intellectual progress I made. I feared the intensification of a sort of moral malaise on my return.
"I experienced that too, yeah. It was really tough in Bangladesh, because I didn't really have anyone to talk to in depth about these issues."
I reached the end of the bridge, and walked along a small, manicured, efficient park. A lady passed me, probably on her way to work. I wondered if she could tell that I had been up dancing all night, trying to send my travels off in style. Brief flashes from the night interrupted me: a drag queen bartender's peck on the cheek, a smiling fellow dancer with tattoos covering his entire upper body, dawn rising as I slurped ramen with weary new friends.
"But I think that's sorta natural no matter what you do or where you go after college. You'll lose some precision of thought on these issues, but it'll never go away entirely. And because of my time in Bangladesh, things seem more complicated everywhere I look - which is good."
I said to Casey that he was probably right. Everything was more complicated than it seemed, and sometimes, in college, we emphasize the existence of abstract structures of oppression over the experiences of actual, living people.
When I was in Singapore, I had taken a guy out on what I thought was a date. We toured the glitzy malls, shared a bubble soda, and explored his favorite library with its unique curving bookcases.
Then, when I leaned in for a kiss overlooking the Marina Bay Sands, he flinched away.
"Dude! I'm sorry man; I don't find white guys attractive, la. Ask my friends; I've never dated a white dude."
And another time, far before that, an Indian friend and I shared beers with an flirtatious girl in the Arbor Bar in Bangalore. Despite my whiteness and American accent, she ultimately whispered a romantic invitation to my friend, only.
I told Casey that I had felt prideful for a bit, but then saw these for learning experiences in disguise. I had previously worried that American imperialism had influenced a global beauty image of western-ness: whiteness, European features, beard hair, and blue eyes. While this might be true in general, people still differed as individuals and still had choice. American hegemony didn't eliminate their ability to choose from a range of partners (if free will exists to begin with, of course.) And people certainly still found happiness despite the numerous abstract constraints with which they lived.
"I see what you mean. And while we shouldn't diminish the importance of fighting against hierarchy, we also shouldn't think of individuals merely as a long label of all the various constructed social groups that they belong to."
I continued along the garden. Building after building appeared across the river bend. The taste of last night's sushi floated back to me: a beautiful, buttery tuna. The date of a Tokyo friend, a rather famous French architect who was consulting on a project here, took us to a nook of a restaurant. We had shared fresh rolls and saki.
"What else is bothering you?"
I thought for a bit. How to say it exactly? I left in part because I never quite fit in American society. I always felt a little too tall, a bit too skinny, a bit esoteric, funny but not funny enough. I left to escape this, but leaving didn't solve it. I worried that upon my return, I would know even less how to act, and feel this dearth profoundly.
"Yeah, I feel similarly. Like, I always find myself evaluating what I say and how I say it, wondering if it was right. Working in Dhaka helped me feel like I had done something really special and meaningful. However, when I came back, I felt like my life had become profoundly unmeaningful; the fact that I had traveled just kinda declined in importance steadily to everyone around me. At first, when people asked me, 'What do you do?', it was easy to work Bangladesh in there, and it was a great conversation piece. But a month or two in, it just wasn't relevant anymore unless I specifically brought it up."
I frowned. I couldn't imagine a time so close where I would stop identifying as a long term traveler. Was this reflexive? Did it Casey's travel stop mattering to himself?
"No, absolutely not. I think about Dhaka every day. The tastes, feels, and smells of Bangladesh hit me at weird times. However, more and more, I felt myself judged by American standards, by the certain metrics Americans cared about, and because I had been abroad for so long, I lost ground on those."
Over the next few months, I would come to see what he meant. There would be the random memories that would hit me viscerally: the flash of Bangkok color in a drab NYC intersection, a rush of Mumbai smell and women in saris, a sudden view from a motorcycle in Cambodia. These would accompany intense pangs of nostalgia.
But these were difficult to communicate, and people who had never traveled found it difficult to value the certain things we became accustomed to -- the skills just weren't relevant. It didn't matter that I had learned to read and write Kannada and Hindi when most people didn't even know they were languages. My shortlist of a new language's most important phrases didn't matter when I spoke the country's dominant language, nor did the private running tally of days spent Couchsurfing, the internal goal I kept of reaching the tallest point of a new city, the efficient method I had developed of packing my clothes (folding, then rolling), or the ability to handwash laundry. One of the learned abilities I valued the most -- the ability to converse for two or more hours with any person from a different country no matter our relative language skills -- would become largely useless.
Different things matter in America: American professionalism, a strong belief in American individualism, job status, adherence to a Hollywood beauty ideal. Ironically, I would find it more difficult to talk to other Americans, especially in a networking context. My grasp of American cultural subtleties and the intricate code of friendly professional language would feel degraded. I would feel rusty, all the time, and of little value to people. There would be the disastrous job interview, where I would speak proudly of taking monastic vows and of fashion modeling in Bangkok, and where my interviewers would look towards each other with cocked eye-brows and drawl,
"Well, yes, one does have to do interesting things in their 20's, I guess."
But as the sun rose over Tokyo and the first subways of the day hummed promptly along their routes, I could only anticipate these challenges in a vague way. I expressed this to Casey.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. When I returned, I think I almost overvalued the experience of our peers in the American workplace. But after speaking to many people, my opinion changed. Many people romanticize our experience just like we romanticize theirs. It helps me to realize that all experiences and metrics are relative. And I think mine will always stay with me, and I'll always feel like I've learned and grown a lot because of them."
Sure, learning that metrics are setting-specific helps us put their value in perspective. My time abroad would lead me to question groups I strove to be part of, especially my identity as a gay dude. I would see the American gay beauty standards as being circumstantial and not inherent, and would realize that the priority we put on our American gayness is not shared worldwide. Other cultures prioritize family stability more, for instance. Which was more conducive to mental stability?
"Yeah, I think I have a better handle on how to construct my own metrics for success in life. But I just miss Dhaka so much sometimes. Some of the expats I met there were just so amazing."
I had met some great people too, but there were certain travelers that I met who I never wanted to become. They had been very dissatisfied with their homelands, and they used their traveling as a crutch completely, cutting off most contact. Sometimes emotional traumas happen when one travels, and without a network back home to rely on, I felt they turned in on themselves in a weird, narcissistic way.
For instance, there was the Australian surfer in Rishikesh's ashrams who, although brilliantly friendly, would refer to herself self-reverentially as a mermaid multiple times a conversation and fixated on her infidel Israeli ex of six months.
"For three months, once, all I owned were 5 different bikinis and no shoes; what a mermaid," she told me once. "My Israeli ex saw my ass in one, and said that if he had it he would never want another. Guess he was lying."
There was the German on the pilgrimage in Myanmar who no longer could stand speaking German, and compared everything to a magical three month stay she had had in Nepal.
"Oh, ja, this Burmese noodle soup is good," she would say, "But the soup we had in Nepal was much better." At another time, she would comment, "Ja, this bus is really cheap. But the local buses in Nepal were cheaper."
Did I resemble them in some small ways? Would I resemble them as I went back to America?
Casey weighed in. "Being aware of this danger is the first step to combating it. I definitely considered myself an authority on Bangladesh. I love talking about it, and I keep up with the daily news. But my American friends just don't care. They humor me, sometimes, and let me talk, but they don't really care. The more I thought about it, the more I found it imperialistic when one takes possession of the place that they spend significant time in. So I try to limit myself."
I had seen place-ownership across my travels in varying ways too. My hosts in Palestine and Jordan jumped in to display their Arabic in situations. Here in Tokyo, an American host even told me he felt "more Tokyo" than me after living there for a year.
I reminded myself that this was a danger: it closes one off to learning more about their chosen place, alienates them from other travelers, and it's, simply, wrong. Even though I spent a year in India, my knowledge of its workings could not compare to one who was raised there. Moreover, my view of America did not encapsulate all that America was. Someone who was raised in deep Appalachia would have an entirely different set of experiences and values than me.
"I think you're right. I also think that many of the ways you have grown you may never know. Just trust that they're there."
I had learned a lot while abroad. I had learned the incredible privilege we have speaking English as a native language, the joy of unique experiences, the wonderful, almost revolutionary joy of feeling as though the time I spent was truly and utterly my own. I would come back to mental hardship, the unnerving feeling of drifting, loneliness and the feeling of intense otherness, the envy of working friends, and the wondering, the constant wondering, of whether or not the professional sacrifice I had made was worth it. Writing this months later, I still don't know.
My phone vibrated with a reminder alarm. It was time to go to the airport. The last of the morning mist had died away, and Tokyo rush hour was beginning.
I thanked Casey profusely, took a deep breath, and took the first few steps towards my plane home.

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