Everything looks familiar, but I feel like an alien. Like I’ve been turned inside out, so my lungs and nerves and liver and intestines are on the outside, and my skin on the inside is rendered a useless organ–sheltering nothing and sweating and goosebumping all over itself.
I sit in a cafe in the health food store in my hometown, that I have been frequenting with my mother since I was three years old. Before I could read, I used to walk around and smell the whole grains and fresh produce and no-sugar-added juices and spritzers. My favorite treats of all time with carob-covered rice cakes, because I didn’t even know chocolate existed. Then came honey sticks– little straw-like tubes full of flavored honey, and black and red “Panda” brand licorice. Later when I discovered chocolate, there were Tiger’s Milk Bars: a light chocolate coating over a nutritious, protein-filled peanut butter interior.
Now I sit at a booth, a recent addition to the cafe of 5 to 10 years ago, with a cup of coffee and a carob-covered rice cake. I used to have Proustian flashbacks of nostalgic childhood memories when I bit into these; today, it tastes slightly stale and waxy. The coffee is lukewarm.
Why does nothing measure up to my memory of it? The menu is in English, not Chinese, Japanese, Malay, or Vietnamese, but I don’t comprehend it. How is a small cup of soup $8.25 USD??
On the left side of the wall, even the First Aid for Choking sign has been re-vamped, refurbished. Now the people choking and saving one another are rendered in full color, and the instructions for how to save lives are more detailed. But it is illegible from more than 10 feet away, whereas the old CPR signs that were required in restaurants in the 1990s were full of huge line drawings of the intricacies of the Heimlich maneuver. I used to study them as a child, preparing myself for the inevitable moment when I would be called upon to save a life. As a 10-year-old. Of course this was perfectly logical to me back then.
Being back in America, from a year living in Asia, is weird. But being back in my small and beautiful but cloyingly intimate seaside resort hometown is unimaginably stifling. I had no idea it would be like this. I feel smothered by the 25 years of memories tucked into every crevice of this place, by the heartache and resentment and despair and fear and desperation I used to feel here as a teenager. My mantra from ages 13-18 was “Get Me Out of Here.” So to be back, with only sketchy plans to go to NYC, only flimsy job leads, little to no savings to speak of and no immediate employment prospects (in the middle of a recession) is TERRIFYING.
But then I think: it was all worth it for the amazing year I’ve just had.
I gulp down my now cold coffee and think with a secret smile of Taiwan, of speaking Chinese, of the food, of the people there who I accidentally grew to love. Of my Liao family– of Aunt Margaret and Uncle Suho and the deluge of family history and political turmoil and personal wellspring of life that I discovered.
Platitudes like “amazing,” “awesome,” “transformative,” “productive,” and “informative” tumble out of my mouth in conversations with strangers, friends, and family– and I kick myself later for not digging deeper, for not being more specific. For not offering anecdotal evidence of how I have completely evolved and transformed and deepened my endurance and capacity for and potential to love and learn and survive and thrive.
I long desperately to somehow prove that the year was worth it– to show people my mosquito bite scars, to carve out a piece of my heart and say, LOOK!!!, Look how finding answers about my half-Asian identity has filled the gaping hole that had always splintered my heart into so many more than four chambers.
Words fail me– frustratingly, as usual– in conversations, but I also sense that no one is quite prepared or willing or interested enough to say, “Tell me HOW your spleen was ripped out and stuffed full of intangibly wonderful and difficult and at times humiliating but mostly exhilarating experiences.” What I really want to do is whip out a syringe and a collection tube and siphon out a little blood from a vein in my arm. Then hold it up and say, “Look! My blood is a different color than it used to be! This is how deeply and cosmically and thoroughly this year of living abroad and research and self-identity quest has affected me.”
But instead, I typically tell a few funny stories about foods I’ve eaten (accidentally and on purpose), places I’ve been, the convenience of the Taiwan 7-11, the views of the beautiful natural scenery, the brutality of the White Terror period and the intensity of visiting the former prison island where my uncle was sentenced to serve for eight years. How many great friends I made, how to say “the best food I ever ate!” or some other phrase in Chinese.
Being back is weird. Everyone who’s ever gone away has had to come back, and maybe experienced similar symptoms–unless they decided not to return. I’m not sure which is harder, staying away or coming home. But until someone invents a blood-color-samples-to-show-how-much-I’ve-changed scrapbooking kit, I’ll have to keep trying and failing to describe the depth of my experience.
On that note, want to see 350+ facebook photos of my amazing adventure in Asia?? It’s okay, I know you probably already looked, even if you’d never admit it.