Culture Shock.

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Thoughts on America, after being away for so long.

First are the people. One of the best parts of being so transient over the years has been all of the spectacularly amazing people I’ve been so fortunate to meet. One of the worst parts is the sheer number of them. I’m profoundly grateful for those who let me pop in and out of their lives monthly, annually, even every few years. We’ll have a drink or a meal and a long conversation, and I’m happy to know they are here on this earth. But I get tired of answering the question, “What have you been up to this year?” The number of people who know the answer to that has shrunk dramatically since January. I’m struck by the need to make a concentrated effort at connection, but aside from a few obvious choices it’s hard to know where to begin. Do I make a list? Do I let things happen naturally? Naturally, I’ve always struggled to recognize the existence of anyone not in my vicinity, the world outside my immediate experience reads as a dream. From here Uganda is an imaginary place that haunts my thoughts.

I feel detached from everything. I sit in rooms full of friends, rooms full of Christmas gifts, rooms full of delicious food, and my mind is somewhere else. There are flashes of connection to reality; making pizza sauce in my sister’s kitchen, standing in the canyon with a borrowed dog’s leash in my hand, playing Apples to Apples, the taste of farmer’s market strawberries. These moments stand out in my mind as “things that actually happened.” The rest feels like navigating a ghost world. I am not really here. None of this is really here.

Perhaps part of the reason for this disconnect is just culture shock. I don’t see the world the way I used to, the way people around me see it, and it’s hard to follow conversations, sometimes.  I smile and nod. I wonder if it’ll always be this way, if I’ll always struggle to connect to this old way of thinking. Will the sentiment fade with enough time back home? Do I want it to fade?

I’ve always struggled to answer the question, “where are you from?”, but I realized last week that San Diego feels more like home than any place I’ve ever known. My old house is still there, changed and yet somehow the same. It still feels familiar with new people and new furniture. Most of my roommates are gone, but I remember them so clearly when I’m there that it feels as if they might walk through the door at any moment. And there is a strange little camaraderie that has developed in my creative community there, and that is where I often wish to be when I’m feeling homesick. In a year, there are a few small changes; new shops, new people, but most things are just as I left them. The time-warp feeling and these small changes make it feel like stepping into an alternate universe. I rode a borrowed bicycle down wide-paved hilly streets and saw downtown and the ocean on one side, the mountains on the other. I miss being able to orient myself so easily, to know which way is north. I know the shops there, I know the food, I know the streets. I often found myself standing in the canyons with my eyes closed, as if trying to burn the familiar smells permanently into my mind. There’s a spice in the air; pepper trees, sage, eucalyptus, and some mysterious sweet. Part of me sees how easy it would be to slip back into a life there at the beginning of 2015. But I can also see the ways in which my life would look exactly the same as before, and this seems a disservice to the years spent living abroad. Those years demand something new.

At this point, the something new seems overwhelming. Thus far life has always been thrust at me. Move here, do this. When a void presents itself something has always stepped in to fill it. I accept these opportunities not because those choices are rooted in any sort of personal fulfillment, but because I don’t know what else to do with myself. I get the impression that my next move on the board is going to be entirely up to me, and I’m struggling to decide what it should be. Best not think about the future, then. I’m thinking over Uganda, all the little things that accumulate and make life slightly harder than it needs to be. This seems a better way to fill the hours than staring into the void of someday. I spent two days stitching a bag that’s big enough to fit a motorcycle helmet and all of my things for work. It’s leather and aside from a few misguided stitches it looks store-bought. This is my magnum opus in the tailoring world. The hum of the sewing machine layered over the quiet of this high-desert house stills my churning mind.

I dyed my hair black yesterday, on a whim. An external representation of the recognition that something is about to change. I just don’t know how, yet. It has to, though. 2013 was a hard year, full of the challenges of living abroad and facing the reality that things are not going to go quite like I’d always hoped. I’m grateful for the adventurous punctuations; Jinja and the Nile, safaris, treks through Mabira forest. These soften the blow of internal upheaval and balance out the lows. The world is a remarkable place and for all the chaos I’m also drinking in the sights and smells and sounds.

<adapted from a letter to a friend>