Once my mom gave way to her sadness, my reaction was inevitable and overcame me like an immersive hot flash. The twitching feeling in my lips, the hot tears welling up and reddening cheeks. I turned away quickly before they could see me fray into a blubbering mess. I kept myself composed, said a simple “goodbye” and walked tall towards the departures counter.
My big ideas about the world collide with myself as I prepare for a quick, visceral goodbye at the airport. We never linger too long for these separations, maybe because it’s too heartbreaking to rupture ties, and maybe because I don’t like to meet that side of myself often.
I adore home but I also adore being away, that’s the paradox. In fact, the only thing I love more than being home is leaving it.
Walking away from the two people I love most – my mom and my brother – my feeble attempts at hiding my twitching smile fail. The man at the United counter smiles broadly at me, flagging me in with a wink since this is probably something he sees often. He took care of me as I choked back tears and stood next to my whole life in two suitcases, trying so hard to stay composed. He disregarded my overweight baggage and sent me along my way, even giving me an upgraded seat and a box of tissues. There it was, another departure, another journey away from the home that treats me so well. The overly kind Texan strangers, the friends and family who keep me anchored can’t join me on the trips I need to take.
The idea of home gets reassessed every time I take off on my cramped economy seat, and yet again when jet lag and groggy enthusiasm set in for what’s to come. This time, my journey will take me 9,654 miles from home for two years. On a 24 hour voyage, it seems there’s more than enough time to ponder what will come next and what I’ve left behind. I realize this life isn’t for everyone. Luckily, I live the coming and going, the packing, the arriving, the exploring and the romantic idea that the farewell isn’t so far off.
Since I was little, my family never stayed in the same house for more than 3 years. Off it was to the next house and my mother would rebuild our life all in the time it took to attend school one afternoon. She was a pro; it was as if we’d lived in each house forever and each minute detail and decoration came together perfectly with the warmth only a mother can infuse. I think she loved the change, too. I think she needed it. Today it’s the same, I get a thrill from the move and excited by resettling each time into a new abode, a new country. A deep-seated curiosity is at the forefront of any exploration, and this is at the root of my desire for travel and my love for being so far from home. However deep my love for travel is, the coming and going started to take its toll. I hadn’t quite digested the experience and all it means in the bigger scheme of things.
So, what does home mean to me, or anyone for that matter? In the simplest sense of the word, my home in San Antonio comes down to the little things: the breakfast tacos around the corner, the panadería with my favorite sweet bread, that smell of cedar in the air, the sound of morning doves cooing outside the window, the sunny days and relentless blue skies. It’s my mother and I running errands, vibrant Mexican culture shining through, that feeling in the pit of my stomach of reassurance. My roots. It’s my friends goofing around about everything and anything at a bar, the wide highways, the expanse of open space. San Antonio is my sweet spot; it tugs at my heart-strings and invigorates me. Home is a million little things, but at the core it’s just memories speckled around the city, reacquainting me with the past in case I’d forgotten. Luckily, the missing fades away and the feeling of coming home is sweeter and stronger than all the regret of being away. Coming home is like Christmas: it’s a shiny, new look at what I once took for granted in the place that formed me. It is the one thing that squeezes my heart impossibly tight. The reunions, the old times coming alive and the remembrance of where I’ve been and how new it feels in my city, my old home. The anchor of home gives people the drive to create a stable life – but what if that changes every year? I guess I never thought about it long enough.
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, my last trip home made me rethink things and take a step back.
For the first time, the idea of being gone made me uneasy. Back home in San Antonio, things were entirely different from before and yet entirely the same; I didn’t know what to make of this. It was a space I never thought possible. How could I feel so foreign in a place so familiar with friends so close? I thought about this mythical creature called reverse culture shock. Time has a way with us and the carefree departure out of college three years ago flung me halfway across the world and three countries later in a dash. My life has changed completely after that fateful flight to Paris, but this was the first time that coming back home really felt like being a tourist, spectating on the fringes of my hometown and contemplating a life away. I thought of the naïvety with which I left, not realizing my life would change like it has, because it has. I grappled with the concept of being a nomad in my twenties, the time when I can, theoretically, be most flexible, unsure, and restless.
Being an expat means several things, plenty of which are amazingly fantastic and I can’t complain about. It means having a double life so-to-speak: multiple places to call home, multiple world views, multi-cultural friends…even a second chance to restart or reinvent yourself if you want it. It also means not being there for life’s big milestones and missing those you love. While in Indonesia, I received the news that my best friend got engaged, so I watched her video on Facebook of her fiancé getting down on his knee in a park. A mixture of happy and sad tears streamed down my face at the coffee shop. There I was alone with no one to celebrate with and an ocean between us. It was the moment we always talked about, but all I could do was stare at a screen. Visiting with people I love in Texas last month reminded me that nothing can replace a warmhearted one-on-one conversation, the kind that go on for hours, the laughter that’s contagious – that rawness of being together. That’s the hardest part for me in all this coming and going. I know that living my life through telephone calls and texts with my friends and family isn’t enough, but what alternative is there?
Although I’d like to think my hometown stopped for me after I left, lamenting my departure, that’s definitely not the case. Life goes on, people grow, cities grow. My hometown has grown exponentially with booming bars and chic restaurants sprouting up everywhere. San Antonio is actually starting to become cool. I see and feel changes taking place at every corner. My friends are getting married and having babies, some are climbing the corporate ladder to promotions of hot-shot stardom. People change. Friends drift apart and some can’t relate to my desire to live away. Some can. Being away for so long made me realize the people in my life that are for real, the people that give a damn, no matter the distance. But lately, I noticed I was living in different countries but not letting go completely; I wasn’t living fully in either place and embraced the idea of temporary maybe too much. It felt like straddling two borders at once, not wanting to lift the other foot off the ground completely, maybe fearing that I had to choose in some way. I treated each place like a temporary trip and I the transient, always thinking of home and reporting back. This led to feelings of being torn and half-invested, like I didn’t really belong to the new place. Eventually, I didn’t feel I belonged home in either. Now I’m starting to understand what it means to be in two places at once and what it is to have two homes, and I love it.
My second home is now in Malaysia, just like before it was France and Indonesia. This time, I’m embracing the Asian lifestyle and the fact that this is the longest stay in one place I’ve had since high school. It feels like Laurens and I can finally enjoy this place just long enough to build a thread of permanence, we can finally slow down and not think so fast about leaving. I was so excited to buy things of our own, knowing we could choose what we liked and finally show our personality in our apartment. Even nomads need stability! So, this time I’m not approaching Malaysia with the idea of reporting back and missing family and friends constantly. I’m picking my foot up off the ground and letting myself stop feeling the guilt about being away. This place smells differently, looks differently and feels different, but it’s our new home and I want to get more than acquainted. The skies are unpredictable, the air’s hot and humid, it’s visually gritty, colorful and raw, but it’s growing on me everyday and I feel more home here than I did anywhere else.
Overall, this kind of traveling life makes a place sweeter. When the expiration date is stamped so clearly on a place, I thirst for it even more. Leaving Paris was this surreal buildup because I knew the end would come soon, so I enjoyed the city and drank it up. Leaving Indonesia was the same; I embraced and devoured everything I could since I knew my time was ephemeral. It’s bittersweet and these short-lived stints of around a year are a blessing in as much as they’re not easy. Getting attached, building routines and friends only to leave again is something we’ve gotten good at. We’ve gotten good at saying goodbye.
At the end of the day, I’m learning to trust that home will be home even if I’m away for years and that the people and things I love about Texas will grow in parallel with my life. I miss home so deeply some days and I wish I could be in two places at once, but then I realize that my life has only felt so captivating because I know my time in any place is not infinite. I’m on a different path and it’s completely okay. No apologies or guilt needed.
Renewed eyes and renewed perspective: this is what makes the coming and going completely worthwhile. Each city and country seeps into my soul just a little more each time, and I’m holding onto all the right things and saying goodbye with a little more grace and embracing the bittersweet.
3 responses to “The Bittersweet Bon-Voyage: The Coming and Goings of a Young Expat”
my dear, monica it is wonderful to read your wonderful words and sentements ! walk with grace and keep traveling.bessos! SU MADRE,
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[…] Leaving the place and people behind that made me is the ultimate uprooting. I wrote about the bittersweet goodbye at the airport on the day I left the US for the first […]