“But you lived here for 39 years before Japan… I don’t really understand why it feels so strange to be back?”
Those words from my well-meaning boyfriend a few months ago have stuck with me. He’s been incredibly patient and understanding with my slow adjustment, but as those who have lived elsewhere who come back home know, it’s something you can’t quite put into words. Everything has just… changed.
One of the reasons I came home was that my Dad was sick (later, we would learn of his diagnosis of molecular-level lymphoma). I watched my hero shrivel from a healthy 195 lbs to a tiny 147 lbs in the course of just a few months. On one fateful day that will forever be burned in my memory, when he came to Denver to have lunch with me during my CELTA teacher course last June, I thought I witnessed him die right in front of me. He had what looked like two seizures. After the second one, as I frantically yelled at him and shook him, his dead eyes staring at the table, it felt like those few seconds were hours before he came-to and blinked his eyes, disoriented. It turned out because he wasn’t eating and drinking properly, he was severely dehydrated and had fainted. But in those few moments, I thought a huge part of my whole world had ended.
He’s now recovering from his sixth and last bout of chemo, and his diagnosis is cancer-free. It’s been a stressful homecoming, and this has been really hard on my whole family. And somewhere among the busyness, and the hospitals, and the tense phone calls, and the studying, and the new love relationship, and being the best I could be at my new job, I lost sight of the fact that I survived probably one of the most difficult times of my life — survived not by thinking of me or taking care of myself and considering I was suffering from reverse culture shock, but by putting one foot in front of the other, looking outward to help my loved ones the best I could, and taking each day as they came. I earned my CELTA certification through this. I landed a great job. I beat the odds. I survived. And so did he.
Things are better now. I’ve (mostly) adjusted.
I have this new ESL teaching job I love where I continue to help people from around the world reach their English goals. One of the shining moments was when I was given the role of lead teacher for a cool series of courses we teach for au pair here in Denver who need English credit for their visas. I teach American culture, literature, and film on Saturdays. This course has helped me get acclimated back into my home country. And the best thing: I get to continue what I love here. I feel so very fortunate that I can not only do that, but I can do it in a supportive, positive, encouraging environment — something I didn’t really get from my employers in work-worn Japan (that’s probably a whole other blog post).
For my current American Literature course, we’ve been reading Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah about a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to America, and then returns home after more than a decade. My young au pair students and I can all relate to this experience. But what really resonated with me was Adichie’s TEDTalk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” that we watched in last Saturday’s class as part of my lesson. A single story can be about a country, a group of people, or one individual. It’s those stereotypes and assumptions we’ve built up over time and rolled into one story. This single story doesn’t allow much compassion, understanding, or curiosity. We stay stuck. And we see this in so many areas of our lives.
Now, for all my moving on… there was one place in my life of which I was struggling to let go until today: a long-time friend who blindsided me shortly after I returned, which deeply hurt me. I thought I was coming home to our former comfortable and close friendship, but this person had convinced herself that my two-dimensional characterization on Facebook while in Japan was the whole of who I was. But worse, she brought into the situation one of my best friends who had passed away while I was in Japan as an excuse… or reason — that she wouldn’t have reunited with me after a parting of the ways a few years back if it hadn’t been for this mutual friend encouraging her. This became her single story. She came off as a blend of uncertain, defensive, condescending and, probably somewhere deep down in there, I think there was the real shit that she wouldn’t allow to surface; it was safer for her to run away.
I now see that everything that happened wasn’t reality from either side. Her single story wasn’t the real issue. Her own ghosts and haunts were. My single story about her being a despicable person that I held up until this very morning was just my way to justify the unjustifiable. And, more importantly, I think it was a way to avoid mourning the loss of my friend who passed, which still cuts very deeply — especially returning to a home that she was always a part of but now she’s not. My pain had less to do with the false friend blind-siding me than the true friend I lost who couldn’t defend herself or be a part of the discussion. It wasn’t fair. Cancer isn’t fair. Death isn’t fair.
But this morning, it hit me all at once: my beautiful friend I lost — who felt all her friends’ emotions deeply — would have been so sad knowing that I was holding onto this hurt and anger and pain. She’d want me to let it go and move on and be happy. Because she didn’t get that chance. And it’s my responsibility to do so for her.
It’s really strange and devastating being back here without her. So many memories of our friendship linger in the corners, the crevices, the alleys, the dance floors, the streets, the mountains, the mutual friends who remain. But for her, I’m letting all this pain and anger go today. For her, I will throw away my single stories as soon as I’m aware of them. For her, I will strive to be better.
“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
The next time you catch yourself falling for a single story, stop, find your curiosity, and start asking questions — even if they’re only directed toward yourself. You might be surprised at what you find and how freeing it is. I was.