Glad to be back? Yes, but it’s complicated

Thoughts on returning home after living abroad

I lived in Sydney for a year and returned home to the Bay Area a few months ago. Upon arrival, I read an article on the hardest part of living abroad: coming home. It resonated deeply with me. The conversations I had with friends, the questions I got on a regular basis, the significant changes that I saw in myself yet no one else seemed to see: they are all things I went through and often think about. But in my case, I felt a whole lot more. Upon my return to the Bay Area, I felt like a stranger in the city I grew up in.

People ask, erroneously thinking it’s a straight forward question: “Are you glad to be back?” It’s not an easy question to answer. I’m thrilled to see old friends and to stay in touch with the new ones I’ve made abroad. It is always wonderful to sit down at the dinner table with family and pick up like no time was lost. And nothing beats taking a bite into a burrito at your favorite taqueria. But rather shortly after coming home, I was reminded of what I had been so far removed from for the past year. All of a sudden I found myself walking through rundown neighborhoods. There was trash on every block and an abundance of homeless people on each street corner. News stories had gone from reporting sunny skies and festivals in Sydney to covering new protests and discontent on the streets of San Francisco.

Sydney was clean and beautiful. I had never felt safer, and everything, even as the months went by, felt fresh and exciting. Upon coming home, my life became a roller coaster ride of joyful moments with friends old and new, followed by images and reminders that I’m not in Kansas anymore. Despair and constant thought would inevitably follow. It wasn’t culture shock; I was only gone a year. But in a year’s time, people change. They adapt. They grow. In all of the different ways that I changed, my hometown stayed rather still. I ran the proverbial marathon, yet San Francisco stood pat at the start line. For all of the people I met, places I saw, and stories I traded, I half expected everything else to grow as well. It was a cold awakening when my expectations weren’t met.

Did I really change so much? Was my life so different just a few months ago? This self-metamorphosis I speak of is probably a bit exaggerated in my head, but it’s hard to ignore. It’s hard to now accept what I see on a regular basis as the new status quo, knowing that my life was different elsewhere. Settling back at home, things begin to feel “normal” again and I am of course thrilled to be back — but I’ll always be reminded on how the other half lives, and I’m glad I got a taste for it.