Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Sitting on the tarmac in Nairobi (plane air-conditioning off, toddlers screaming), I had plenty of time to anticipate the sinking feeling waiting for me when I touched down in LA. Much as I love where I am and what I'm doing right now, it's always a bit hard for me to return to the US without knowing when I'll be out of the country again. For a couple of months after I got back from Cambodia I would wake up every morning and have to spend the first few minutes of my day trying to find something exciting enough to get me out of bed. A bit of post-viral depression might have been involved, but I also sensed that the things I once used to hang my days on (I'm having lunch with so-and-so, or I'm getting a paper back - and yes, I am that big of a nerd) were no longer sufficient. After six months of constantly reaching for new words and tying my brain in knots around another culture, the safety and predictability of life in the US left me bored and unsatisfied. And as I've started to think about what I'd liked to be doing six months from now when my time at the Farm is over, I'm realizing that where I live and work (meaning not in the US) is almost as important as what I do.

Enter the Economist. Insightful as that publication is, reading it isn’t usually much of an exercise in self-discovery, but around Hour 4 of my marathon trip from Kenya back to the Farm in Oxnard, I found some food for thought on pg 85. An article entitled “The Others” explored the draw of choosing to be a foreigner, and gave me some words to start describing my addiction to anything not here.

The article described how being in a foreign environment can make the mundane “super real”, intensifying otherwise routine experiences and evoking, “the emotions of childhood: novelty, surprise, anxiety, relief, powerlessness, frustration and irresponsibility”. Every night in Phnom Penh I’d be in bed by 9:00 (most of my family wouldn’t be asleep until 11:00), exhausted from the stress of biking through traffic, the elation of being called “granddaughter” for the first time, the difficulty of trying to learn a card game in Khmer. The range of emotions was so intense the first week I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle 25 more.

I find myself particularly identifying with (and relishing) the last feeling mentioned – irresponsibility. Anyone who’s lived with me in the US knows that I’m always wound up about something (or lots of things) in this culture. Being abroad, even in places where the injustice that bothers me might be worse or more blatant, lets me relax because I don’t have to feel as implicated or responsible.

And then there’s the fact that living somewhere else is entertaining when not downright hilarious. Other cultures’ social codes can be “arbitrary and absurd” and “if you happen to stand outside of them, as a foreigner always does, then life can be a continuous comedy” – Kenyans with the need to shake hands with everyone in the room, Cambodians telling me I was fat before they even knew my name…

Part of my decision to go back to Nairobi last month was to start exploring what role that part of the world might have in my future. Rich as my time there was, and as much as I felt at home, I left increasingly convinced that the sense of boredom I sometimes get in the US isn’t due to homesickness but wanderlust. I’m addicted to being foreign.

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