Crash Landing

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Warning! Overly introspective.

Returning to your home country after a long time abroad can evoke a range of sentiments, behaviors, and emotions. You may feel relief, as if the burden of your foreignness was instantly lifted from your back; you may feel the joy of coming home, of nearing your family and friends and roots; you may feel a surge of energy, as if the range of possibilities available to you in your native country was charging you like a battery; you may feel confusion, as if your homeland – the place in which you grew up and lived for so many years, a length of time which makes your experience abroad seem miniscule in comparison and influence – had itself become different, foreign, a place to which you cannot adapt – or to which you resist adaptation.

When I landed in San Francisco nearly three weeks ago, I simply felt tired; I had been traveling for a long time. The first day, I was excited. The sky was blue, the grass in the park was a brilliant emerald, and life seemed to be pretty good. But as the days progressed, I began to feel the presence of other, deeper emotions. Before arriving, I had thought that the predominant emotion would be confusion; I had thought that my experience had rent me sufficiently from my roots that I would feel as if in a different world. But the emotions at play were much deeper. I felt socially isolated, unable to communicate myself and my experiences to others. I felt purposeless; having left my profoundly fulfilling job, I had nothing to take its place. I felt homeless. I felt unnerved and upset by people’s attitudes towards their life – their unwitting ignorance of the big picture and consequent obsession with perfection in details, their reliance on technology, their obsession with planning and organization, their manner of unthinkingly using and wasting money and services, their incessant unconscious searching, striving, yearning for something to instill their lives with meaning and happiness.

I felt lost, alone, separated from myself and my roots. I still feel that way. Granted, it’s been only three weeks since I move back to the US, but I feel that the emotions are here for a good long while – until they feel like going.

So if my mind and heart are in turmoil, why did I move back in the first place?

I wanted to live in relative freedom, to have more of a social life, to have a life outside of work, to be free to find and love whoever I wanted.

But was that reason enough to leave my program, the students, a place with such an imminent and intense feeling of need and consequent purpose, of reality unceasingly pushing me to do whatever I could for the kids, for their future, for the future of their families and communities?

No. I feel guilty about that, a deep, abidingly Jewish guilt, not the “don’t worry about me, I’ll sit in the dark” grandmotherly kind of guilt, but the profoundly deep guilt that stems from centuries of hatred and failure and loss and striving, all for a purpose, all for building a better earth.

Will I be able to get over the guilt and build myself a new life?

I don’t have enough to distract me from the guilt to do so. I don’t have enough friends here, enough of a social life, enough of an existence as a human being in the United States of America to do so. I might need to bone up on this first.

How could I do this? What do I need?

I need to reconvince myself of my own value separate from that of my previous work – and separate from that of my students; I need to relearn to have unrestrained fun; I need to relearn who I am; I need to take this self-knowledge and go out into the world and find a kind of satisfaction which doesn’t need to be contingent on a single purpose.

But is that good for me, or for the world? Isn’t there something else I could be doing which could be of more benefit to myself and society?

Surely. But it’s my Jewish mind that forces me to consider all of the possibilities and opportunities, and consequently never lets me rest, never even lets me find a degree of satisfaction worthy of such seventh-day rest.

So, where do I go from here?

In the next year, to China, numerous times, though possibly not until the spring. After that, I have no clear idea.  My ideals and emotions and actions and ultimately my self has been so shaken and thrown about and pureed mangled into such a pulverized confusion by my whole experience in Qinghai that I’ve found myself in a sort of dilemma: I now have gained a much greater self-knowledge – I now feel that I know, with some degree of exactitude, who I am – but have much less of an idea of what I should do with such knowledge.

Any suggestions? For I’m lost; I’ve crash landed in San Francisco with a kind of plan but no coherent center around which to base it, and am not really sure of my why or what or who or where or when or how (or whom, for grammatical freaks).

But truly, who ever knows these things about themselves? That’s why we always keep searching, striving, hoping. And I can only assume, with an appropriately Jewish ambivalence, that I’ll never quite get there.

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4 Responses to Crash Landing

  1. Skip Yetter says:

    Wonderful post, Jonas, and it’s part of the pattern of living as an expat. We’ve felt the same tugs at our hearts when we leave and return to the US – albeit for brief spells. Suggestions? I have a few. First, be kind to yourself and give yourself the time to figure out what your experience in China meant to you and your future, and to put into context the overall big picture of what will promise to be Your Amazing Life. Second, do something wonderful to benefit others. Find a relief organization in Chinatown and offer your help. Giving to others is the best way to fix an ailment within ourselves. Third, and I think this is at once the most difficult and promising measure worth taking: get wide in your thinking about what might be next. And realize, always, that whatever comes next will only be the precursor to what incredible adventure will follow. Good luck, be well, and keep in touch. Skip

  2. loebx001 says:

    Jonas, to add my voice, as one who has also lived away and been back (not as long as you, but have done it multiple times). I agree with the being kind to yourself…and be patient !!! (which for me is hard). In China, what you did and became was not left there, but returned with you. It will take time for the you that you are now, to find your place back in the US. Be curious, gentle and try to allow things to unfold. For me, some of my return experiences took years…and some are still evolving. For me, it takes time to begin to understand the nuances of how the ‘changed me’ could find a place back ‘home’. Also, seek out other expats (either those who have returned to the US or those who have left their ‘homes’ for the US). And I would imagine that there are lots of ways that someone deeply familiar with Tibetan (no longer Ti$etan) and Chinese cultures and languages can be of use. Welcome back…

  3. Walt says:

    You have received good advice above. But as your incredibly biased and loving father who has followed every word you have written over the past 3 years, and has craned my ears as we have Skyped through static and echos, I add that your feelings are as they should be – mixed and confused. They also reveal a self understanding of what you value that you did not have 3 years ago. These are the values of work, and connection through work that has a meaning and purpose. Your need for understanding this purpose is rooted in who you are – and while intensely personal, the past 3 years have been meaning has been defined by external forces (work and Qinghai) and a not fully realized and developed inner force or personal life. This inner force, your inner voice is the voice to be developed now in SF that will help make it all clear – rounding out what you (and not work) are all about in this life.

    To have these questions are the luxury of a rewarding life – to have had success and satisfaction and to continue to seek meaning and a more broad understanding is rarefied. You have been taught that you have choice, and as you know, choice is also a rewarding burden: it is easier in some sense to not have choices, and yet for the past 3 years you have been teaching choice to your students – you have provided a window and a platform for your students to move safely beyond many boundaries that were cultural and economic: and you did it in a way that presented them with the choice that they would have had no other way.

    You have had purpose and impact,and that will continue to manifest themselves in new ways. I am deeply proud of you. As you have written many times, the frontier is within: Just as you have given yourself to the past 3 years and emerged as someone different, your inner work now will continue to be a long and interesting journey that will fulfill the other part of you in ways you cannot imagine.

  4. James Dannenberg says:

    Dear Jonas, You want suggestions: You and your situation are not unique. Every person feels as you do many times during a lifetime. No one can find himself by looking inside. Time and events determine where we are. Your thoughts and reactions (guilt) are also not uniquely Jewish. They are universal for any thinking person. You have accomplished much. Rest on your laurels until whatever you do gives you the same sense of satisfaction. We are put on this earth to enjoy life. If you are not enjoying or finding happiness in your current job, take a break and have fun. I know that you are a loner; but being alone is not always good. You have a family who loves you. Spend some time with them. Enough from an old man who only know you through your writing. Good luck, Jim

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