Slightly whiny and first-world-postmodern-existentialist-spoiled, but nevertheless what I’m thinking about. Also, this is apparently my 150th post! Who would have thought.
This summer, it seems that an unusually high percentage of friends are adventuring across the globe in places that – compared to work – I’d rather currently be. From the cushioned sterility of my still near-empty school, watching these adventures – which range from motorcycling around the plateau to climbing glaciated peaks in Alaska – has made me even jumpier than usual, and driven home the embarrassingly spoiled-first-world-kid fact that this is the first summer I’ve been at ‘home’ or doing ‘traditional work’ since I was in elementary school. Since going to camp at age eleven, I’ve spent summers guiding in Alaska, working on trail crews, organizing summer schools on the plateau, interning at environmental nonprofits, and going on backpacking trips in my spare time. However, never before have I spent the summer at a near-empty office where coworkers’ continued absence only reminds me of the experiences I could, had I made different choices over the past year, now be having.
Not that I’ve been doing badly. I was able to take students to China for three weeks from late May to early June, tacking on some personal time on the end to visit the plateau. I went home to Philadelphia for more than a week. I really have no reason to complain: as both student and teacher, years on an academic schedule have left me spoiled.
Nevertheless, this restlessness and constant questioning has tapped into the deep, underlying veins of doubt and unease that, this year in San Francisco, have become a central feature of my life and thoughts. What, I constantly ask myself, am I doing here? Coming from an immensely fulfilling job in which I always felt I could be doing more and better, why leave? I live in San Francisco: have I sold out? Were the decisions I made the right ones? What have I gained, what have I lost, what have I learned; what metrics can I use to assess a year of confusion and more-than-occasional directionlessness?
And why, after all this time, am I making such a big deal of coming back to the states? Why does it feel so monumental, so upsetting and unsettling – and, in many ways, so wrong?
Certainly not everything about coming back has felt wrong. I feel privileged this year to have had a group of amazing new and old friends in the area who have helped me through the ongoing transitions. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity (for the first time in a long while) to be in a fulfilling relationship. I feel privileged to take advantage of the range of rights, freedoms, and consequent responsibilities that we have here in the United States (this was brought into especially clear light today, taking a group of Chinese students into San Francisco’s City Hall – the first time any of them had ever been into a government office building. Needless to say, they were utterly shocked that anyone could walk right in and listen to (and comment at) legislative meetings). I feel privileged to be close to family, friends, and others to whom I can go in need.
This, after all, has been the reason I moved back to the United States: the people. While I have many good friends in China, there are also many limitations to friendships (not to mention the near impossibility of dating in the region in which I lived). I certainly didn’t come back to the states for the food, the smoothly self-satisfied ease of living, or the simple desire to ‘come home:’ nearly a year out of China, I still find that there is little I miss about American life and culture when not here (some of the small things about life in China that often unnerve many expats – not having the opportunity to eat western food, spitting or peeing (or pooping) in public, pushing in lines, dirty streets, the brusque manner that is standard in most settings, staring – do not really bother me). And in coming back to the states, I find myself much farther than I have ever been in knowing where my home truly lies.
In China, I’ve accepted that I’m always going to be an outsider, albeit one who appreciates much about the wide diversity of cultures, values, and ways of life that exist in its Europe-sized multicultural empire. In America, I’m an insider: but to what? To a culture which, though familiar, I find alternatively liberating and unconsciously stifling, self-obsessed and ignorant (and unable to even desire to try to learn from others), creative and arrogant, capitalistic and conformist, obsessively private and lazy and convenience-focused and interesting in its own right(s), perhaps as a subject of academic study – but perhaps not as the Final Word in how societies and individuals and the world as a whole should be organized (as so many of us assume). Why, exactly, do people go abroad – and why do they then either stay or come home? What questions go into making these decisions? What does it say about a person if they feel more comfortable, alive, excited, and ultimately 幸福 – the deepest, most fulfilled version of ‘happy’ – in a place other than that which is, by birth, their own?
So, ultimately, what am I doing here? And why, as such, do I keep writing?
I have no idea. At the very least, this continuing bodily excretion of words (hopefully in a somewhat legible and comprehensible format) helps me process what goes on in my life, if not fully understand what I am doing and why and the greater, often invisible meanings behind all of this. For as long as I do not understand the world or myself, I will continue to write – in the hopes of gaining the climber’s smallest crimping fingerhold of a grasp on what, for others and for me, is going on.