Feel like a stranger in the country you grew up in? A tourist in the motherland? Suffering the expat syndrome? The longer I live outside the US, the more things there are that take me by surprise when I return.
I try to get back to the US at least once or twice a year, and every time I land, I arrive disoriented. It takes a while to switch from my gringa-in-Chile self to the oddball self-appointed quasi-Latina member of the family in the US.
My first reaction is always the same: people speak English here! I always have at least one layover—usually in Atlanta—which means not only do people speak English, but they do it with a twang. As buenos días, and por favor, and gracias automatically roll off my tongue without thinking, I am always a little startled to hear good morning and thank you and you’re welcome and ya’all have a good trip now in return.
I welcome those hours in the airport. I walk a lot, wander, look, listen, watch, and acclimate. I am always surprised by the diversity of ethnicities and dress and language, and am reminded of how relatively homogeneous Chile really is.
And I am surprised by little things. Drinking fountains, for example (nary a one in Chile). And restrooms with hot water and automatic soap dispensers.
Politeness among strangers. There’s nothing at all unusual about the person next to you striking up a conversation, asking if you like the book you’re reading, what you think about the latest news blaring out from the CNN monitors, or letting you know that this vending machine doesn’t work—but that one over there does. Strangers do not chitchat in Chile.
But what always—always—has the greatest impact on me every time I’ve entered the US since September 2001 are the soldiers. Men and women, mostly young, dressed in combat uniforms wander the airports, just like me, on their way home or on their way out. People stop them and shake their hands. People thank them as they pass by. Airlines announce their names and let them board first, and the other passengers applaud them as they walk to the gate.
I have a hard time with this. Kids going to war. I choke up every time. I cannot clap, but my heart goes out. I appreciate the sacrifice they are making, but hate the fact that they have to. I hate the emotional upheaval that is attached to every one of those uniforms—for the war that will thrust them into the dark side of humanity that no one should ever see and that will force upon them experiences no one should ever live, for the anxiety that gnaws at all of those they leave behind and for the grief exuded for every one who does not return.
I forget all that when I am in Chile. We have other problems here that make me forget about a daily life that includes water fountains and soap dispensers; racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity…and war.