Stickman Readers' Submissions March 28th, 2020

Repatriation For Beginners

This is in response to Stickman’s January column titled Regrets Catching Up With Me?

Although I have been following this forum for quite some time, I have resisted contributing because I have no experience in Thailand other than a few days in Pattaya, where I went on the recommendation of an acquaintance, not knowing what it was. Well, the sight of huge, white-haired European geezers holding hands with tiny Asian girls sporting jet black hair down to their waist woke me up to the purpose of the place. It was amusing, to say the least, especially when, in a restaurant, an old guy gingerly touched his “date” on the shoulder and she grabbed his ass, making him giggle like a girl. It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. However, although it appealed to the me that was so fascinated by the book The World of Suzie Wong, it was not my thing. I did, however, come away from it far less judgmental about the pay-for-play scene. It just didn’t feel “dirty”, like I would have otherwise expected.

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Regarding the ex-pat life, the bitter negativity of the culturally unassimilated ex-pat is something I cannot relate to anymore, having made my peace with my adopted country long ago. But I know how it feels. Until coming to terms with the ex-pat experience, I too made many disparaging comments, ascribing to its citizens one morally reprehensive characteristic after another.

What I can relate to now is the feeling of being lost after the permanent separation of that repatriation is, of going back for good to the country where one was born and grew up. In my case, after over two decades of full, exciting life, I flew “home”, and in those few hours on the plane transitioned to what felt like total emptiness. It was unbelievable. And unanticipated. Overnight, I went from a full-on active social life to the zero of too-busy-to-see-me friends — who no longer are, by the way. When I did talk with people, I must have been a bore because all my stories were about my previous home country. I had no other conversation. Incomprehensible talk about debit cards at the bank, and the strange phrase “room for cream” at the coffee shop, which took many repetitions from an annoyingly annoyed barista for me to get, were sources of embarrassment.

The cultural norms and language I had been used to, ones so different from those of my mother country, could not help me relate to this now foreign place. Looking around and seeing people who looked like me was strange, because despite our similar appearance, I could not identify with them. The manners and speech of these people — they all seemed to have the personality of sawdust compared to the lively, engaging, and seemingly more self-knowing (and certainly self-effacing) people I had left. I was lonely and nobody understood. This was so different than visiting, when one is a guest. Guests are not bound by the daunting task of “having to” live there. I felt guilty about not being able to readapt or to think of myself again as the American I had been before I left. It was just awful.

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I soon understood my mistake: I had come back by myself. I should have brought back a part of Japan with me, something that would keep me in touch with that part of myself that had developed while making my life there, an outlet for that part of me that craved the validating interactions I had grown accustomed to, someone who understood me like no one else who had never lived abroad could. That was my mistake.

Eventually I returned for another year there, a year packed, as always, with stimulating life. After returning again to the US, I discovered the concept of Third Culture Kids, an idea that freed me of the guilt and explained my confused feelings. I found a coffee shop with a fairly intimate setting where I purposely imitated the speech and manners of the new friends I was making in order to learn how to be, or act I should say, American, again. Over the years, this new part of me took root, and I am now more bi-cultural than I was when lived in Japan full-time.

For anyone who had the patience to read through this, my apologies for the self-indulgence. It may reflect an unconscious absorption of the self-indulgence and its exaltation by the media that plagues popular western culture. To those thinking about repatriation, I advise considering one’s own depth of assimilation in their adopted culture and language (a subset, if not an integral part, of culture), as well as one’s personality, in order to figure out how to best do it. For some, it might be the best move they’ll ever make. Others, however, may find out too late how much they liked their old home.

Asia is a great place, and in some sense may be the last bastion of common sense. Treasure it.

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