When exactly is that moment where you realize that you’ve been traveling or living abroad for so long that what you’ve always called home is no longer home?
Is it when you’re more excited to get back on the plane than you were to get off it? Or when you realize the lives of family and friends have veered off in a completely different direction and you’re no longer thought of as the “adventurous traveler” but more like the “eccentric homeless person”? Is it when “What country do you live in again?” becomes the first question friends and relatives ask you? Or maybe when you can’t remember the last time you started a sentence with “Well, back home…” and were actually referring to the country of your birth?
While I still maintain a residence in the US and pay taxes there (!), it’s been a long time since I’ve called good, ole Murica “home”. Every time I go back, as I did at the end of last year, I can’t but help feeling like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.
I stand dumbly at the grocery check-out while the cashier looks at me like I’m mentally challenged because I don’t know which way to swipe my card. I don’t know what to make of the blinking disc the girl at Outback Steakhouse gives me while waiting for a table to open up. (It looks like a fancy frisbee which I have a barely suppressible urge to throw at someone.) I don’t tell my friends that I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the TV because their satellite / Netflix / NASA-certified television requires three remotes. I’m not even sure which one belongs to which angry, blinking machine. I go to renew my driver’s license (after 10 years) and the clerk asks me to look over my information to see if anything has changed. I notice my weight in 1994: 140 lbs. I calmly think to myself that I could probably eat my 1994 self.
I’m “home” but it feels anything but.
This alternate reality of home is more like a magical place that has lightning fast Internet where I can actually watch a Youtube video all the way through. I’m in a dreamland where one can buy mini quiches that taste like pillows of AWESOME, otherwise known as Costco. (And if you must know, mini quiches and underwear are on my perennial Costco list. For some reason, I simply do not trust the Chinese-made underwear sold here. Give me my familiar, trusty Fruit of the Loom any day.)
When I stayed with friends in Hawaii, they set out toiletries for me which included body washes that smelled of pomegranates and pears and shampoo that came in shades of warm vanilla sugar. I literally could not stop sniffing myself for days, just for the sheer, unbridled pleasure of it. And don’t even get me started with clothes still warm from the dryer which were soft and smelled of spring meadows and newborn babies.
I whiled away my days eating huge slabs of salmon and Texas beef and wheels and wheels of cheese with tiny cranberries embedded in them (which my amazing family and friends made sure some combination of steak, salmon and cheese were included in every meal, sometimes all three!). When I wasn’t stuffing my face with berries and assorted dairy products, I was greedily buying up name brand clothes and shoes (which ironically turned out to mostly be made in Vietnam anyway, but were cheaper to buy halfway around the world because of import duties).
Also, please do NOT ask me to tell you the story of when I may or may not have flirted with the manager at Cole Haan to get an extra discount on a bag. (Full disclosure: The manager was a MAN.) And driving. Oh my goodness. The power of being able to go anywhere you want, rain or shine, and listen to the radio while doing it? Like.a.boss.
That got me to thinking of my life here in Vietnam.
The one where I have to watch Hulu real late at night so that programs will stream without getting stuck. Or where BitTorrent initially says it’ll take 7 weeks, 3 days and 11 hours to download a movie.
I think back to my first apartment in Cambodia, where I did my first load of laundry by stomping on it in a bucket like so many smelly grapes, my salty tears getting lost in the muddy water.
I think about how I can never buy white shirts because dirt and sweat never truly come out of them in the pathetic little washing machines that barely do more than sway. I think about the little tag the dry cleaner’s sends back with my clothes (which is my last resort when I’m too lazy to actually scrub stains out) which say something along the lines of: “We tried but even our strongest chemicals and all our elbow grease and the might of Thor himself couldn’t get these ring-around-the-collar stains out”. I think of how my clothes here never quite regain the softness they had when I first bought them because leaving them out to dry in the sun makes them, for lack of a better word, “crunchy”. I think about how I’m almost afraid to put my pants in the dryer when I’m back in the US because they might shrink, never having actually seen the inside of a dryer.
I think about the rainy days when I still need to be somewhere and have to bundle myself up in a thick raincoat where the rain inevitably finds seams and unbuttoned flaps to seep into, turning me into a wet mess by the time I get to where I’m going. Or when the rain pelts so hard, it actually stings the part of my face that my helmet and visor don’t cover. Or when the bike stalls because there’s more than a foot of water on the road, not counting the waves caused by passing motorists.
I remember the day I saw a heap of dress shirts sold on the side of the road and actually stopped to buy one for $3.
I remember not even minding that the cardboard insert was actually made from a beer carton.
Whenever I splurge on a meal in a fancy restaurant, I always pick out the raspberries and blueberries, making a pile that needs to last me for months. I think about the time I bought a tiny piece of salmon for $5, and savored it flake by flake like it fell from the sky in a parachute a la Hunger Games. I remember the feeling of “never enough” anytime I decide to buy real cheese (and not the ubiquitous cheese spread known as Laughing Cow).
The tide turns, though, when I catch sight of the cable / internet / home phone bill I see at my parents’ house for $139.70 and remember that getting unlimited data on my phone in Vietnam costs $3.50 a month (it went up from $2 just a few months ago.) Sure, I may be able to buy crisp white shirts in the US, but do they sell shirts with crazy misspelled slogans? I didn’t think so.
I might not be able to get nectarines and cherries (which are $30 a kilo here), but I can have weirdly flamboyant dragon fruit or durian, the fruit that’s also a weapon. I don’t have a car and because of that hardly ever listen to the radio (which explains why my musical tastes are shamefully frozen somewhere in between Debbie Gibson and Milli Vanilli), but that means I also don’t have a car insurance bill (my motorcycle “insurance” costs $3 a year) and I don’t dread filling up my gas tank every week (also $3). And maybe I can’t have salmon as much as I’d like, but there’s plenty of Elephant Ear fish to go around. Which is totally more fun to say.
Besides, if the National Enquirer and Skymall are reliable sources of information (the two publications I always read cover to cover anytime I fly in the US), life as we know it in Murica is at an all-time low. Just look at some of these things people are obviously buying in droves which I dutifully scanned from the Skymall catalog.
Couldn’t they just call this a fan? Why do they have to say it offers “quick relief from hot flashes”? That is just unnecessarily specific.
If you’re a grown man and you’re wearing a Transformers hoodie for “Casual Friday”, I think it’s safe to say you’re either the head of the company, a la Mark Zuckerberg, or you’re 40 years old and still work in the mail room. Either way, don’t make it so easy for people to hate you.
What parents are letting their kids become “Human Slingshots”? This game needs to come with a splint and bandage kit. You know what they say, “It’s all fun and games WHEN someone gets an eye poked out.”
If I ever met this family with matching pyjamas, including the pets, I’d simply line them up and slap them.
I obviously love bacon as much as the next guy and truly believe it makes everything taste better, so much so that I’m not opposed to a bacon pillow and throw which the copy says to “pair together to show off your excellent taste.” But did anyone fail to notice that the image here is of UNCOOKED bacon? In all my bacon-filled dreams, never once have I drooled over congealed slabs of fat.
“One of a kind shirts, for one of a kind men.” I’ve seen this patchwork shirt before. It was on a homeless guy. The model in the picture is so ashamed to be wearing it he can’t even look directly into the camera. Two for $199.99, because there’s obviously a worldwide shortage of scraps of hideous remnants.
Really? You just gave me $20 in cash as a gift but now you’re going to make me win a pinball game to be able to get the money out? I would smash this over the head of anyone who gave it to me. That’s how I’d get the $20 out.
OK. I get that some parents might want to see what’s happening at home, what with all the abusive nannies, neighborhood stalkers and such. But you’ve just spent more than $300 to buy a hidden camera clock because you want to “protect what’s important”. Like knowing who stole… a cookie. Really?
Novelty fingerprint shirt! At first it sounds like a fun idea. And while I’m not planning on murdering anyone in the near future, let’s not make it so easy for the boys at CSI, shall we?
Disco Magic Showerhead promises to “create a spa-like environment in the comfort of your own shower”. I don’t know about you, but there are certain things I certainly do not want to see when I’m in the shower, much less shine multi-colored spotlights on.
I have no words. That. is. all.
What kind of low rent Angelina Jolie-wannabe do you have to be to self-suction your way to fuller lips? The ad says it’s “simple, quick, painless and temporary”. I just wondering how temporary. Like right in the middle of the appetizer course when your bee stung lips suddenly deflate, temporary? I’m imagining a blowup the proportions of Nutty Professor.
So while it’s fun to go back to the US and eat mountains of cheese and buy zombie garden ornaments and play frisbee at Outback Steakhouse, it’s also comforting to come home which for me, now, is Vietnam.
In addition to buying loads of undergarments, bagfuls of bags and ironic amounts of “Made in Vietnam” clothing, I’m also bringing some antiques back with me. A pair of 80 year old antiques to be precise — my parents. After 20 years apart, we’ll be living under the same roof again, a compromise which allows me to continue living abroad while helping my dear mother take care of my aging father.
If any of our recent experiences are reliable gauges, we’re in for a wild ride. I’ll have to learn how to live with old folks and they’ll have to re-learn how to live with me (which unlike my blog personality, is admittedly NOT awesome all the time. I know. Shocking.)
Exhibit A: I’m driving my parents to a friend’s house. My mom tells me to get into the right lane because we’re going to turn. The shrillness quotient increases exponentially with each passing moment until I get into the right lane. TEN MINUTES LATER, we get to the street where we’re supposed to turn. I don’t think old people get old. Time just slows down.
Exhibit B: My parents and my aunt round me up for dinner at their favorite French restaurant. Yay! There’s even a special menu. Which I find out is valid only if you get there by 4pm. Having dinner at 4pm does not faze them in the least. We are finished by 5. My father promptly asks when we’re going to eat, having forgotten that we have literally just finished eating. We’re back home in time for Final Jeopardy.
My survival plan? Rent a house so huge that we each have our own
escape space to escape to spend oodles of time together while looking for ways to escape renew our family ties. So after 2 years in my lovely apartment (now with music videos filmed by the pool!), I recently moved into a house almost 10 times as big. I told my friends I was moving on a Wednesday morning and was touched when more than 20 showed up to help. Still craving a taste of America, I called up two of my favorite places in the city and threw a good, ole fashioned “Murica Moving Party”.
Da Vinci’s provided the pizza – cheesy, hot and delicious – which the locals promptly doused with hot sauce as they do with any “foreign” food. If there is a more perfect “Moving Day” food than pizza, I have yet to discover it.
And Cheesecake Ngon threw in a raspberry cheesecake for the occasion. The expats drooled over it. The locals didn’t know what to make of it (Vietnamese desserts tends to involve very non-dessert ingredients like beans and potatoes). But everyone loved it to the last crumb.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Saigon and want to create your very own “Murica Night”, give Da Vinci’s Pizza a call (my favorites are the Greek pizza and the Renaissance, with smoked bacon, red onions and Italian sausage) and Cheesecake Ngon, which not only makes decadent cakes but is also managed by Change 4 Life, a charity organisation that uses micro-franchising to give local people the chance to be successful in business and provide a strong future for their families.
Your turn. What do you miss most about home when you’re traveling?
I always feel like time spent on a plane is slightly sideways from reality. Then I check out the Skymall magazine are realized it is completely outside reality. I would never pay more than $20 for a raw bacon throw.
Smart woman who knows her bacon limits…
Always love to read your expressions. This one was special since I got to see you maybe for the last time for both of us. I admire your attitude and honesty regarding your parents. I wish you the best.
Thanks, Laurice! I’m still dreaming of that Italian meal we had!
I could totally relate to what you wrote! Thank you for helping us see the humour in our new reality of life back in North America.
Thanks, Jackie. I am SO envying you your freshly laundered clothes right now.
Seriously, if only your readers knew how much the personality of real-life James differed from blog James…
KIDDING! 😛 You are a delight both on and off the page.
I think you should buy every single one of those “one of a kind” shirts and burn ’em. After all, once gone, they’ll be lost to us forever! You’re doing a service for humankind.
I definitely have no idea where home is and haven’t for years. I no longer have ANY ties to Nashville, but it’s the place I lived for 7 years and is the place I think of when I talk about home offhandedly and when I am actually referring to Toronto, I feel like I’m putting up a front. Even going from the U.S. back to Canada was a big culture shock for me, so I can only imagine what it will be like for me after 2 years in Asia. But I too am looking forward to stocking up on quiche & undies (I will wear both around my middle) and buying all the Vietnamese produced articles of clothing that I cannot afford to actually buy here in Vietnam.
I will say that I think you give Vietnam internet an unfair slap though—we just downloaded a 10GB game yesterday in a couple of hours. So maybe you should be blaming us for your streaming woes…
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Using Vietnamese internet is like slowly dying of hypothermia. You don’t realize it’s happening. So when I’m here, I don’t hardly ever think about it. I just set to download stuff at night and voila, when I get up, it’s done. But after going back to the US and you barely type in the url before the page loads, it’s a different story!
Is there really an international market for those hideous patchwork shirts? Because I could TOTALLY set up an Ugly Factory here!
Hey Jimmy, understand how you feel. I go back to Melbourne Sat week and am dreading it. Now here is home and there is foreign. Boiling hot in summer (did you see the tennis open?) and freezing cold in winter. Gone will be the mild change of a few degrees celcius and humidty variation that really tells you wheter you are hot or cold. Food, I’ll dream of bai sat chrouf and hu tieu while cheese and beef will make me sick as miles too rich….love your blog. It’ll help me keep sane. Wendy xoxi
Hi Wendy! You’ve been in Cambodia so long, you’re practically a Phnom Penh institution! I hope all goes well for you back in Oz!
You absolutely crack me up and make my day. I need your blog to make me feel happy.
Wow – some of those ads are ridiculous!
I miss the access to internet too – We can definitely relate to your downloading woes!
My dream in life is to meet the pyjama family. Or play Human Slingshot. Either one, really.
We are back home now in Sydney and after more than a year, I can say we are pretty well settled in again.
Good luck with the antiques. You will settle back together again I am sure.
Thanks, Louise! I’m sure I’d be able to go back and live in the West, but it’d take a pretty good reason for me to want to make the transition. Now if I had a beach house in Sydney (ahem!), that’d be another story!
I am going to spend the rest of the day perversely thinking about that matching family snuggled up on their bacon pillows. That’s a beautiful gift James. Thankyou. V funny piece 🙂
Thanks, Margaret! You know what they say: The family that bacons together, stays together.
Ha! I also made a beeline for Banana Republic (and Nordstrom Rack and Victoria’s Secret) as soon as we landed. I think I’ve bought six pairs of shoes since we’ve been back. But the shoes in China were just ridiculous, covered in zebra print and sequins and stuffed pink poodles.
I’ve been enjoying really good wine from South Africa and France which was too expensive in Asia to even consider splurging on. I’m baking brownies from scratch and enjoying awesome produce like beets and fennel and kale. My favorite new lunch dish consists of salmon, quinoa and cilantro.
Yeah, I’m pretty much loving being back.
Oh, and there’s a guy on Storage Wars (my new favorite show – on A&E) that wears those patchwork shirts. There is definitely a market.
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There wasn’t a Nordstrom Rack at the outlet mall I went to. There was a Neiman’s Last Call, but couldn’t find anything.
Wait. Are you saying that zebra print and pink poodles AREN’T all the rage? 1.4 billion people can’t be wrong, could they?
Good on You. How do you think your parents will take to living in Vietnam. Good on Them too for giving it a go 🙂
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Our house is filled with papayas, sapodillas and other fruit I don’t even know the name of. My mom has our helper bring us 3 coconuts every morning. My dad has found a Chinese chess club within walking distance filled with octogenarians. I’d say they’re settling in fine! It’s MY sanity I’ll have to worry about…
Vey koo!l article Jimmy i don’t have any Home sickness experiences because i’m always ready to get the heck out of the USA any chance i get lol!!. Congratulations on your new home in HCM city. and your parents will be with you that’s neat.
Thanks, Ryan! Now that my parents are here, I don’t think I’ll be back to the US as frequently. But where to shop now? That is the question!
I can feel your blog. You really do have the passion on this career. Congratulations BTW on your new home 🙂
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