Coming Home | An Overlooked Challenge

There are some people who reassure my wildest dreams. Instead of attaching a constant string of qualifiers to my thoughts, whimsical as they may be, together we plan for future endeavors with every intent of seeing them through. Shelbi is that person for me. From the moment we met freshman year of college, we've lived opposing lifestyles, but converged at landmark moments. So when she revealed her post-graduation plans of a nearing absence, it left me melancholic, yet uplifted at the thought of her solidifying what I'd imagined for her future. I knew she'd pursue something big, and accomplish it with understated vigor. So when she told me she was moving to Manila, Philippines for a year to work with an international anti-trafficking organization, a small, prideful I told you so crept into my brain. 

To my delight, Shelbi is back, and recently she visited me in Austin. It felt like no time had passed as we flipped through our mental Rolodexes, seamlessly swapping stories from the year. Yet the more she revealed, I knew she embodied so much of what is Flaked. She sidestepped from a normal life-path and chased a passion. I could tell it was mentally and emotionally exhausting, yet fulfilling and imparted direction for her future. So I asked her to write about something often overlooked amongst the hyped glamor of traveling: coming home. Let me be clear, I’m not glossing over Shelbi’s incredible work against trafficking, because that’s her story for another time. 

At my office in Manila they throw you parties when you leave. The entire office stops what they’re doing to come celebrate the work of whoever it is that’s leaving, and it can take all afternoon. A whole team gets together weeks before the party, or despidida, to find gifts, order food, buy decorations and create games. I moved to the Philippines right as the last group of foreign interns were leaving, and I don’t think that I got anything done at my new job for the first month, as we had to throw half a dozen separate despididas.

I didn’t realize the significance of the thing until I had my own. There were empanadas, grapes, strawberry Oreos and diet coke for some light afternoon snacks. This incongruous mix was actually wonderful planning on the part of my friends, as it’s what I ate for lunch almost every day for the last half of my internship. Somehow this accomplished the feat of making me feel known, loved and utterly ridiculous at the same time.

In addition to games and food, despididas require multiple speeches about the person leaving, a video from colleagues who have already left, and a slideshow of pictures of the honoree’s time in the office. It was when one of my supervisors was talking, thanking me for the work I’d done for her and for the office, that I realized I was really, truly, actually leaving. I didn’t quite cry, up there in front of the entire office, but I was very close.

In some pretty shallow ways, I was very ready to come back to the States at the end of the year. I was excited to have reliable internet and phone service, a washing machine and dryer, and drinkable water straight from the tap. I looked forward to seeing my family again and to blending in to the crowd.

But I was also terrified. During my last weeks in Manila, I would panic every time I was enjoying myself. I’m just so happy here, I would think, remind me why I think it’s a good idea to leave!? I had my people, and we got to work together every day to get people out of situations of exploitation and abuse. So I alternated daily between flashes of excitement about something new, confusion over the fact that the “something new” was actually just the city where I grew up, and intense fear over leaving a comfortable, familiar place. It was really odd to realize I was having the exact same reaction to going back to Texas as I had once had to leaving it. It’s funny how easy it is for something new to become comfortable and routine.

I had to adapt to living in Manila when I first got there, and it wasn’t always easy, fun and exciting. I tried to learn a new language, and at the same time I was forced to learn a new way to communicate in my first language. I learned about the new-to-me balance of respecting my superiors and asserting myself that comes with living in a culture more comfortable with hierarchy than mine. I learned what it feels like to have to prove that you belong somewhere, to prove that I had a somewhat nuanced understanding of the country and its culture and wasn’t just some dumb tourist. At times all this learning left me homesick and frustrated, but I personally loved the adventure of the mundane differences.

Learning how to live in a different culture, how to compromise on some of the ways you interacted with the world at home, leaves you different. Some level of those compromises become who you are, this will inevitably lead to some issues when you get home. Pieces that fit perfectly before I left have been subtly rubbed into new patterns by interacting with different cultures, and the new question becomes how to hold onto both. It’s worth it. I have grown in patience and confidence after my time in Manila. I’ve been able to step back from many of my assumptions about the world and reactions to it and consider them critically. I have a new appreciation for America along with a new view of its flaws, and I have infinitely more empathy for immigrants and foreigners in America.

My advice to anyone coming home from an extended time abroad might not be encouraging. Expect it to be challenging. Expect to cry, even if you’re like me and you never cry. Expect some of your relationships to feel pretty weird at first. Your friends will have grown too, and you might even have grown apart from some. You’ll need them though, so it’s worth fighting for that back.

It’s also a good idea to prepare some stories before you get back. I didn’t quite understand that one until my slightly overwhelming first night back. My entire extended family came over for some good old southern taco soup that night, and it was a perfect welcome, but I had trouble thinking of stories to tell them. They looked at me expectantly, and I saw my whole year stretched out in my head, instead of a few fun anecdotes. The internship suddenly turned into something impossible to condense. If you’re headed into any kind of similar situation soon, I would definitely encourage you to have some stories ready. By the time I was ready to start talking about my time, people were just already used to having me back.

I’m really only starting to understand how I changed. I still miss my people in Manila a ton, and I really miss the purpose and validation that comes with working for an anti-trafficking group. My job felt vital and important, even if I was only the intern. Now I have to reconfigure that whole part of my understanding of myself. Now I have to re-learn America.

I like to think about how each second of our lives is a completely different time than the one before it, but the present is always dependent on where we’ve just been. I think of coming home like that a lot of the time. Who I am now is a collection of who I’ve been, what I’ve learned, each and every moment of my life, and Manila shaped an entire year of that flow. There isn’t any simple reversion to who I was before my internship, and I’m really glad about that.

In the coming months Shelbi will be sharing stories of her time in Manila. If you’re curious to read more about her experience, I wholeheartedly encourage you to visit her site.