You know the type. They’re the ones who go away for a week on business with only a carry-on of non-wrinkle layering pieces and a briefcase. Their 3.4-ounce containers of toiletries are tucked neatly into clear plastic cases, just the way the TSA intended. In my mind, being on the road all the time would, if not teach me the virtues of non-wrinkle fabrics, at least make me less of a hot mess in the airport. But sadly, that has not been the case.
Seven years later, I’m still the woman dragging mismatched, 70-pound suitcases through the terminal four minutes before check-in closes, sweating under 8 layers of clothing and all the jewelry deemed too heavy to survive the weigh in. I leave $60 bottles of facial cleanser in my carry-on and the chargers to all my electronics in my checked bags. The thing is, travel doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. I was chaotic and unorganized when I was living in the States, and 25+ countries haven’t changed that.
I have, however, figured out how to pack a laptop so I don’t have to empty the entire bag in order to put it away after the security check. That’s enough for me.
This phrase became my mantra months before I switched my suburban Philadelphia cubicle for a classroom filled with South Korean kindergarteners. I stacked boxes into a 10’ x 5’ storage unit and reassured myself — and everyone around me — that the move was temporary.
Fast forward seven years. The clothes and shoes that I left behind are so hopelessly out of style that they might even be fashionable again. It took me awhile to accept that the “temporary” move I made so long ago is now my lifestyle. I’ve started to accept that I’m not coming back anytime soon to empty those boxes. No amount of safely stored velour tracksuits, framed IKEA prints, or old college textbooks is going to bring me back to that Philadelphia cubicle.
Sometimes I try to visualize myself going back to the kind of life I had — before the term expat came to define me — but in about eight seconds my ADD kicks in. I start daydreaming about sipping vodka martinis with well-heeled businessmen in Kazakhstan’s glitzy capital of Astana, or wondering how expensive flights are to South America at Christmas, and I give up. I’m sure I’ll get back one day to claim those boxes, but not just yet.
When I took my first job overseas, I believed that, just by virtue of being in another country, my day-to-day existence would be sprinkled with fairy dust, that all those little annoyances of life would magically disappear. And sometimes the foreignness of it all does make things easier. When Manila’s brutal traffic made me late for a meeting, the security guard greeting me with, “Hello, mam sir!” brought a smile to my face.
But work, no matter where you do it, is work. Passive-aggressive glares look the same, regardless of whether it’s a Korean or an American boss shooting them your way. Deadlines and office politics are a fact of life from Texas to Tanzania. Although living and working overseas can be strange and exhilarating, it can also be incredibly exasperating. My first foray into an Asian supermarket netted me a bag of salt to sweeten my coffee and an $8 avocado. I spent three hours dodging cows in abandoned oil fields in Azerbaijan because the rental car’s GPS had letters from an alphabet I’m not familiar with. I love the life I’ve created for myself, but there are times that I long for the simplicity of a place I understand.
Travel is like any other addiction, really. You wouldn’t hand a recovering alcoholic a bottle of 30-year-old Scotch and say, “Drink this and you’ll be done with the sauce forever.” Feeding the fire just makes the blaze bigger, period. The travel bug was mostly dormant when I was living and working in the States. It would flare up occasionally, like itchy eyes during allergy season, but a quick trip to Ireland or Jamaica would be the Claritin that dulled my symptoms. I thought that a year of living and working in South Korea would be the magic pill that would put my wanderlust permanently into remission.
It didn’t work.
Instead of curing me of my affliction, moving to Korea was the protein that affixed the virus to my cells. The gleefully dirty weekend I spent rolling around in mud at Boryeong’s annual Mud Festival was a bag of dope in a heroin addict’s hand. Posing astride an eight-foot long penis at a park erected (heh) to honor the glory of the male genitalia was the cigarette given to someone who’d gone three months cold turkey. Anyone in a twelve-step program will tell you that complete and total abstinence is the only way to tame the beast of addiction. Quite frankly, I’m not interested.
Don’t get me wrong. In many ways, technology dissolves distance. I can send a WhatsApp to a friend in San Diego just as easily as I can to one in Australia. I can have wine dates on FaceTime with friends in DC, although doing so generally means that one of us is drinking at a wholly inappropriate time of day. I even once had a Skype video call with my parents during a Steelers game so we could watch it together. My dad and I took turns cursing the offensive line and my mom showed me her latest quilt projects during the commercial breaks.
But, while technology seems to compress space, it’s not quite as effective on time zones. There are still times when homesickness hits me like a gut punch. And although I’m fairly certain that my friends and family in the US still love me when they’re awake, the feelings they have when woken by a phone call at 3:30am aren’t as warm and fuzzy.
And as much as it sucks to admit, some of the distance has nothing to do with the oceans and miles between us. Although I have a general idea of what their lives look like because mine used to look very similar, it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around what my daily reality is. While they’re cooking pork roasts and watching Mob Wives, I’m ordering room service and trying to find a tropical disease specialist in Bucharest, Romania who knows how to treat an African bot-fly infection.