This post was originally run two years ago, but is still timely enough to include here in case you missed it.
Just over a week into the new year and most people, myself included have forgotten those resolutions we made the final day of the old year. Not that we won’t get to them at some point, but after all it is January and freezing cold over most of the northern hemisphere. Perhaps July would be a better time of the year to make resolutions, especially when it comes to starting a new diet or exercise plan. The thought of running outside at the moment seems foolish, even in the deep south of the United States where unusually low temperatures are currently running just below freezing in this polar vortex.
In looking back at the past year, the last New Year’s Eves and this year could not have been any different. At the conclusion of 2012, Alex and I rang in the new year in Hua Hin, on the tropical and the balmy Gulf of Thailand on the northern Malay peninsula. Teaching and going to school in cold and smoggy northern China, we escaped for two amazing weeks in sunny, friendly Thailand, venturing from the exciting, throbbing capital in Bangkok to the steamy jungles near Burma in sleepy Chiang Mai. We visited an elephant sanctuary, saw no less than three dozen Buddhist temples, lit a couple handfuls of incense and candles and basically reached a novice level of zen and relaxation in exploring southeast Asia.
By the end of December, we were soaking up the sun in the domestic holiday beach town of Hua Hin. Spicy yet flavorful curries and simple Thai food (plus Tiger beer for dad) provided for our daily sustenance along with an abundant dose of sunshine and perfect temperatures, day or night.
Returning to the United States provided an initial giddy rush of comfort in every way. Old friends reunited, family reunions, our spacious and modern but rode-hard house survived a year’s worth of less than thoughtful tenants, Trader Joe’s again made cooking a breeze, water you could drink safely right from the tap, and air you could breathe right from your nose and mouth.
My first trip to the local mega-mart was a bit overwhelming as I tried to narrow down my food choices in each category. I had forgotten there were 75 different types of breakfast cereal and that Pop-Tarts came in 16 flavors: Did you know Hot Fudge Sundae is also a toaster pastry? I mostly stood and stared at the seemingly endless choices, unable to easily narrow down the possibilities. It didn’t stop, of course with cereal, but with nearly every product or service out there. I realized too that life could be in some ways much simpler with fewer choices to make. Shopping for food in China was frustrating and often scary, but at least I could narrow down my choices pretty quickly and eliminate 90% of the inventory automatically.
Chicken lungs? Donkey meat? Eyeballs? No thanks, the rice with vegetables will be fine. 31 flavors of ice cream? No, two actually, and don’t expect it to be like Ben and Jerry’s (although Alex is sporting the shirt below). Fair enough, we didn’t move to China for the ice cream.
In the six months since we have returned home, life is quieter and more predictable; less hectic and uncertain. Alex is back in a neighborhood school and no longer spends his day with kids native to 8 different countries and as many languages. Most of his classmates have only lived in one house and have generations of family in the area and to whom traveling typically means Disney World or Myrtle Beach. He no longer plays ‘footie’ with his British PE teacher, rides big city buses with friends, or learns Mandarin from a person who has never been out of China. We have yet to see a mother help her pre-schooler defecate by the side of a city street in Charleston, dog listed as a menu item, or people eating live scorpions skewered on a wooden stick. We have seen plenty of distracted people in SUV’s talking on their phones on their way to yoga class or picking up their kids from piano lessons. Unlike Asia, we have not seen scores of kids playing outside their homes; American kids are presumably in the backyard or more often online somewhere in the house on a sunny day.
This year, Alex and I along with Jack the dog, spent the week of the new year in Florida. We chose Sarasota by the fact that we have several friends who would be spending the same week down there and rented a comfortable cottage not far from the beach. On New Year’s Eve we all met up in downtown Sarasota, parking at the free Whole Foods parking garage, and walked to the county fair-themed party along Main Street, complete with carnival games, a Ferris wheel, cotton candy, and several stages of bands playing live music. Alex and our friends’ kids delighted in getting knocked to the inflatable ground of a jump castle that featured a rotating swinging arm that literally knocked one off their pedestals.
The temperature hovered in the 70’s even as night fell and it some ways it could have been Hua Hin without the spinning woman in boxes or neon dresses. Unlike Thailand, Sarasotans had placed a large pineapple of colored lights on a crane dangling over the crowds below-an homage to the crystal ball high above Times Square in New York City.
Despite all the fun of carnival rides, Sno-Cones, old friends and wearable, glittery 2014 glasses, it was strangely sobering being back for a new year’s eve that was obviously more familiar than celebrating with Thai strangers in orange costumes or eating green curry out of banana leaves-but there it was nonetheless.
I have read a few articles about the kind of reverse culture shock one can go through upon returning home after living overseas. To those who have not strayed far from home, it seems improbable at best, self-absorbed at worst. I still remember the feeling of coming home for Christmas break during college freshman year. The strange feeling of being back in your old twin bed and childhood bedroom with parents who seemingly called all the shots again after a semester-long stint in adulthood. The sudden loss of control and the freedom to do utterly stupid things like eating pizza at midnight on a school night in the lobby of your dorm with all the night owls, most destined to fail out in a semester or two anyway or being talked into hitting happy hour on a Monday night instead of starting that essay.
Both times, now and three decades ago felt similar in the sense that it’s another reminder how hard it is to move backwards in life, even if that to which we are returning feels comfortable and safe. Making large life decisions, shifts: moving away, having children, starting a new job, all create an inner turmoil, hard to define to those cozied up for the long haul in each of those areas. Relationships can end the same way when one or both discover they are simply trying to ignite a hopeless flame from a time period shared earlier and best left alone. Staying put always feels safer than venturing away. It is an ancient fear that still holds us back from doing what the less practical side of our brains tell us to do. Some may describe it as a our soul or inner voice nudging us toward what we could be doing.
I have read that if you are depressed, you were living in the past, if anxious you live in the future. The goal, of course, is to live now and avoid both of those maladies, but getting and staying there is less easy. Making forward momentum, while being loyal to those people and places in the past, takes great courage and strength, whether it’s the resolution to start an exercise routine, being kinder to people, or moving half way across the world. Happy new year and safe travels, even if it is only to the mailbox and back.