Today is our last day in Southeast Asia. We’re in a 7th floor apartment in Hanoi overlooking the city. The voices of kids playing at a school nearby floats in the air at a constant irritating pitch. There’s a comfortable leather couch in our vacation rental and we have enough tomatoes and potatoes to get us through lunch and dinner tomorrow. So we’re staying in today. We’ve had enough of everywhere except home.
But it’s not easy staying in, or rather, deciding whether or not to stay in. Nearly every fiber of my being, revolts against the idea of seeing one more piece of history or culture or whatever. The body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved in a glass box about 10 minutes walk away, but we didn’t go see it today. This is heretical behavior for die-hard tourists and I feel a twinge of guilt about it. Will I regret these moments of insulated relaxation after we get home? I’ve gotten sucked into the tourist vortex and I honestly can’t tell anymore.
Hanoi is not my kind of city. The sky has been gray and overcast since we arrived here four days ago. It’s not too hot, not too cold, which is nice, but the social tenor is also luke-warm. At night, the city goes to sleep, almost as though there’s a curfew, but actually it’s just the last hopeless sigh of another day as a cog in the communist machine. And there’s too much propaganda here for my taste. Everywhere throughout Vietnam, we’ve seen cheesy, bright red and yellow signage featuring people with rosy cheeks and smiling faces. At the Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison) museum, we watched a film about how Vietnam was very good during the war and America was very bad. How convenient. All controversy is pre-chewed and packaged in bite-sized bits and people seem to gobble them up and ask for more. I don’t think I would easily adapt.
On top of that, I feel ugly. My hair is sticky from weeks of washing in water that just doesn’t complement my biology. My skin is revolting from the same. I don’t know if I’ll be able to wear the clothes I brought on this trip ever again. They are weary from repeated washings and they’re currently contributing to the general ennui that happens when we roam about like homeless hobos. I yearn for carpeted rooms with soft furnishings and stains that I recognize as our own. I’m tired of wearing bug spray and taking anti-malarials. I’m looking forward to the dry air, the pre-Spring February weather, and reliable waste management services. I know I should be having fun on this, our last day abroad before going home, but I don’t feel like having fun. I feel like reading a book quietly (a real one, with paper pages) or staring at a wall. I feel like doing laundry, packing the bags, and then spending the day walking back and forth past them as they sit neatly against the hall, all lined up and ready to go to the airport like my own personal mercenaries.
When we left Egypt, I felt frustrated. When we arrived in Bangkok, I felt relieved. The trip to
Cambodia kept me up at night, but once we got there, I liked the laid-back groove of Cambodia. Once we got to Vietnam though, my focus shifted like a laser beam toward home. And it’s been there ever since. I keep trying to “get into” Vietnam, but alas, my Inner Tourist has jumped ship without me and is headed for the states. Hourly (or perhaps more often), I rehearse the steps toward home and after many times through, I believe my astral self has left my physical body and gone ahead without me. Emotionally, I’m already at home in the kitchen eating pizza and cooing at the cats.
I’m always surprised by what I miss about home probably because what I miss varies depending on where we travel and what kind of famine we suffer as a result. On this trip, for example, I miss our clean water. I miss going to the sink, turning on the faucet, and pouring drinking water directly into a glass. I miss bathing in water that’s clean by my American standards. And I miss our kitchen where the floors are clean and there are plenty of pots and pans and cooking supplies. I miss my clothes and I miss the jogging track and the country roads where John and I can quietly run around and around (uneventfully) in the wide open spaces where the sun rises and then it sets along a horizon that’s visible in both directions. And I miss our cats (“the babies”) and how they always find a place to sit close to us when we’re home.
It’s good to miss home, but it’s also uncomfortable. I can’t imagine being a refugee, and what it would be like to know that I may never get to go back to my home country. I liken it (in my imagination) to an experience that would rank in terms of pain and difficulty close to the level of being taken from one’s parents (or having one’s parents taken) as a young child. I think about the Syrians and the Iraqis and all the refugees in the world and how many of them lost close family members in addition to losing their home country. I’m going home tomorrow, but there are nearly 20 million people in the world right now who may never get to go home again.
Once, when I was homesick, an American friend of mine (in an effort to help me see my weakness in the full
light of day) said, “I don’t get homesick.”
So I asked, “Have you ever traveled abroad?”
“Yes, I have,” the friend told me, “I went on a cruise to Central America and I didn’t get homesick.”
“How long was the cruise?” I asked.
“It was 10 days long.”
I chuckled, but I decided not to be an asshole and point out the differences between 10 days on a cruise ship with other Americans and two to three months (or even two weeks) on land in a property nestled right smack in the middle of a typical neighborhood in a foreign country. It’s different. And not always fun, but always interesting. Certainly, as a refugee, if I lived long enough in a foreign country, I’d get the gist of the new place eventually, but not without a lot of work and the acceptance of native people living in the community around me.
The movie Lost in Translation is one of my favorite early-in-the-trip homesickness movies to watch when we’re overseas in part because Bill Murray is so irresistible as an actor, but also because it really captures the experience of jet lag and the disorientation that comes with not knowing the language in a foreign country. There are other layers to the movie too, but the foreigner aspect helps me remember that in terms of homesickness, everyone experiences it if they go far enough away from home for a long enough period of time. The trouble is, the majority of Americans never leave America to experience life outside of their home country, so it’s hard for them to commiserate with refugees who are hoping to gain admission to this nation that was built on immigration.
What will happen if we let a lot of refugees from the Middle East into the states? Bad things. Good things. Human things. Yep. Things will happen, that’s for sure. But it isn’t like the decision to let more refugees into the U.S. is the only big decision that will determine the goodness or badness of the results. As individual Americans, we’ll have to decide whether we’re going to make friends with refugees and whether we’re going to accept them into our fold. Welcoming Acceptance may very well yield the best results. Abject Rejection will probably lead to poorer outcomes. There are a lot of moving parts and I think most Americans would rather just say “no” to refugees because they don’t want to be uncomfortable and go through the work of helping disenfranchised outsiders integrate. It seems karmically unwise, but then again, we’re a Christian country and Jesus forgives. No worries. We’ll still go to heaven even if we deny thousands of people the right to an earthly home. Right?
I have one friend who was a refugee. She knows who she is. Her history is fascinating and complex. She’s educated and witty, having been pushed to master three different cultures and two different languages (that I know of) in three different hemispheres over the course of about three decades. She’s done notably productive work in several fields since I’ve known her with two master’s degrees and a vocational skill as well. But she lived in a tent for a while. And she was estranged from her family for years.
Not all refugees are like my friend, but many of them are. It takes guts to leave your home country and leave everything behind forever. When civil war or other problems rot the core of a person’s home country, not everyone leaves, but the ones who go in search of a better life are special. And it’s possible that some of them could do bad things, but it’s also possible that they could do important, valuable things too. It’s possible that we would enjoy knowing them. It’s possible that we’d feel good sharing our country with people who have no country. And it’s possible that by saying no to refugees, we’re alienating our own kind—people who are contributing great things to our nation right now.
As I pack all my stuff into top-of-the-line Osprey backpacks to go home on a comfy (relatively
speaking) plane tomorrow, there are people piling into overcrowded boats, walking long distances, and enduring perilous journeys to flee countries that are so torn that they may never go home again. I say yes to letting these people into our country though some of them may do disappointing things. I don’t know very many people in my personal circle who have unusual stories, amazing histories, and the tenacity to do something that’s takes guts and gumption, but the ones I do know are people who have set themselves apart in our society as important contributors: people who keep our society moving forward with the times. If we say no to these people, we say yes to other risks. We say yes to the possibility of other terrible things that could happen. That’s the bummer about living in an imperfect world.
“The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.”