When I lived overseas before, I was in my 20s and 30s. Each time, I packed up my apartment and moved out, leaving whatever I wanted to keep in storage and giving the rest away. My parent’s house would become my “home base;” I used their address, and I came and went from there. I felt little attachment to the USA as my “home,” though obviously I was traveling on a US passport as a US citizen. But home was wherever I was. Asahikawa, Japan. Cairo, Egypt. Mekelle, Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I kept in touch with my parents and a handful of friends, but wherever I was, I was there.
Now, things feel a bit different. Ulaanbaatar is home. Our apartment in MIU’s dorm is home. But I have a house in California, with two dogs, two rabbits, a tortoise, a parakeet, and a few fish. It’s also home. And it’s my daughter’s home, the only one she really remembers well. I am planning on selling it, and we’re moving away permanently in the summer of 2020. But until then, it’s our house, and that’s a big deal.
Emma talks about our California home a lot. She misses the dogs, especially. (I kind of do, but, well, it’s complicated). She also misses her friends, though she keeps in touch with them. And she really, really misses her school (as do I). One day, to get her thinking about the good things about coming to Ulaanbaatar, I asked her what her favorite part of living in Mongolia was. “Not having to wear seat belts.” She was kind of joking. Then, “Meeting Silja.” Silja is her best friend at school; she was also new this year, moving here from her home in the Faroe Islands, though she had also lived in Turkey before. Emma, Silja, and two other girls named Grace and Haruna have been close friends since the first week of school. They do everything together. But our apartment is not big, so when we invite someone over, it’s always Silja. Besides meeting Silja, Emma couldn’t think of another thing that she really liked about living here. She’s not unhappy, but if we went back to California tomorrow, she’d be thrilled.
So, although I’m living in Mongolia, I feel more anchored to the US than I ever have. Before Emma, what kept me coming back to the US was my parents. Now, my parents have both passed away, and that more than anything else has given us the freedom to move overseas. But before, each time I came back from wherever I was living, I came back to look after my parents. One time, my father needed surgery, and my mother wanted me home. Another time, my mother wasn’t doing well and needed spine surgery. And the last time, even though I could easily have stayed in Ethiopia forever, I knew my parents wouldn’t be around forever, and I needed to be near them. I don’t regret any of the time I was able to spend with them or the time I took looking after them at the end of their lives. But I still remember the feeling of freedom I had after my mother died; now I could live anywhere. I could take my two-year-old daughter and run.
Somehow, though, I stayed in California. Well, not exactly. But that’s another story. After a disastrous eight months in Pittsburgh, PA, Emma and I came back to California in May 2010, and more or less settled there. In the emotional upheaval after my parents’ death (they died two years apart, and it was heavy going for a while there), I wanted to give Emma a home, so I bought our house in Carlsbad. I also just wanted to be somewhere for a while, close to where my parents had been, near my brother (who lived in Pasadena at the time),to recover from everything I’d gone through. It was a very emotional decision,and sometimes I wish I hadn’t done it. I love our house because it’s ours. But I never really wanted to live in California, so I was always ambivalent about staying there.
Emma and I started talking about moving away when she was quite young.In 2014, we took a trip up to Oregon and Washington, and we fell in love with the Columbia River Gorge. Seattle was too crowded and busy for us, but Portland was good, and you could live out in the countryside but close to the city at the same time. So we started talking about moving to Oregon. But I still had,in the back of my head, the idea of moving out of the USA entirely, to Europe or Africa. When we went to Switzerland in 2015, I tested the waters to see if Emma would consider living there. She became obsessed with it and since then has been talking about “when we move to Switzerland.” The plan became that we would move there after she finished 8th grade (we were committed to finishing at her school, because it’s such an incredible fit for both of us that would be impossible to find elsewhere, as we have since learned the hard way).
I realized as we were getting ready to move to Ulaanbaatar that I had been engaged in a process of detaching myself emotionally from our California home for a while. I was never very happy at work, so that part was easy, but Emma’s school was another story. We both love it. It’s a very distinct community built by extraordinary people in Encinitas, CA. Sometimes their view is a little myopic for my tastes, but they are open new ideas as well. And Emma has been able to thrive there. Leaving Village Gate for even just a year was very hard. She has one year left, and being in a new school has convinced her that she really wants that one year. More than that one year, but that one year is what she has. I want it to, because it has felt a bit like an amputation to leave before the last possible year. I don’t want to go back to California, but I want to go back to Village Gate. After that, we can go wherever life takes us.
So, moving to Ulaanbaatar has been a great experience for both of us (though Emma doesn’t feel that way right now) because it has opened the door. But now, there is an unfamiliar tugging, a connection I don’t remember feeling the last few times I lived abroad. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, trying to understand this alien sensation of an attachment to a place I have spent most of my conscious life feeling angry about. The USA still makes me angry, but I feel a stake in what happens there that I didn’t feel when I lived in Japan, or Egypt, or Ethiopia.
Part of it is being older, I think. Having more responsibility, and a sense attachment from more years of living there. And the house. (I am half expecting the real estate market to collapse again before I have a chance to sell the house, because that’s what I experienced with selling my parents’ house. I’m really hoping it won’t.) But part of it is also being able to keep in closer touch with what is going on back in the US, both through friends (mainly on social media) and through the news.
The story we tell ourselves about the Internet is that the world is at our fingertips. But it’s really what we choose to look at that’s at our fingertips, and that can often be very narrow. Here in Mongolia, I’m on my laptop a lot, preparing for classes, writing, researching, reading the news, and also keeping up my friends on social media. We don’t have a television, so the laptop is a source of traditional media, as well. I spend more time on Facebook, though, than I probably should. It’s such a great way to keep in touch with people and to make new connections, as long as you realize its limitations.
I was dragged kicking and screaming onto Facebook in 2009, during my postdoc in Pittsburgh, by my supervisors, who wanted me to use it to find and track groups of scientists who were using digital tools to work with each other. Instead, I found a way to keep in contact not only with the people I’d left behind in San Diego, but people from all stages of my life. It was a time of intense dislocation for me; I had lost my mother six months before, and I had moved myself and my daughter away from the only home she’d ever known. She was three and a half, old enough to be aware of the changes that were happening in our lives. I thought it was touching when she would go up to people in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (our main hang out in Pittsburgh) and say, “I’m not from here! I’m from San Diego!” Touching, and in my fragile state, heartbreaking. So Facebook became a bit of a lifeline, and I’ve been using it regularly ever since.
This is one of the main differences now from the times I lived overseas in the 1990s. When I lived in Japan, I could talk to my parents on the phone, and I sent people letters. In the mail. With stamps and everything. When I lived in Cairo, I had Internet access at my editing job, and I could email my family and friends. In Ethiopia, I walked to the Post, Telephone, and Telegraph office to make international phone calls to my parents, which worked sometimes but not others, since I had no phone or Internet. During my second stay in Ethiopia, when I lived in Addis Ababa, I used Internet cafés to email people. Sometimes it would take a whole hour to upload a letter I had written on my laptop at home and email it to a list of recipients I sent mass emails to. Sometimes the Internet would crash right before I was going to hit “send.” And sometimes there just was no Internet. But I knew it would be back at some point, and I could try again.
Because communication was difficult, I was much more focused on where I was. In Cairo, I would sometimes walk to a café at the Marriott in Zamalek, buy a couple of English language newspapers and magazines (Al-Ahram Weekly, the International Herald Tribune, Time magazine),and spend the morning drinking tea and reading. In Mekelle, Ethiopia, I was too busy with my teaching to do much else. In Addis, I read the English-language Ethiopian papers, and the occasional international publication to keep up with what was going on elsewhere. But most of the time my world was my work and where I was living.
In California, I used the Internet to look elsewhere. I used it to support my teaching, to find examples of whatever we were talking about in class (environmental issues, international communication, African mass media, information technologies, social activism, and so on). But I mainly used it to get away, to read about places I would imagine living in. It was an escape route.
Here in Mongolia, we are online almost every day (at least when there is WiFi, which seems to alternate between home and work). Of course, it supports my teaching and research, as always, but it also provides other forms of connection. Emma keeps track of her friends now on Instagram and chats with some of them regularly. She never wanted a social media account before we came here, so it’s new for her, but she’s having fun with it. For her, it’s mainly a way of keeping in touch with her friends from school and, increasingly, following her favorite Webtoon, anime and manga artists.
I have a more complex relationship with Facebook. I keep in touch with many friends, and have many new contacts as well, since Facebook is popular in Mongolia. So on the one hand it has helped me feel closer to people, and it’s much easier to post photos and snippets on Facebook than it was to send mass emails to friends and family like I did from Ethiopia. There are people who fall through the cracks, but I try to send them email, and I will do my annual holiday letter when we get back to the US. But Facebook has become much more than a means of personal contact, as anyone who has paid any attention knows.
Since we’ve been here there have been several significant political events in the US, as well as some major tragedies that I’ve been following just as closely here as I would if I were in the US. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings were rough, as was the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh (and several other mass shootings before and after that one). The midterm elections had me biting my nails. But the distance has also been good. All these things are things that are happening somewhere else. Yes, they certainly affect me as an American citizen, and I worry more and more about my daughter’s future as the president and Congress give corporations free reign to pillage and plunder our country and accelerate climate change. As I’ve been arguing my whole adult life, what the US does affects the rest of the world; this is even more true with climate change and other environmental crises that we are facing.
My daughter is American. I have a future stake in the country that I didn’t have before. Even so, we are planning to live overseas again after she finishes 8th grade, and she and I both will either put down roots somewhere or live as nomads. I’ve re-discovered how much I love exploring new countries, and how much I don’t want to live in the USA permanently. And she has traveled enough that she is open for the adventure of living somewhere completely different. Even though she has not had a great time here in Ulaanbaatar, she is still excited about leaving California for someplace new. For that I am more grateful than I can say.