Actually, it was two and a half weeks, but it doesn’t feel very long. We spent one day getting acclimated, and then we hit the ground running: having dinner with friends, getting together with other friends, re-stocking the fridge, putting up the Christmas tree, going to the beach, and doing some much-needed clothes shopping for Emma, who had outgrown many of her clothes during our four months in Mongolia.
The peculiar part of it was that it felt like we’d never been away, like Mongolia had never happened. The transition was seamless, except that suddenly it was December instead of August. This was very different from my previous experiences of living overseas, even for as short as a few months. I still vividly remember the severe reverse culture shock when I came back from three months in Tanzania, after doing my MA research there in 1990. And, more recently, having to pull over to the side of the freeway to breathe through a panic attack the first time I drove after coming back from Ethiopia in 2004. I remember supermarkets making absolutely no sense to me, not being able to figure out how to buy shampoo, being overwhelmed in the produce aisle. I remember being baffled by people’s reaction when I was a little too friendly at the check-out stand, having gotten used to greeting people warmly and caring about their response.
This time, I was fully functional almost right away. Part of it surely was going back into our house and seeing Emma’s excitement at seeing the dogs again. We did miss them. And making the rounds of our friends, visiting her old school, and falling into the routines of our life in Carlsbad. I often had to stop and think, What is our apartment like in Ulaanbaatar? What are the people we know there doing now? How do we live while we’re there? It was disconcerting, the erasure of a significant chunk of our life that required effort to recall.
Part of it is also that, because of globalization, our life in Ulaanbaatar is not as radically different from our life in Carlsbad in its day-to-day aspects. It’s not at all like that first experience of coming back from the field in Tanzania, when I was living in a tent, bathing with a bucket, using a hole in the ground, and surrounded by people who spoke no English and who had very different ideas about the norms of interaction. That contrast made me realize how truly different life can be. Now, while I am struck by the differences, I also take them for granted. And the differences I’m experiencing are simply not as great. No doubt it would be quite different if we were living in the countryside.
Another thought I had was that the changes that living overseas has wrought in my personality and in my outlook on life were made long ago. I had that experience of life in the US seeming incomprehensible, of not knowing what to do, of not being able to navigate what had once seemed normal to me. It’s become part of how I think, how I live, who I am. I am at once an alien and at home wherever I am; feeling like an alien feels like home to me.
Of course, after the first couple of days in Carlsbad, the time flew. Now we are back in Ulaanbaatar, and as I am writing this, Emma is back in school. And again, it seems as though we never left. Everything is completely familiar. Oh, yes, cooking on a single hotplate again. I remember that. Not being able to flush the toilet paper. Drinking filtered water. Doing our laundry in the kitchen. Constantly refilling the humidifiers. Putting on hundreds of layers of clothing to go outside. Wearing our pollution masks. The bonkers traffic, and the bonkers way that people drive. It’s all right there, as if we were never away.