“Where are you from?”
It was a simple question, one that I used to be able to answer readily. But in that one moment I was completely disoriented by the question, and for a few seconds that seemed like minutes, I had absolutely no idea what to say.
Every answer that came to my mind didn’t quite fit somehow. Kisumu? That’s what I was used to saying while traveling in other areas in Kenya. America? Well, yes, if people probed further to ask where I was originally from, that was the answer. Pennsylvania? Um, maybe. That was a good answer if the questioner knew much about American geography.
I was on the streets of New York City, on a week-long trip with students from Faith Builders. I had arrived at Faith Builders only a few weeks previously, and before that I had been at “home” in Lancaster County for only two months after spending four years in Kenya. America to me was still a dazzling place, fraught with surprising conundrums.
To that friendly lady in New York who asked the question, I think I finally managed to say something about growing up in Lancaster County and currently attending college in northwest Pennsylvania. But the question remained in my own mind.
And so, I write this for all the rest of you who have ever been baffled by that where-are-you-from question, since I know that my experience is common to many. I write this for you who know what it is to be part of two (or more!) completely different cultures and to wonder how to build a bridge between them.
I write this because this summer it was four years since I left Kenya, after living there for four years, and sometimes it seems like yesterday. Sometimes it also seems like something out of a different lifetime. Either way, my life is changed forever.
As I reflect on these four years since the Kenya years and especially on those early days of transitioning back into American life, various impressions stand out:
The weird brain fog and memory gaps
Perhaps one of the strangest things about jumping between two worlds was the way my brain could not process certain things. In general my memory serves me well. But in those months of transition, I forgot weird things in such a way that sometimes I felt like I was losing my mind. And while I remember details of some of the things during the last days I spent in Kenya, I have absolutely no memory of the last evening I spent there. Last summer I was with a former fellow-missionary, and she showed me her scrapbook album with pictures of the party we youth had that last evening. It is sort of creepy to look at pictures of yourself taken only a few years before, when you have no memory whatsoever of the happenings in the pictures.
The uprooted feeling of not knowing where home is
You know that feeling when you’ve been on vacation or something, and you think to yourself, This has been fun and all, but I just want to go home now. Returned missionaries get that feeling when they are at “home.” I still get that feeling occasionally, four years later. Maybe that’s not all bad.
An odd sort of grief
Like any kind of grief, it can hit you over the head at the strangest times. “It’s like a death,” a friend of mine (who had also lived in another country for several years) told me not long after my return. It’s true. The richness of having friends on different continents comes with a hefty price tag.
The time warp factor
It may seem like people don’t change much in four years, but they do. Even though I came home to visit occasionally, I still mostly pictured people as they had been when I left. So sometimes it felt like I had entered a time machine. My little third graders were suddenly entering eighth grade. The two-year-olds were starting school. I was a complete stranger to all the little children.
Do you realize how much technology changes in only four years in these modern times in which we live? I’ve never been one to keep up with all the latest technology, and I tend to learn about new gadgets and such from friends who have them rather than by reading about them or experimenting for myself. People in Kenya did not have all the latest electronics. Smartphones and ipads and came out while I was away, and I sort of learned about them distantly. I remember the dismay I felt in coming back to America and finding everyone glued to their phones. I’m still smartphone-illiterate.
The Thousand Tiny Surprises
So many things were surprising or astonishing. Sometimes this was delightful, like rediscovering the beauty of changing seasons and being completely in awe of things as simple as frost. Sometimes the surprises were humorous in an odd sort of way, like when I would see a shadow or something on a wall and subconsciously think it was a gecko. Sometimes they were completely disorienting, like that where-are-you-from question. Some things, like shopping, almost gave me a mental breakdown.
Some things still amaze me, and I don’t ever want that amazement to rub off. Foremost among these is the fact that I can turn on the faucet and have clear cold drinking water come gushing out. I shower in water that is good enough for drinking. Also, I am amused by people who complain about a few potholes in the road. Good roads and ease of travel in America still blow my mind sometimes.
It’s been a little while now since the last time I accidentally turned on the windshield wipers when I was trying to hit the turning signal. It’s been a while since the last time I absently scanned the night sky for the Southern Cross, only to remember that it isn’t there. If someone today would ask me where I’m from, I could probably answer the question easily. But though the tides of the Indian Ocean have long since washed this picture from the sand, they’ll never erase the Africa forever imprinted in my heart.