I didn't know it then, but so much of my character in the United States had been in watching, observing what people felt and how it colored the things they said or did. In childhood, it was my secret way of understanding what I oughtn't to understand quite yet, my inner ear and eye working to hear and see what wasn't meant for me. It was a flurry of unanswerable curiosities opening new worlds in the world around me. Abroad, my imagination was often the only way I understood. There was no chance of passive transference – knowing the woman behind me was fighting with her son, say, because of the words she chose – but rather an active listening between the lines, without the lines themselves to guide me. Many conversations were lost on me, including those in which I was supposed to take part, which led to often far-reaching interpretations – the toothless Chinese man was so self-conscious of his missing teeth, many of his words were now lost in the covering of his mouth, annoying his impatient daughter who'd given up some time ago on asking him to repeat himself; the woman staring out the bus window, limply holding her boyfriend's hand as he exclaimed some urgent, drunken explanation of what she no longer cared about, the thick cloud of Swedish winter obscuring what it was she used to love about him. My imagination became a life-line, a way of both amusing myself and gaining a sense of belonging. Like in childhood, I was the interpreter of unspoken languages, the only one who seemed to notice that layer of subliminal communication with which we all express ourselves. As the months went by in the first country, I solved the enigma of China in patterns of mannerisms, repeated phrases, glances between lovers. By the fourth, I'd begun to realize that the things that makes us all human – communication, expression – are not so different from place to place. The language of the human heart, as cliché as that may seem, is truly universal.
Coming home, then, I was thrown back to the surface of things. No longer needing the refuge of my imagination, nor having to find that which binds us all together, I turned inward. No longer needing to adjust to every new thing on the outside, I struggled instead to adjust to the person I'd become. My restlessness was a serious impediment to everyday life. My wanderlust became a barrier to seeing what was in front of me. The challenge was no longer understanding something new but finding a way to return to what I already knew, a Preludian tinge of bittersweetness in the tow of every experience. I remembered the American small talk I'd missed when I was abroad, those simple connections rife with cultural innuendo that I seemed to always miss in other countries, and thought in coming home, it would be easy. But, to my surprise, I had difficulty relating, found that on the slippery surface of what they were actually saying, I no longer had the foothold of interpretation. It amused and saddened me to find that I couldn't as easily write myself into the conversation, having to now engage in it. A woman, staring out the window of a bus, limply holding her boyfriend's hand as he urgently explained his passion for the recent World Cup lacked the drama of the unknown in foreign languages, left no chink in which my imagination could get a hold to climb to that higher view.
Going to the grocery store no longer required interpretation, elusive pictures on the packaging matched with words I broke down to make sense of, but was just a simple glance and grab of whatever I needed. Going to the library was an overwhelming choice of almost any book, most of which seemed shallow, as opposed to that tiny section labeled “English,” only the best books making it in translation. Though every place we lived abroad became more and more familiar, it was never easy. Being back home, I came to realize I didn't like ease or comfort any more; I didn't trust them. I'd learned to love the insecurity of never belonging, of living on the margins. Suddenly aware of what was expected of me again, having to actively engage in small talk with strangers at the bus stop or divert some cat-call from a passerby, I was overwhelmed with the need to react. Those things I could ignore elsewhere were suddenly on the surface of every experience.
This was even stranger when it was people you once knew, those you'd thought of a million times in your loneliness. It was always a fork in the road – one friend who resented your changes, another who accepted you as you'd become -- but each reunion was a mystery, impossible to guess. Some that I thought would love the stories of our adventures abroad were as distant as those stories then felt in the telling; while others, sincerely curious, made the world feel wonderfully small, a gentler place because of their acceptance.
It became clear I had to reach as many as I could with our experiences. In the beginning, the book was partly written out of desperation to reconnect, to bring back some hero's gift to those I loved, but as I got deeper in, it became equally an escape, a throwing myself back into each unknown. Writing it helped tremendously with the wanderlust, my whole creative being living again in each foreign place. Sitting at my desk, I'd close my eyes and imagine in as much detail as I could the bike ride to the nearest grocery store in Sweden, the houses I'd pass, the intersections. I'd re-walk the edge of Japanese rice fields or back through the little forest to the shrine, and emerge, always, in my American apartment with a sense of newness. That daily practice of putting myself back there, sensing the place in greater and greater detail brought back the emotions of each place. I'd found, too, that it required all the strength of that muscle I'd built in my everyday life abroad – my imagination.
On the other side of the book, it having begun its own journey of interpretations in the minds of my readers, I'm surprised to find myself as lost as I was in the coming back. Having spent three years fighting off the temptation to move again by wrestling with the re-creation of the past, there's now an emptiness of purpose, a lack of productive effort. Like at the beginning of every new place, when you walk your neighborhood street for the first time, peering into the windows of those living out their lives beside you, there is a sense of longing to belong to them, to matter. What will I fill my days with now? What will fulfill me? If my life abroad was a purposeful interpretation, and my life back home a re-interpretation, it seems what I need now is action. Something for the future self to deal with in its own, strange backward glance. I go out into the world again, an observer. I seek a new adventure, unlike those I've had before. I will myself to live again, to stop re-living, to engage. I'll learn to love it here, wherever it is I am.