Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Assimilation Dilemma: Appreciating the Past vs. Living in it

Fighting Assimilation
My body landed in the United States on April 6, 2013, after a year and half in Asia, while my mentality took the slow boat back to the homeland. It's taken two long months for me to finally report: I'm nearly all present (minus the pieces of my heart distributed around Asia.)

The readjustment period has been interesting, frustrating, rewarding and challenging; full of ups and downs, defined by a perpetual state of feeling torn [(adj.) - split, divided, wavering, separated].

Consciously or not, I tried to fight the assimilation. I held on tight to my idealistic perspective developed from traveling. I refused to eat meat from the despicable farm-factory food industry where we are too separate from the source of our food in America. I continued to re-wear my few articles of clothing, turning down my mom's once-in-a-blue moon offer to take me shopping. I'd just lived out of a backpack for six months, where I found profound happiness in a minimalist lifestyle - why attach myself to more, unnecessary material goods?

I kept my Hindi music playlist in the background, brewed myself multiple daily chais and had incense always burning. I dined at Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Cambodian restaurants when I wasn't experimenting with Indian spices in the kitchen. I dedicated myself to a massive, ongoing project of compiling a scrapbook from my travels. I told myself I'd keep writing and maintain my blog. 

All I wanted was to hold on to my experiences in any way I could.
Pushkar, India, March 2013
As time passed, I felt the strain of holding on to a lifestyle and ideals that conflicted with my present world. Feeling torn, I found myself, shamefully, caving into what I'd previously deemed as silly Western comforts. Okay, mom, I guess I don't have adequate exercise clothes - let's go shopping. Since I've already conformed, I'll convert to a Kindle. Alright, I'll take the iPhone. Helllllo, 4G network.
Courtesy of iPhone
I've never denied the fact that I am a meat-eater. I strive for a mainly vegetarian diet, but the intermittent meat meals keep me whole. Trying to avoid meat in America was not about vegetarianism, but because I am disgusted by the mystery and miles of the unknown, factory-farmed meat industry. 

Finding local, ethically-raised meat in Arizona proved to be a tougher feat than I'd hoped. The cravings were coming on strong, and after two weeks of a valiant effort, I conceded in allowing myself an occasional meat treat. I was not a vegetarian and it was too hard to go cold turkey (no pun intended).

Slipping Away
As was inevitable, this wonderful chapter of my life was slipping further and further away.

My diet reverted from East to West; noodles and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner became a thing of the past. The carefree lifestyle of Asia was now a fond memory; I was sucked back into the fast-paced, running-around-like-a-chicken-with-my-head-cut-off routine.

There isn't one day that passes that I don't miss some aspect of Asia. Occasionally, a stimuli in America takes me right back; the smell of lemongrass, chile and ginger brings me to the incredible food markets of Thailand. The Hindu song playing at the end of my yoga class reminds me of that time with my friends at a cafe in North India, where I first heard the very song. The blend of Asian languages on the subway in New York reminds me of eavesdropping on the public transportation in diverse Malaysia. The local Asian supermarket takes me instantly to a million different places, meals and memories in Asia. 
Fun exploring the Asian market in Philadelphia, PA
Ultimately, though, these moments pass, and I'm left with the realization of just how far away it is now.

A Dry Spell
Fading memories are a natural part of life, but I was determined to put up a fight by keeping them alive through writing

For 18 months in Asia, words were constantly running through my head. Writing wasn't only pleasurable, but it helped release the burden of the words I carried with me. 

On any given day in Thailand, I may have appeared to been teaching students a foreign language, grocery shopping or out drinking at a bar with friends, but my brain was constantly preoccupied in another place: writing. It was impossible to shut it off, so that when I actually sat down to write a blog or article, it was just a matter of typing what was already written.

With my newly adapted fast-paced lifestyle, sitting down to write suddenly seems like a chore, the exact opposite of its intended purpose.

I'm sorry to report that the words have stopped flowing. Writing this blog has taken double the effort and quadruple the time; I've not only had to find time in my schedule, but I've had to dig deep in search of what I needed to say. This is a reminder of why I will continue to travel in the future: cultural encounters fill me with unparalleled motivation and inspiration.

Life Goes Forward
Towards the end of my time in India, I tried to prepare myself for the impending reverse culture shock. I focused so heavily on getting myself through the initial days and weeks, that I forgot to consider what it might feel like a couple months down the line. 

And so, this is the part of my return that I did not anticipate: that memories escape quickly. And in the scheme of two months being home, it isn't often that I'm given the opportunity to reflect on my journey.

Before I came back, I decided I'd make an effort not to be the girl that talks about Asia all the time. In reality, I've been surrpised at how little I've had to utilize that plan, as people rarely express a genuine interest in my travels. Other than the standard, "How was your trip?" courtesy when I first see someone (to which there could not possibly be an adequate response), people don't want any more than a reassurance that it was "good" (a word that shames what it really was).
A few of my best friends and a handful of interested individuals dared to dig a little deeper, providing me utmost respect by asking about my specific experiences and the little ounce of the world I observed. These conversations where people asked all the right questions, though far and few between, were a relief to me; a weight off my shoulders as I hold on to my experiences everywhere.

While part of me wishes more Americans expressed an interest in the world, this is unrelated to my personal experience. I don't take my friends' lack of interest about my travels personally. Being back here in America, I understand that life goes forward, not backward.
Living in the Present
One of the most important lessons I learned, both from the experience of the carefree lifestyle of backpacking and the laid-back culture in Asian countries, is the importance of living life in the present. 

For the time being, I'm living and working in America. I'm doing so with the intention of figuring out where and which path to take next.

So here I am, feeling torn yet again. I'm all for living in the present, yet writing a blog solely about my experiences from Asia seems counter-productive. By actively maintaining Stories from the East, I'm living in the past, going against my own principles, which is no way to live at all.

My Assimilation Dilemma
Recently, I reached out to the young man featured in This American Life's podcast who walked across America. In his amazing story, he said something about life post-walk that caught my attention: "Sometimes I find myself forgetting everything the walk was to me. I listen again, and then I remember, and then I forget again." 

So I wrote to him - that I appreciated his story and shared his feeling of trying to hold on. He responded to me with some more wise words that have stuck with me and offered me a new perspective:

I certainly hear you about the desperate grasping at memory. It goes so fast. And maybe it's okay to let it go, to not remember everything, and just trust that all of it is in there somewhere, making us who we are even if we don't know it. Because damn, you can't catch everything can you? And I'm very aware of toeing the line between appreciating the past and living in it. Tricky."
I'm not sure what this means for Stories from the East. I find comfort in knowing that it will be here when I need. But, for now, I must be true to myself and focus on the present, while trusting that it's all inside of me somewhere and makes me who I am today. 

Until the next adventure to come,
Bucks County, PA


David Arkow said...

Well said. Something we all face everyday but even more profoundly when you have rich experiences to reflect fondly upon.

David Arkow said...
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