“Never was it thought I would return; so
Neighbors get over the garden wall,
Every one sobbing out welcome; then
As darkness falls and by candlelight
We stare into each other’s face
As if in a dream.”
Du Fu, from Qiang Village

Coming home–however you want to define “home”–after being away for an extended period isn’t as easy as some would imagine. It’s a contrast of memory and reality, how you want to look back on what once was there and finding the unfamiliar.

First time I got to see the finished World Trade Center
First time I got to see the finished World Trade Center

Reverse culture shock

I’ve been through this before. It’s called reverse culture shock. I spent almost four years in China before moving to Jersey City for another four, at which point I took my work-from-home job and set out on a bit of an adventure. I came home once during my stint as an expat in China; it was month-long Spring Festival holiday and I treated my time in the US as a vacation. When I returned to the US in what I thought was a permanent move, I felt slightly out-of-place; it was a feeling that didn’t dissipate for months.

Jersey City redevelopment with the Trump Plaza behind
Jersey City redevelopment with the Trump Plaza behind

And now I find myself home again after my journey through eight countries–a journey that gave me highs and lows as I met new people, said good byes, wondered what I was eating, lost my job, and struggled to survive on freelance employment.

Why did I return home?

The journey home this time around was indefinite. I had to return to New Jersey for my brother’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding and I’m happy for my brother and sister-in-law. I also got to see my relatives who came in for the festivities (and I attempted to stay out late to hang out with my cousins despite jetlag). I won’t post photos here because that’s their life and not mine.

View of Jersey City and NYC from the wedding
View of Jersey City and NYC from the wedding

Having a comfortable bed at my parents’ house when I arrived home was the greatest feeling–it was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in almost a year. Same goes for the nights at the hotel in Jersey City for the wedding (but not the nights I slept on my brother’s couch). A comfortable bed is what I love best about being home–I had very few comfortable beds around Asia, plus it takes me time to grow accustomed to a new abode.

You can't see the rest of the apartment in Tokyo because I couldn't move far enough back to get it in the frame
My tiny apartment in Tokyo didn’t have a comfortable bed

Seeing changes at home

During the first week and a half back in the US, I got to live back in Jersey City–someone had to take care of my brother’s cats. While recovering from jetlag, I wandered the streets that were once so familiar. I knew downtown Jersey City had changed since I’ve been gone, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much had changed. New high-rise apartments and expensive condos and more overpriced restaurants and bars. It wasn’t a cheap place to live when I was there for four years, but I’ve now been priced out of the market.

Nicole's jerk chicken and plantains before I added the hot sauce
Nicole’s jerk chicken and plantains before I added the hot sauce

I checked out some of the new places–I scoffed at most of the prices on menus. Even a beer is now at least $7. Why would I pay Manhattan prices if I’m not in Manhattan? At least in Taipei the price of good beer is justified because of outdated liquor laws and import costs. Fortunately, my favorite cheap eateries are still open, though prices have gone up by a dollar or two. I couldn’t resist a trip to the Taqueria for a chorizo taco and torta, as well as dinner at Nicole’s Caribbean Restaurant for jerk chicken and some amazing hot sauce. There are also two falafel shops that are still inexpensive and delicious–I got hawawshi with fries and salad for $8, and I was stuffed afterwards.

Tortas at the Taqueria
Tortas at the Taqueria

After wandering the streets of Jersey City each day I realized how little I connected to the city. I don’t know as many people as I once did, and I’ve lost touch with many of the ones still there. I became bored and only wandered through the city to get a bit of exercise and sunshine.

It’s been three weeks at home, and despite gorging on foods that are unavailable in Taiwan, I still feel like home isn’t home. Taking me out of my routines of the last several months–writing, walking, grocery shopping, biking–has complicated my sense of place. I attempt to find new routines–cooking for my parents, reading non-ebooks (Laird Hunt’s Neverhome is a terrific work of poetic historical fiction), finding comfortable times to write–to alleviate the boredom of returning home without work (though I have had a little freelance work to keep me busy for a few hours).

The new pedestrian mall on Newark Ave. in downtown Jersey City
The new pedestrian mall on Newark Ave. in downtown Jersey City

The longer I’m away from home, the more I feel comfortable abroad. The longer I’m home, the more I wonder if it’s still where I belong. Reconciling these emotions isn’t easy, and describing the feeling isn’t much easier.

Fortunately, I now know that my time home is temporary. I was offered a new job in Taipei and only have to wait on paperwork before booking my flight to begin a new routine in a city I find somewhat comfortable. It’s reassurance that struggling to make ends meet while living abroad has finally paid off.

Sunset over my hometown in northern New Jersey
Sunset over my hometown in northern New Jersey

In the meantime, I’ll continue relaxing at home, eating all the delicious foods my parents keep buying simply because I’m home. I’ll also search for more things I can bring back to Taiwan to make my life more comfortable. I’ll also attempt to see more of my friends in the area.

Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock? How did you cope with it? Can you really go home again?

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