George Webber, the protagonist of American author Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” famously said, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
I left Pasadena for a year to live on a writing fellowship in Budapest, Hungary, and when I returned home recently, my car was parked in the driveway in the exact spot I left it, battery dead, string cheese wrapper where I had thrown it on the floor a year ago.
Sure I’ll miss the life of the expat – or that imagined life of an expat we Americans romanticize – me sitting at cafes all day, smoking cigarettes in a black turtleneck, drinking absinthe, reflecting on Camus and frescoes in that sticky time warp that is Europe.
But I’ll admit, once summer hit in Europe and the lack of AC began to create a je ne sais quoi musk, I was glad to finally be going home.
Initially, I deflected Mr. Wolfe’s musings, ignored the warnings from fellow expats about reverse culture shock – “People won’t care about your travels,” or “understand you anymore.”
I did go home again to find my favorite breakfast burrito we all know so well here unchanged – the lady in the big sun hat still walking her dog at 10 a.m. like clockwork on my street – the stoplight at Green and Orange Grove irritatingly a minute too long.
Living in Budapest, I of course experienced culture shock, which is described in four stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation/Hostility, Adjustment and Mastery.
Though my mom’s side of the family is Hungarian, my connection to my heritage until I moved went as far as eating kolbas (sausage) from a Hungarian deli in Burbank and living with my grandma while growing up – my Hungarian grandma who left Hungary in 1956, never to return home again.
During the honeymoon phase of Budapest, I was wide-eyed and slap-happy – looking at the new brands of soap at the grocery store was like looking at art; smells of pollution were exotic and unplaceable.
Negotiation/hostility was like a slow-dance between me and the Hungarians – sometimes we worked things out (getting a haircut via Google translator), other times, we agreed to disagree (may you never have to apply for a visa at the Hungarian Immigration office, the DMV of Central Europe.)
The adjustment phase became easier – if Hungarians put mayonnaise on top of their pizza, so did I. And mastery, that superior state, meant, after a year, I could successfully order the right kind of palacsinta (crepe) in Hungarian and even crack a joke at the end.
While I was gone, I read the papers back home, checked Facebook to see what complete strangers and inanities of the Internet were up to – I even hacked into some server to watch the entire Season 2 of “Downton Abbey,” catching computer viruses like a cold.
So returning home would be a cinch, right?
Honeymoon in Pasadena
Initially, I felt great. Everything was the same! My parents still stuck to their Saturday afternoon nine holes and iPads; my friends still texted instead of called. My funnier friends told the same jokes, the quieter ones laughed the same laughs.
I was wide-eyed at the grocery stores here in America, too. Such new varieties and hybrids of candy bars. Such bold new flavors of Doritos.
And those post-commie habits I mastered back in BP – bagging my own groceries, taking off my shoes in people’s homes – I quickly abandoned. People bag our things for us in America and our shoes, well, they’re part of the outfit.
When I travel somewhere new, I keep a log of “first impressions” that, in Budapest, were things like “boiling cabbage smells wafting from the neighbors’ house,” “polite to put on slippers when you go to someone’s house.”
So, when I came home, I decided to make a similar list, nipping any reverse culture shock in the bud:
Americans love television! All sorts. The whole world may be bankrupt but Americans still laugh and smile, go for frozen yogurt, let it all hang out. Sure, they coddle their cellphones like they are nano babies and talk about the NFL with the severity of a United Nations summit, but they have become such sophisticated mobile uploaders. Such urbane coffee orderers.
This was all good, I thought. I still get it. That is, until one morning when my eyes began to refocus – on the details – and the whole thing went to tatters.
Negotiation and Hostility
It all started when I went to Jones Coffee with my healthy kale-chomping friend who shall remain nameless. When I dumped soy milk into my coffee, she straight up scoffed – this, the same friend who convinced me to switch to soy in the first place.
“We’re doing almond milk now,” she said. Next thing you’re going to tell me is you can make milk out of rice.
As we got into her car, she pulled out her iPhone and said, “Let’s take an Insta!” flashing a photo of us.
“Insta?” I said. Or, as I quickly learned, Instagram, the site my friends had all defected to while I was gone – the next public sharing site that feels private, if only because it’s new.
From there, things went from American to American-er and I was just lost.
I didn’t know if people still said “Kobe!” anymore or what the heck coconut water was – Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” was now considered an oldie – and when I first heard Gotye’s “Used to Know” I blasted it loud because it’s a good song, dagnabit – until people in cars next to me gave me that, “That song was 6 months ago. We’re onto Drake now. Change it!” look.
I missed everything.
Everything. Everything. I had, as Americans say, a repulsive case of FOMO, or fear of missing out.
Or, to be precise, YMO, You Missed Out.
As in Budapest, I had to adjust. I eavesdropped during parties scribbling notes to myself of unfamiliar phrases and YouTube videos to look up later. I studied my friends like an anthropologist.
In current American parly, I learned in my self-taught “Rosetta Stone for Expat Americans,” it’s now cool to shorten words – like all of them – and emphasize actions with “cray,” as in, “that was crazy,” and “YOLO!” as a kind of punctuation to sentiments. (It stands for “you only live once.” Obvious, I agree.)
It became a self-fashioned “Clockwork Orange”-style Ludovico Technique, only instead of Mozart, I listened to Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.”
Though I have a long way to go, seeing as I missed Occupy Wall Street and just learned Siri is not indeed that Cruise daughter, I’ve begun to cobble proper subject, noun, verb sentences together the way I would Hungarian in Budapest:
“Preh O-b and Mee Rom got some Cray elec in No!” I practice in the mirror.
Who says you can’t go home again. After all, YOLO.
So call me! (Maybe.)