July 7, 2015
Loads of groceries sit snuggled in the trunk of my SUV. The air-conditioning blasts as my dashboard glows, indicating 95F outside. Beams of orange and red stretch across the Texas sky. The sun says goodbye on another warm, humid day. I’m driving across the neighborhood to return a book from the library I borrowed about Paris. I pull up to a stop sign. I see a mother and her two adolescent sons on bicycles approach the intersection. The older son is nine or ten. He teeters to a stop, nearly falling off his bike on a small incline in the pavement. Although I had approached the intersection first, I instinctively let them pass before I accelerate the car. The mother casts glances of apology and waves to me as she follows her sons across the intersection. I feel like rolling down the window and shouting reassurance – “I lived in the Netherlands for the past three years, please – don’t apologize for your children! You should have the right of way all the time! And by the way - I love your blue Dutch-style Mama bike!” But of course, I don’t. I breathe. I cast a glance at my daughter in the backseat. I maneuver our car closer to the always-open drive-thru book drop at my local library.
“What’s it like to be back?” friends ask. Overwhelming? Confusing? Sad? Exciting? Comforting? Weird? All of the above? Yes. I think that’s it.
After moving overseas, I discovered there was an expat spectrum of happiness and acceptance. On one end, there are those who love their new country and want to stay forever. On the opposite end are the ones who wished they could have repatriated yesterday. Of course – there’s everyone in between. On a cold winter night, my girlfriends and I shared a couple glasses of wine and talked about. . . life. Expat life. Before my friend moved to the Netherlands over a decade ago, her guidance counselor at school had warned her “Once you move overseas, you’ll never see the world the same.” My friend went on to explain “It’s kind of like the Matrix – once you take the red pill, you can never go back. People may regret moving overseas, but the thing is, they can’t help that they said, ‘Yes. I’ll do it.’ They’re just the type of person who takes the red pill. That’s just who they are.”
I took the red pill. And so did my husband. That’s the type of people we are. We’re back in Texas in our same home, reconnecting with our old friends. We’re driving the streets I rode growing up and drove as a teenager. My daughter is pre-registered for kindergarten in the same elementary school my brother went to. But everything feels different. A little awkward. Like we want to tweak it just a little because we’ve seen it in a different filter. And it was good.
For my children – America is the red pill. They’ve gawked at ceiling fans, garage doors, and mailboxes. They have now attended their first baseball game, movie theatre, and library story time. We’ve feasted on Chick-Fil-A. . . and then I’ve climbed through the tunnels of the Chick-Fil-A indoor play area because my 3-year old refused to come down. They saw fireworks and tasted their first s’mores last weekend as they celebrated 4th of July for the 1st time on American soil.
“Everything makes sense. Once you’ve been there long enough,” I always thought. Gawking at the helmet-less children in a wooden box bicycle many years ago on a visit to Amsterdam, I became that woman.
We’re still figuring out how to mesh our European and American lifestyles. For the last five months, we’ve been a one-car household, like we were in the Netherlands. I rode my bike to pick up my son from pre-school. As I strolled into the classroom another Mom commented, “I saw you riding that. . . contraption! You’re very. .. ambitious!” And I batted my eyes. I longed for the Dutch language. See, as an expat, you can do weird things or everything wrong and no one cares. You’re foreign. Or at least, a Stupid American. There’s comfort in that. She continued, “Oh, and I saw your husband the other day. . . walking to the drugstore? And I realized – you all must be used to walking a lot more than we’re used to!” With that – I wanted to book the next flight back to Amsterdam.
We often wondered why. Why do companies invest in moving their employees overseas? It was never explained during our pre-departure cultural training. Before we left for the Netherlands, my husband and I had considered ourselves well-traveled. We had seen some things, been to thirty or so countries. But in retrospect, we had always visited each country and viewed it with our American Glasses. American Glasses provide a lot of insight, awareness, and some fun party facts. But once you live overseas. . . you start to view America with a perspective of an outsider. And that’s the red pill. It’s not necessarily bad or good – it’s just different. From getting groceries home, to education, to healthcare, you’ve lived and understood that’s there’s an alternative way to everything. Ideas like “wouldn’t it be cool if you could bike everywhere?” morph from abstract concepts into concrete reality. And that awareness sneaks up in un-suspecting ways and moments. Like when letting a woman cross the street on her bike when you’re driving to return a library book.