Expat Chronicles: A Trip Back Home, to Fun and Horror

Let me tell you what it’s like to be an expat after only 18 months or so of living abroad. You have two feet, and one of them is planted in your new country and one is planted back home. You don’t know which foot is real. You just know that they’re both there. It sounds cliché, and I wish I could express it better. But it’s how I feel right now. You aren’t really anchored in either place. You’re sort of hovering above both of them. You haven’t been abroad long enough to consider yourself a genuine expat, but you’ve been here just long enough to know you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

That’s pretty much where my head is at. We moved to London in January 2018. For the first year or so I considered myself an American living in the UK. Now I’ve become attuned enough to the rhythms and nuances of London that I feel like I’m in that soft middle zone, not quite an alien anymore but not anywhere close to being a native, either. I’m like millions of other foreigners here, whether they’re from Ghana or Albania or Korea or Nebraska or somewhere else. This isn’t our country, and it never really will be. But our own countries seem far away.

You can close that gap by traveling back home, which we did recently. We just returned from a two-week vacation in the U.S. – one week in Charlotte, one week on the West Coast. It doesn’t take long to adjust to being back in the States. At first you’re like, “Damn, there are a lot of American accents here.” Then you’re like: “Wow, a Chic-Fil-A! And a Panera!”

We checked into our Airbnb apartment in Charlotte with the air conditioning (air conditioning!) and spacious rooms and spacious closets and clubhouse and swimming pool and nearby treks to Barnes & Noble and Southpark Mall, and we were back in our comfort zone, man, well and truly back home. We went to all the usual haunts. Target. Harris-Teeter. Libretto’s Pizza. The Bonchon Korean fried chicken place (where the usual Asian servers were replaced by a twangy and friendly Dixie gal who would seem more at home at Waffle House, but whatever). Pisces Sushi. A bunch of Mexican restaurants, because I miss Mexican food in London. Panera (yes). Chic-Fil-A (no, I don’t feel guilty about it). Freedom Park. Latta Park. Park Road Shopping Center. I took the girls to a baseball game at BB&T Ballpark in downtown Charlotte and I was in my element, totally at home, comfortable, happy.

Next up, we flew west to Seattle. It was my first visit there even though I spent a few years in California, and I have to say, I really liked Seattle. A very vibrant city with spectacular views and lots of places to walk and good food and a really cosmopolitan vibe. We journeyed down to Portland for a couple of days and it was pretty cool, too, though a little disappointing all the same. I expected block after block of Hipster Heaven, ala Asheville or Brooklyn. But outside of Powell’s City of Books – maybe the best bookstore ever – Portland seemed a little sleepy.

Overall, the trip back to the States was a success. We had a blast. It was a breath of fresh air for the whole family, seeing old friends and family, going to places both familiar and unfamiliar, attending the 50th Anniversary of my Parents-in-Law, experiencing the manic/ecstatic drumbeat of the old good ol’ U S of A. Truly good for the soul.

And then, the headlines, a day before we were due to fly back to London:

  • A mass shooting at a Walmart and shopping complex in El Paso. Multiple deaths,  a couple dozen injured. Bullets sprayed everywhere. Random deaths, psycho killer, madness.
  • Another mass shooting at a nightclub in Dayton. Multiple deaths. A couple dozen injured. Bullets sprayed everywhere. Random deaths, psycho killer, madness.

Once more, we were well and truly back home again. Back in the good ol’ U S of A. Because this is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world with anywhere near the same frequency. An enraged psychopath spraying bullets into a crowd for no other reason than he’s an enraged psychopath (and yes, the “he” pronoun is appropriate since all of these killings seem to be done by males).

This is pretty much an American phenomenon, as much as I hate to admit it. And the reason it’s an American thing is because you and I and Joe Blow down the block can walk into a gun shop tomorrow and buy a killing machine with no more effort than it takes to buy a pack of gum. It’s not because the U.S. has more mental health problems than the rest of the world, or a more violent culture. It’s because guns are easy to buy. Simple as that. The data have borne this out time and again, no matter how many people try to deny it.

I looked at the news on my iPhone and couldn’t even muster any shock. I really couldn’t, try as I might. It was just another mass killing. And then another mass killing. Both followed another mass killing at the Garlic Festival in California a month earlier. What preceded that one? I honestly couldn’t remember. They happen all the time. It’s impossible to keep up.

The usual response followed. Thoughts and prayers. Calls for gun reform and mental health reform. Words of consolation from the White House Occupant, who pretends to give a shit even though everyone knows he doesn’t give a shit, including himself. I’ll be cold in the ground before any effective gun laws are passed in America. I’ll be even colder in the ground before anyone’s thoughts and prayers have an impact on the number of mass killings. I miss the U.S., but for now I’m glad I don’t have to worry about me or my family being sprayed by bullets just because we had the bad luck to walk into a shopping mall at the wrong time.

The flight back to London soon followed. I was happy about that, even though I shouldn’t have been. I really enjoyed visiting the U.S. And I miss it.

But it has a massive tumor growing inside, and I can only hope someone finds a cure.

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