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The Here, the There, and the "How"
On returning and answering the inevitable
Fear of the familiar and the unknown circled above me like a murder of crows. As we sat steaming in our studio apartment, in what felt like The Twilight Zone episode of “The Midnight Sun”, I paused from packing up our belongings and nestling our travel treasures into already-full suitcases to gaze out over our cubicle-shaped balcony, out onto the smog descending on nearby neighbors’ rooftops. I was tangled up in a bundle of nerves, prickled with anticipatory delight and a daunting uneasiness as I mulled over who and what awaited me—awaited us—upon our return.
I sat on the fence of conflicting feelings when I thought of reuniting with friends and family, submitting job applications into the void, tidying up the Cape house (and my life), eventually apartment hunting and relocating, engaging in small talk with acquaintances whose faces came into view but whose names remained fuzzy. The more I thought, the more my mind whirled like a blender, mixing up all my emotions into an emotional smoothie that was so overwhelmed with differing emotions it soon became hard to identify the separate flavors of what I was feeling.
It was all too much. And not enough.
I didn’t want to go back. And yet I was over the moon to return.
We got on the first plane, then the second; we left behind the flow of Thai Time, fighting the Western winds, and landed in the futuristic sandscape of Abu Dhabi at sunrise. Our third and final flight carried us further back in time, all the way back into Eastern Standard Time, back to East Coast Rush Hour. We deplaned and made our way to baggage claim, collecting one suitcase more than what we initially departed with all those months ago.
JFK and the soundscape of NYC assaulted us with no abandon. The sun was shining, taxis were honking, men were yelling. I breathed the cool spring air deep into my lungs, thankful to feel its crispness. I was tickled with glee (and pollen’s first touch).
After crashing for two nights in Brooklyn, catching up with old friends in Greenwich Village and savoring our first few meals back stateside across the city (one of which was at Katz’s Delicatessen and included probably a pound of pastrami), we returned to my hometown in a suburb of Connecticut to enjoy a few more slices of nostalgia, check-off a handful of routine doctors’ appointments, and soak in the company of my father and brother. I also started to resharpen my kitchen senses once more by way of making a few simple salads.
And then, as quickly as we landed and unpacked, we packed up the car and made our way to Cape Cod, where the winter was only just starting to unclench its teeth on the world. The cherry blossoms were starting to puff up in all their pink glory, the winds ruffling their petals as if they were poofy skirts in the wind while the rest of the trees still stood naked, branches contorting like knees and arms crossed to hide their exposed bits. The small towns that dot Massachusetts’s outreached Atlantic arm were exactly as we left them. In the cloak of off-season, only a slight murmur and stir piped in to join the winds that whistled across the shoreline. A far cry from the heavy stillness of the heat and the liveliness of the streets we left behind.
What we walked into was a world steeped in nostalgia, asking the inevitable post-travel questions on loop.
“How was your trip?”
“How are you?”
“How do you feel being back?”
These questions greeted us with open arms, and there was no way to skirt past them. After all, we signed up to answer these questions simply by leaving in the first place.
The thought of being confronted with the above was not lost on me; the anticipation of these questions made me sweat more than the unprecedented heat wave that swept across Southeast Asia. In anticipating the how, and then mulling it over in real-time, I started to think (a little too much, I admit) about the nature of these questions and what they really ask of us.
Naturally, these three “how” questions are almost knee-jerk reactions; they’re shot from our mouths like cannonballs when we’re reunited with someone whom we haven’t seen for a couple days…weeks…months…years. Asking and answering these questions are a simple way to make and accept a bid to reconnect.
Depending on who’s asking said questions, who’s answering them, and what level of rapport the asker and answerer have with one another, the questions and their answers can shapeshift accordingly. These questions, and the answers to them, have the capacity to be so vast, so intimate, yet they can also remain surface-level. “How” questions—the three aforementioned questions in particular—skillfully walk the fine line of social decorum. They are open-ended, easy, palatable. They allow the questioner to not pry too much; they allow the answerer to be as veiled or vulnerable as they desire. However, regardless of how sincere or off-handedly these questions are posed, they carry weight to them simply because they begin with the word “how”.
“How” asks us to express a feeling or assign a feeling to or about something, someone, some place, or perhaps another feeling. And, as we know, feelings are often contradictory, fleeting, confusing, private (at first, for most), too overwhelming to acknowledge, and/or too stuffed down to pull to the surface. Feelings can change like a chameleon, particularly when our minds try to bully our hearts into rationality. Trying to answer any question that leads with “how” is like trying to hit a moving target.
On our lumpy, bumpy mattress in our apartment in Chiang Mai, I sat cross-legged after getting out of the shower, overwhelmed by the above philosophical untangling and mere hypotheticals to the point I forgot I was in the midst of getting dressed. My anticipatory frustration with these questions poured out of me as Brooks held my laptop, the first draft of this piece held in the Microsoft Word window enlarged on my laptop’s screen.
I was afraid I’d buckle under the pressure of wanting to give a stellar answer that I’d revert to my true American form (despite my usual tendency to be a little too open) and utter the vague and blasphemous “good”—especially if I could tell these post-travel questions were being lobbed my way asked out of politeness or mere social-programming, rather than genuine curiosity. Or, maybe I’d become aloof and tightlipped in an unconscious attempt to safeguard all my stories, too overwhelmed to even try and pluck out an anecdote, should someone ask to hear one. I wanted to remain open to sharing, but I also didn’t want to share with reckless abandon.
At one point in our runaround of a dialogue, Brooks simply looked at me and said, “You’re just describing the complexities and challenges of conversation.” But I love conversing! I thought. Why was I so overwhelmed by these three questions, the second of which (“How are you?”) I’m asked—we’re all asked—all the time?! Part of the answer, it seems, lies in the question itself.
Being abroad, away from family, friends, and coworkers, I experienced an insulation and isolation from my life in the States granted by the time difference and physical distance. This solitude and detachment from so much of my everyday life—at least, the everyday life I’d known and grown to be so comfortable in yet simultaneously stressed out by—was something I did not experienced prior to this trip. In truth, it was refreshing, for it relieved me of expectations, often (im)posed by myself and others. There was less noise, less pressure out there. And the weight of these questions, in thinking about what they would ask of me and how I would answer them, prefaced the pressure I would return to—the pressure to be “on”.
My bitchy side instinctively wanted to shut down and pushback, respond to each and every question with, “Have you read my Substack? No? Do that, then we can talk.” But that’s unbecoming, I know. Moreover, I knew that such an answer, and the desire to use it, was brewed by my anxiety. It also walked dangerously close to one of the traps I feared I’d fall into when I returned: becoming the aloof, I’m-too-good-for-you girl that traveled abroad. I’d talked to people, crossed paths with that type—the type that ends up rooting their entire identity thereafter in their experience abroad, to the point that they hold tight to a version of them in time, in a far-off place, and forget to live in the now and connect with the day-to-day people, places, and things around them.
Deep down, a small part of me did want to impress the people in my life; I wanted to open myself up like a well-illustrated and crafted storybook and weave a tale of wonder from the Far East. But then there was the other part of me that wanted to downplay, to be humble, to stay quiet. I didn’t want to overuse the phrases “When I was abroad…” or “When I was in [insert name of country]…” too often for fear I’d mentally live too far in the past, in a state of constant comparison, rather than in the present. I wanted to do justice in capturing and communicating my experience in a way that was truthful and relevant, not boisterous or polished.
I also didn’t want to waste my time being vulnerable if it would fall on indifferent ears. Sure, I could concoct my answers into palatable conversation bites, specifically for those who’d ask just to be courteous. Readymade answers would certainly be easier (and safer) than rambling to the point where my listener might tune me out, and I’d risk feeling rejected. And for those that asked out of genuine curiosity, I wanted to respond enthusiastically. But even if I were to rehearse answers and structure responses in neat, capture-grabbing stories to prepare for the questions I knew would fly my way, the variety and nuance of the responses I could give were still too many to organize and curate—and I didn’t want to curate responses. If someone asks me a question with loving intent, I want to respond to it in such a way.
And then it hit me: The fear of these questions lay not in having to answer them, but in my worry that I wouldn’t answer them in a way that’d do justice to my lived experience. To do so would take not just three starter questions but a whole bunch of follow-up questions—a conversation. Perhaps my frustration and uneasiness in the questions was not about the questions themselves, but in tuning back into a reality that disclaims that not every conversation can be a deep conversation. And then there was the anticipation of the types of (disappoint and surface-level) conversations I might have.
I feel we’ve lost the art of conversation, the slowness and pause it requires to truly be present, because everything around us demands and grabs our attention. And in thinking about these “how” questions, I realized that a lot of us have gotten into the habit of reaching for the same questions so often now that we also find ourselves responding to said questions in the same way each time we’re asked them. Moreover, we seem to ask questions with responses in mind. For example, “How are you?” is a comfortable, compact question and it often elicits a comfortable, compact response in return:
C. “I’m well, and you?”
The conversation suddenly turns into a script. Should someone respond with anything aside from the above three options (e.g., D. none of the above; a wild card answer), we are suddenly roped into much more than maybe we bargained for in that moment.
Using a simple, readymade question like “How are you?”, for example, cues us to “stick to the script” of social interacts. It also so frequently leads us to gloss over what the words are actually asking of us. We’ve become numb to the question, and thereby answer in a detached manner. Or, perhaps, the overuse of these questions has now given us permission to not take what they’re asking of us so seriously.
Maybe we don’t want to deal with complexity or messiness, period. For as TMI and open as I am, I don’t always want to pause for self-reflection in real time with just anyone and everyone; sometimes I’m wary that some unbecoming truth will bubble to the surface and it will be too much, too inconvenient, too uncomfortable to navigate in real time with my present company. But, so often, candid responses are uncomfortable, for they can be inherently messy and open-ended, just like the questions we pose. And that’s the point. We ask these questions to tap into the layers below the surface, right? Not to follow a script and walk through the world asking empty questions, desiring empty answers.1
We’re also now, more than ever, privy to answers we’re curious about before we even ask the questions. We can read blogs, send texts, and we have a plethora of social media; so, we receive or stumble upon part of an answer (or what seems like a plausible answer) before we can pose our question face-to-face. And when we do come face-to-face, most of us pretend, whether consciously or unconsciously, like we’re asking our question (again) from a state of pure ignorance. And, in many ways, we still are.
In truth, some things cannot be captured or explained fully, even if we write about them, post about them, or talk about them. Some things just can’t be answered neatly, expressed fully. Some things live in our minds beyond words. Some experiences have to be experienced to be fully felt in all their gravity and understood in all their complexities. For example, even if you were to travel to the same destinations as me and do the same activities, your experience would still be yours: your minutia of complex feelings, your own ethnographic survey, your response to your surrounds, your connections to past experiences—they would all be yours, different from mine.
The human experience is so nuanced, so individual. Yet, it’s also so connected. One way we close the gap between lack of experience and understanding is by sharing our own stories, in the hopes that others will relate, be inspired, be introduced to a new perspective. So, of course, part of me was excited to share my stories with those who ask, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the task still felt daunting.
Part of the challenge as a writer is to capture moments, feelings, scenes, people, etc. that are otherwise evasive, beyond words—and sometimes I don’t succeed. But when I write, I have time on my side (most of the time). I can just sit with me, myself, and I (up to the point of revision). I can use structure and give the ideas time to breathe and take shape, find ways to jigsaw them together in a complimentary fashion or contrast them to provide striking juxtaposition. In a conversation, I’m not always afforded as much pause and meditation. The thrill of conversing lies is in the unknown and the real, live anticipation. The flow of energy and questions-and-answers back and forth is exhilarating, like a verbal roller coaster. Yes, writing and conversing are different. And both the unfolding process of writing and the brevity of on-the-spot reaction in conversation are beautiful…and daunting.
When confronted with this opportunity to travel abroad for so long, to experience something so different, so vast—in its newness and the time for which I experienced it—I intentionally set out to write about bits and pieces of it along the way in an attempt to capture it all piece by piece. I didn’t spell it out then, but I’ve now come to see that I was, in many ways, aiming to answer these big three “how questions” in digestible, pointed pieces as I lived through it all, for I knew that all the memories I’d make during my time could only be held vividly, afloat in my consciousness for so long before they’d sink deeper into the many layers of my memory. Hindsight, too, would inevitably taint my memories and polish my emotions into beautiful pearls, rather than the rough sand grains they were.
Eventually, in trying to document my experience (particularly the nuance between vacation and travel), I realized that I was just living, not traveling in being away for so long; therefore, it became difficult—very quickly—to capture it all, because I was trying to capture my life. Too much happened…and not a lot happened.
In the case of our travels, such “how” questions ask(ed) me to describe the feels of returning from an unfamiliar made familiar to a familiar that’s become unfamiliar. It’s an indescribable feeling. Trying to articulate that is as overwhelming and straightforward as that previous sentence.
And perhaps that’s what I have to make peace with: Any description or answer I’ll ever give regarding our trip will feel like a tangled-up string with no end. An omission. The “answers” will be incomplete. Forever. And that’s okay. Just like how I had to fall while traveling, I’ll also have to continue to fall into the post-travel unknown and all the messiness of the questions that come my way, too.
The outline of my Teva tan line is just a memory now. I’m still waiting for the last bit of chill to melt from the Cape once and for all, and these “how” questions—whether asked by those in a mindset of curiosity or in a tuned-out politeness—have and will continue to allow me to keep basking in the sun of nostalgia for the here and there as I continue to transition back into my old-cum-new life.
I have to and will continue to remain open to all the questions and all their incomplete answers and complexities, for the experience of them and the connections I’ll forge with those asking them are just as important as the travel experience itself.
Thankfully, when I found myself back in this stateside reality, confronted with the questions I was initially overwhelmed to answer, my friends and family proved to know me well enough that their lines of questioning took on a more nuanced flavor. Very few of them reached for the readymade phrasing, and I didn’t buckle under the pressure of the questions or answer them like I was coached by my own personal PR manager. I just embraced the incompleteness of my storytelling and sunk into the familiarity of the connections and conversations, relieved to feel like I could still belong in a place I’d been so far away from yet delighted to know I was bursting at the seams with quiet, unseen newness, too.
Thanks for reading this longwinded post. Want to see more pictures from our trip? Visit my Instagram @yo_marge. More from the archives to come….
I’m aware that I’m, perhaps, solely describing a product of American culture and English (American) language customs here, but I think it’s also just a product of modern day in many ways. Honestly, in writing this post, it got me thinking a lot about American perceptions and practices. But that’s another post for another day.