The Real Life Runaway stories are a monthly true story about someone who once ran away from home. Whether they moved across the globe, like in this story, studied abroad, or literally ran away, these stories are all about our common desires for exploration, fresh starts, and clean slates.
“Excuse me, what did you just say to me?” said the airport security lady, giving me a look like I had just admitted to a fondness for barbecuing babies.
I was just off a 9 hour flight from London to DC, fuzzy and wondering why telling someone I had a package of cookies in my luggage was apparently worthy of raising the terror alert level.
Over the next five minutes, the lady lectured me on the dangers of not declaring goods at customs (even though we both knew that packaged cookies didn’t have to be declared to begin with), told me how she was “this close” to taking me into security room and giving me a $300 fine, and haranguing me about my responsibilities as a citizen.
Stunned and exhausted from the flight, I nodded and yes ma’am-ed my way through the lecture, waiting for it to end. When she finally ran down and scribbled something on a piece of paper to file, she let me past. Just as I started to walk past her to the arrivals hall, she put out her hand to stop me again and said,
“Oh, and sweetie? Welcome home.”
* * *
It was my first experience of being back in my home country in a few years. I’m an exile by choice, having left my home state of North Carolina for Hong Kong, then Greece, then the UK, via a laundry list of short stops in other countries.
I had dreamed of getting out ever since I was a kid. Even before I really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew I wanted to be it somewhere else. And I was lucky enough, hard working enough, crazy enough to make that happen in my early 20s, when despite having graduated with honors, double majors, and the whole shebang, the only job I could find was unpacking boxes on the 6AM shift at Old Navy.
I stuck with it for six months before, seeing the terrifying inertia that seemed to settle heavier on people every day in that job, that town, that region, I packed it in and moved across the world to Hong Kong.
Looking back, I now see that was the easy part.
I had lived there for a year before studying abroad, my prospects in the US were demonstrably dim, and most of all, I expected life in Hong Kong to be different.
I expected things to feel different, not quite natural, even as they became familiar again. I expected to stretch, to occupy that odd space of “in this world, but not of it.”
And to be honest, there are a lot of things to enjoy about being in that position. You’re automatically more interesting to people simply because you’re not from around there. You get to see things you never would have seen otherwise, do things you never even imagined. People like to have you at parties, because the expat thing holds a surprising amount of cachet. You get great stories to tell people back home.
But all of that non-belonging is predicated on the background of belonging somewhere else. Only, as I came to discover when I went back, my somewhere else had slipped away while I was gone.
I came back to a country I didn’t quite recognize, and one that certainly didn’t recognize me. From out and out crazy like the power tripper at the airport to the grocery aisles seeming impossibly wide to forgetting the cadence of a Chipotle order or accidentally handing a Euro instead of a quarter to the toll taker, the experience of being back was constantly, subtly disconcerting, like being in a funhouse with uneven floors.
What’s more, I found myself having the typical expat conversation — (1) Where are you from? (2) I’ve never been there but I have a cousin who lives 700 miles away/I saw it in a movie once/I’d love to go! (3) Why are you here? Your place is so much cooler! — except now it was in reverse.
I had become an oddity in my home country.
* * *
So what do you do when you realize that home isn’t home anymore? You can try to come back home and reintegrate into its new format. Some people can make it, through I’ve never been able to.
You can try to totally integrate into your new place. And while you can do that to a degree, you’ll always be at least partly “other” simply because of your history.
I prefer to embrace the sense of being “other”, the dichotomy of being outside and insider all at once.
And when that happens, you realize a few things. First, there are way more people like this than you’d think. You’re not alone, even though it can feel like it sometimes.
Second, there are definite benefits to being this hybrid outsider/insider. You get to see both sides in a way that others can’t, and you get to play up whichever side you like at any given time.
Thirdly, and most importantly, you realize that what matters most is creating your own sense of belonging — and that if you want it, you have to go out and get it, because you can no longer rely on an outside framework for it.
It’s definitely a challenge to create … and there are always going to be days where you miss the former effortlessness of belonging somewhere. But it forms an internal bedrock of personal belonging, and when you have that, “home” really can become something you carry inside you, wherever you happen to be. And that’s why, good days and bad days, insider and outsider and crazy airport ladies and all, I would never trade it.
Rachel Allen is the founder of Bolt from the Blue Copywriting, where she helps small and brave business owners like you shake up the world one industry at a time with devastatingly incisive copy and content that gets right to the heart of who you are and makes your readers’ synapses sparkle.