Friday, August 3, 2012

Why You Need to Get Away from Your Getaway

Once you've made the move abroad and settled in for a year or so, you may be thinking, "I've got this down.  I've got Skype, I found out where to get my favorite cereal, and now that they've opened Pinkberry here I don't care if I ever see my hometown again!" You seem pretty sure of yourself. You've finally adapted. No more a stranger, you have arrived. No longer are you an unsuspecting foreigner who gets tricked into paying 50 pounds for a keychain with a plastic pyramid hanging off of it. With your newfound (over)confidence, you smugly take your visiting friends to Khan El Khalili and bask in the glory of snagging 10 keychains for 5 pounds. Your friends will return home and tell your tale. You've made the leap. You are a legend. And to prove that you've made it, you may foolishly claim that you don't need "home" anymore. Sounds like a well-meaning statement. Well, let me take a moment to be condescending and tell you why you are so very wrong.

When you first left home, you may have been looking to get away, to escape the ordinary. Hopefully, you found what you were looking for. But after a while, you may realize that you need an escape from your escape. Why, you may ask? Well, there are plenty of good reasons, but as I myself am busy escaping my escape, I will list just a few here.

1. Food - This would definitely be at the top of my sister's list. Depending on where you've moved, you may find that your dining choices, and even quality, leave a lot to be desired. A trip home will give you a chance to indulge in all your favorite foods. No, there is no need to feel guilty about cheating on the falafel sandwiches that you've been so loyal to. They have enough fans.

2. Friends - Remember those people who thought you were crazy (in a loving way, of course) when you left home? Well, they miss you. Reconnecting with old friends helps you refuel and re-energize. Even if you've made friends in your new country, there is a big part of your life that no one there will ever know or understand. Don't you want to go "where everybody knows your name"?

3. Sanity - For the sake of your mental health, you need to get out every once in a while. Particularly if you're living in what they now call a developing country, to be politically correct, "every once in a while" is more often than you think. Signs that you need a break may include, but are not limited to, the following: becoming irritated when someone actually stops at a traffic signal, deterioration of your language skills in both your native language as well as your new one (At some point, I began to worry that I would become alingual. Yes, that is a real word!), and an intense fascination when overhearing strangers speaking English in public.

4. Fresh Air - You know pollution is bad when you need to go back to LA to get some clean air. Unfortunately, living in Cairo has left many an expat with pesky allergies and other health troubles. It doesn't take long for a newcomer to make friends with his local pharmacist. If you're living in a country with poor air quality, the cost of the plane ticket is well worth that breath of fresh air that awaits you at home.

5. Reality Check - Some expats have a love-hate relationship with their new home. They love it for all its failings, for its stark contrast to the life they knew. They love the way it brings out the fighter in them. But, if this sounds like you, you may have noticed that somewhere along the way unfair comparisons led you to romanticize your former home. Thanks to selective memory, all you can remember is how easy everything used to be. Comments like "In the U.S., I'd never have to wait in a line like this!" or "Don't they know what real ranch dressing tastes like?" become the norm. A quick trip home will remind you that the grass tends to be greener on the other side and, sure enough, you'll soon find yourself "homesick" for that not-so-foreign country.

So, get some fresh air, both literally and figuratively. It'll do you good, I promise. And don't worry, those falafel sandwiches will be waiting for you when you get back.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


We've all spent a great deal of time thinking about what we want to be. That's harmless enough. I'm curious to know when we got the impression that we could (and should) actually decide who to be. It seems we're all shopping for new personas almost daily, testing out what will make us feel complete, or sometimes less wisely, what we know others will admire. Right down to the color of our hair, our taste in music, or the books we read, we can control our image, run our own PR. But, like Cinderella's maligned step-sisters, it may feel that we're trying to squeeze into something that just doesn't fit. (By the way, it's not nice to make fun of people with big feet! Maybe that's why they were so mean...?)

It would be inaccurate to say that this pursuit is derived solely from an inherent need to impress others. There's something about control that intrigues us. They say it's what separates us from the animals. Imagine if we told people that who they are is exactly who they should be, idiosyncrasies, tragic flaws and all, and that they should just sit back and enjoy life instead of constantly pursuing the ever-changing definition of perfection. Sounds somewhat defeatist, doesn't it? In the name of self-improvement, why settle for "less"?

Each of us is raised to believe that his identity and, ultimately, his destiny is in his own hands, and that may very well be the problem. We like control. On a whim, we can decide to be stylish, be a health nut, be funny, be driven, be emo (that could be another post altogether!) or whatever the passing trend may be. How lucky we must be to get to choose what we want to be at any given moment. But what happens when this supposed freedom becomes more like a ball and chain?

Control is a tricky thing. It's a paradox in and of itself. It can be addictive for many people and, therefore, turn on them. What we think we control often ends up controlling us. The strangest part of all of this is that we're generally unaware of, unfazed, and unconcerned by this transfer of power. We seem perfectly content to be run by our current compulsion to be something or someone.

So what's the point of all this? The point is that I'm afraid we might be missing out on life. Constantly seeking self-improvement makes us feel powerful; but is this pursuit of power really just a life-long wild goose chase? What are we chasing? Death? I believe that nature adjusts for us. We can actually accomplish more by living more naturally and letting things take their own course, including our flaws. It's not a crime to accept life for what it is. In truth, it takes strength to know when to let go of control.