On Returning: homesick for a hundred different places

All of you sleuths out there might have gathered that I am back in the United States for the first time in a year. ‘Tis true, what you’ve heard: I wrapped up my international journey in Australia last month and flew home to the blazing heat of Texas.

How do I begin to tell you about my year? The numbers tell a story: over the past three-hundred-fifty-eight days, I explored five countries in-depth. I flew in thirty-three planes and slept in over fifty beds, sleeping bags, hammocks, mats and floors. I spoke – or attempted to speak – over twelve languages, including seven indigenous tongues (Inuktitut, Shuar, Kichwa, Surui, Kelabit, Penan and Warlpiri). My hosts endowed me with a number of indigenous names ranging from Shiram (beautiful girl) and Koh (beautiful bird), to Ganit, Napangardi and Tinen Babui  — the mother of wild boar. I ate scores of things I never imagined ingesting, including three types of raw meat, grubs, a large rodent, river snails and a charred kangaroo tail. I took 4,219 photographs. I gave three formal presentations and I filled three journals, two legal pads and four spiral notebooks with field notes, musings and sketches. My project played fast and loose with latitude, carrying me as far north as 69.3761° N and as far south as 25.3450° S. I suffered sub-freezing nights and humid jungle days. I fell in love with two people, but loved many, many more.

The numbers tell a flashy, albeit incomplete story. The numbers transfix those eager to assign some tangible, measurable outcome to this unruly year. But digits distract from the more profound, less concrete transformations lurking behind the impressive figures.

How am I to sum up a year in a blog post? I am but human; I have a limited lexicon (≈17,000 words) to help me perform an impossibility — or commit a travesty — depending upon how you see it.

My time spent living in remote indigenous communities contributed to my personal development in ways I am only beginning to understand. By constantly subjecting myself to radical discomfort, I cultivated radical humility. My journey thrust me into new, foreign situations where I was the ultimate architect of my own success. Because of this journey, my personal philosophical foundations have shifted, destroying once-feeble structures but allowing space to build more sturdy, lifelong narratives. I have begun laying the bricks that will help me be the kind of person I want to be – not just the kind of person others expect me to be. I will trace out the contours of some of these emerging values in forthcoming posts.

For those of you who don’t like this mushy stuff — not to worry!!!  I have so many field experiences and research subjects I’ve yet to blog about. In the following days, I’ll backtrack to fill you in on:

  • UNIMAS, the eBario legacy, and the ICT explosion in rural Malaysia
  • My experience crowd-sourcing a translation Facebook in the indigenous Penan language
  • My take on Google Loon and in the context of international development
  • And oh-so-much-more!

[And a reminder for all my ICT4D, indigenous rights and academic-minded readers out there, I write and will continue to write for Rising Voices Online (how marginalize communities and cultures use media/tech to preserve culture and share stories), Global Voices (mostly covering Latin American citizen journalism), and the Ethnos Project (an ICT4D database). I look forward to being able to dedicate more time and attention to those outlets.]

My fellowship officially ended with the Thomas J. Watson Foundation Returning Fellows conference, hosted at Amherst College this year. The conference is designed to be a space for the forty fellows to meet each other, present our research findings, and process through our collective forty years (!) of independent, international travel and investigation. The organizers joked that it would feel like a reunion with 39 of the best friends we never met. They were right; over three days, my mind was blown by 39 people with fiercely vibrant souls, passionate hearts and stunningly brilliant minds. Meeting the 2012-2013 Watson fellows took me on a journey almost as exhilarating as my Watson year itself.

They say you can never come home again, right? Returning feels like trying to balance an old equation, but one with new variables on both sides. The math may be right, but you can’t set things equal to each other anymore. That’s what coming home feels like to me.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve thrown myself into research on returning, hoping my professional skills (expert literature reviews!) will help me ace this new task of reintegration into the country of my birth. I watched this great TED talk by Pico Iyer (“Where is home?”) on the personal politics of belonging in a globalized, mobile world. I visited Nick Cave‘s exhibit Sojourn at the Denver Art Museum, which convinced me I need to construct my own metaphorical “soundsuit” to protect my spirit against the excesses of late-liberal capitalism. I read Stephen Greenblatt’s manifesto, Cultural Mobility, to help me sort out all of the international dynamics – “flows” and “scapes”- I comprise and am comprised of. I parrot lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” (I am a part of all that I have met/ Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades/For ever and forever when I move), devour Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Travel” (My heart is warm with friends I make/ And better friends I’ll not be knowing/ Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take/ No matter where it’s going). On a less academic note, I eat breakfast tacos, fancy brunches and greasy burgers again. Foods with high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soybean oil claw at me as I peruse overwhelming aisles of American supermarkets. I laugh at people on the Paleo diet, because I actually have hunted and gathered my food (hint: it wasn’t at Whole Foods). I turn the temperature down and the music up. I drink Shiner, I try to wear lipstick. But I sing nursery rhymes to my new nephew in Penan, I Skype with friends in Portuguese, I listen to podcasts in Spanish, and I dream in deep, dense, distant greens. I hope that Whitman will resolve my sense of belonging neither here nor there (Very well then I contradict myself/(I am large, I contain multitudes)). I went to Wal-Mart — at midnight, for goodness’ sakes. I even looked into buying carbon credits to compensate for my year of international travel, the hallmark of responsible upper-middle class  consumerism (!).

Okay, are you convinced yet? Do I get an A+ in going home?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

What am I to say to the weekly Facebook messages I receive from indigenous colleagues and friends: “When are you coming back to [Ecuador/Brazil/Canada/Malaysia/Australia?]” I am homesick for a hundred different places, belonging to none.

Harder still is trying to decelerate, to stop this incredible momentum I generated moving from place to place with such intensity, focus and singularity of purpose. I am an escapist of sorts, a chronic mover, an addict of the new. I now spend my days seeking out meaningful, productive opportunities in the United States to channel the intellectual curiosity, wonder for the world, and audacity I cultivated over the last twelve months.

Until I figure out exactly what that is, I’ll keep Thomas J. Watson’s wise words in mind:

Keep following the path of the unsafe, independent thinker, exposing your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Keep speaking your mind, and fear less the label of ‘crackpot’ than the stigma of conformity.

More soon, until then, some photos of the final few months below.


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