Fulbright and even other ex-pats we encountered warned us that re-entry would be difficult. The difficulty most people shared was encountering the indifference of people at home. We heard many accounts of people realizing that anytime they started to talk about China with their friends and family at home, their eyes would just glaze over. People just had no way to understand the experience and no desire to engage in conversations that tested their reality so firmly.
I can’t say that has been my experience. For the most part people are interested, ask intermittent and mostly appropriate questions and usually have some cultural base (their own travel experiences, the experiences of other friends, books, even television and movies) from which they can piece together a working notion of what it might have meant for us to move to the PRC for an academic year.
For me the difficult part of re-entry is my own feeling of distance, of isolation and discontinuity. As a result of the experiences of the past year I am not the same but it is more than that. It also feels to me that Montpelier is not the same. Shortly before our departure for China my father moved off of Peaks Island. Shortly after our arrival at home our friend and neighbor died tragically. For these and other reasons I just feel such disjuncture in my relationships.
The interesting thing is that I have assumed that the feeling was mutual. I am in Maine this week and was speaking with my sister about spending some time with one of my aunts who is ill. I was hedging a bit, wondering if I should really and thinking that it might be awkward since I hadn’t seen my aunt in such a long time and speculating that we don’t really know each other well. My sister cut me off and informed me that, while my time in China was a big deal that had a lot of impact on me and made me feel removed, from the perspective of everyone else, not seeing me for the past year was that same as if I had been away at school. They don’t feel the chasm I do.
I needed to hear that and it got me thinking about the re-entry problems other folks told us about. Maybe to some extent some people cannot relate to the experience of spending an academic year in China, but in part the problem is likely our inability to relate to the people we left behind.