You know that feeling when you return from a long trip and you arrive home again and everything seems so surreal? You keep wanting to grab the normal people you knew before you left, in their normal settings, and say, "But don't you get it? EVERYTHING is different now!"
Right after I graduated college, I moved to the South Pacific to work for a tiny newspaper. I lived in American Samoa, in a little house in a little village way out on the eastern island of Tutulia. My village had maybe 400 people -- maybe 4 of them spoke English. We had a pack of dogs in the village square, and our water came from a cistern up the mountain that collected rain water from the jungle (you can imagine my surprise when I found out what everybody meant by "village water"). My leather shoes rotted, my books fell to pieces. At night, I listened to the geckos chasing roaches across my walls. In the mornings, I woke up, grabbed my snorkel gear and swam in the lagoon, floating over coral reefs toward the reef line where the big, open ocean breakers tumbled over themselves.
The people in the village were nice, but only marginally interested in me and my roomate. Every night, a different woman would send her child over with food -- poi, chicken, rice, bananas -- because that's what you did when someone new moved into your village. But for the most part, they kept their distance on the other side of that language and cultural barrier.
There are many things about this period I remember. The crazy athletic and musical talent of the Samoan people, their generosity, the bars in the fishing district filled with Korean fisherman and dancing girls, the smell of the tuna processing factories, the long-liners coming in with their catch of 1,000-pound bluefin, the jungle ... after the first few weeks, it became hard for me to remember what I had left.
But America was always present. America was like an specter to the expats, always lingering on the edge of every conversation, sometimes fearfully. People don't end up moving to a cottage in the jungle without a pretty good reason. Some of them were broken, people who still harbored a deep hatred of their country and the things that had happened to them there. Some of them were marines from World War II, guys who visited the islands back in the 1940s and never left. A fair share were college students who worked for the government and lived in town, in government housing.
But I'll never forget when I came back to the U.S. I left a steaming island in the Pacific and flew for two days, stopping in Hawaii and San Francisco, before stepping off the plane into a Michigan November. It was brown. The people looked stressed out. I'd never, ever felt so distant from my own heritage. I kept wanting to grab people and say, "But don't you understand? Everything is DIFFERENT now. Everything."
The feeling faded over time, and I remembered that I was a Midwestern guy from a white suburb. I got down to the business of living. But I can still recall that otherworldly feeling, the idea that I had stepped through a door that would never completely close again.
A horizon, once expanded, can never shrink.