After a year in Asia, what’s it like to come back to your home of 30 years?
It’s been a week now I’ve been back in Los Angeles, and the biggest takeaway is how little has changed.
I was able to retake possession of my old digs with little hassle. Much more of my stuff was here, as I left it, than I remembered. My band has continued on in various permutations without me, using my practice space and in some cases my equipment. Many of the same people are working at the same stores and places I once frequented.
But more than that, the things that drove me away are still here, and after all the time away, it’s amazing how obvious it is that, for the person I am and like being, how much better I fit in in southeast Asia than I ever did in Los Angeles. I start to remember what it was like to live in a culture that simultaneously commands us to expect and demand so much for and of ourselves, and settle for so little. To be American is to constantly be told that there’s some idealized life that you should be able to attain, but that is never going to be realistic for you personally, and so you should be constantly angry or depressed or feel unworthy that you fell short. Even when I finally realized the dream of going off and living on a tropical island, in the back of my head was always: you can’t really do that, you know. And if you did it couldn’t possibly be all that great. Except I could, and for the most part, it was. So where did that message come from? I don’t think it solely arose from my own mind.
My friends were all happy I was back – but with a few exceptions, all still very busy with their own lives and so just as before I’ve generally been spending my free time alone. I kept some dating apps on out of idle curiosity and vaguely thinking it’d be fun to meet someone new for coffee without any expectations whatsoever other than getting to platonically remember what that whole thing was like here, maybe see the whole Asia experience through that lens. I didn’t expect much response and I didn’t get any, but scrolling through the apps was a depressing reminder of the loneliness that besets much of our culture – particularly a lot of the people in my demographic, middle age – and how few options are there to deal with that given how narrow our cultural limitations are, how diffuse and individualistic our society has become, how much we are all catered to on a microlevel and yet prevented from making connections in all manner of ways, from Facebook algorithms to media messages that flatter us, politically divide us, and constantly tell us to be suspicious and fearful…how much we are all commoditized. (I’ve often mused half-seriously about running an introduction service for American men and women and their Asian counterparts, knowing how much each is seeking the qualities that the other has, and how unlikely they are to ever meet)
None of this is to say that I haven’t enjoyed being back. I actually have, to the point sometimes of giddiness – but there’s a reason for that. I’ve always been at my core, a playful, quirky character, but that’s been so at odds (sometimes with good reason, I have to admit) with what people are given to expect here that it tends to get classified as some sort of threat or mental illness, and it’s a side of my personality I’ve consequently buried quite a bit. It scares people and they don’t get it.
It’s different in Asia. The goofier and more self-effacing I act, the more I’m subverting their expectations of the pillaging white tourist and the more charmed and disarmed people tend to be. It’s one of the many ways living in Asia allows me to be my best self. So if I take a stumble on the sidewalk and wind up doing a pirhouette and taking a bow, the onlooking Balinese will smile and laugh. In Los Angeles, such a move would be likely to have people thinking you belong in a psych ward.
Except I don’t care anymore, because I don’t live here. If I want to be super friendly and polite to people, if I want to walk around with a big smile on my face or play catch with some paper towels I just bought, I can do so without any worry about what people might have to think about it, if they think it’s appropriate to my age or demographic or the prevailing culture. It’s not going to impact my future social life, my job options, or anything…and I also know I’m not doing it to grab someone’s attention or for any other agenda. I’m doing it because I’m happy being that person and manifesting it and where I live, it’s perfectly acceptable and encouraged. There’s a great freedom in that, which wasn’t really available to me when I lived here. Yeah, maybe I tried out being that guy from time to time, but those thoughts (am I just doing this to get people to notice me? And to some extent I probably was, just as we are all trying to be noticed and the more we try the more inauthentic it appears) were always at the back of one’s head.
The fact is, I’m perfectly happy to be back here, drinking cheap red wine and enjoying tasty Mexican food (though probably I should do those a bit less) hiking wonderful familiar trails, trying to remember how to be a professional musician (nothing like taking a year off while your band keeps playing that whole time to humble you – but I need to seriously raise my game for the Career Celebration Show on October 20th) and replaying old patterns of my life, because I’m leaving again in November. If that wasn’t the case, if it was just going to be this over and over for the next X years just like it already had been, I would be pretty unhappy about this state of affairs. There are ways I could make it work if I had to, but given the prevailing winds of the moment, it would be an uphill climb.
This is the good thing about coming back from Asia, when being in Asia had reached a certain comfort/familiarity level that I was starting to forget some of the things that made it so cool. It really is as simple as I get to be the guy I want to be there, and have the life I want to have. There are some things I give up to make that happen, and there are some patterns that stay the same because it’s still me and I’m still repeating those patterns. But apples to apples, gosh, there’s no comparison about where I belong. I’m glad to be here, and enjoying it immensely. I will feel the same when I leave.
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