Monday, September 5, 2016

As the World Turns: Going native

By Ed Rogers

I can’t remember the first time I heard the term “going native.” I’m willing to bet it was in a movie, but I also heard it when I was in the Army. Soldiers who had spent too much time in-country found upon returning that they had a hard time being around their fellow soldiers. It was as though their common link had broken. I had a friend in the State of Washington who had been a Green Beret and done three tours in Nam. He once told me, “I don’t belong here.” I laughed and said something stupid like, “Hell man, this is your home.”
    Until now I never knew what these people were feeling and going through. To go native means you become part of a different world and no longer think of yourself as belonging to the USA. That is not to say you stop being an American – you just stop thinking like one. Then, back in the environment that was your home for most of your life, you feel like a stranger. Its sights, sounds, food, and people have become foreign to you, and you long to be among those in that other world you had become comfortable with, whose different culture you had been assimilated into – in whose country you had gone native.
    Most migrants have one thing in common: We all plan on coming back to our native country someday. A number of people have shared their experiences with me. And Rolf shared his parents’ story of leaving Germany after World War II to come to America. They were planning to return home someday, but upon their return in 1957, they slowly realized that their old country felt strangely uncomfortable and chose to go back to the United States, where they had become embedded in the large German-American society of German immigrant clubs in Cleveland. Giving up your old language is harder than giving up your old country. Many did return to the old country and lived happy lives. But for some, it was no longer home.
    I hope to explore why some can return to their home country while others – like me – feel like strangers. In the book A Century of European Migrations, 1830-1930, edited by Rudolph J. Vecoli and Suzanne M. Sinke, Vecoli states that “returning to the old country was the original strategy of most of the immigrants.” He went on to say, “What has to be explained is not the decision to return, but the decision to remain.”
    It is easy to explain why some stay. It is not for a better life or more money. That may have been all of our aspirations in the beginning, but along the way, something happened within our brain, something we were not even aware of. I for one loved Costa Rica immediately and continued to love it, but I still believed that one day I would return to my home country. Frank Thistlethwaite, in an essay delivered in Stockholm in 1960, stated, “We should think neither of emigrants nor immigrants, but of migrants, and treat the process of migration as a complete sequence of experiences whereby the individual moves from one social identity to another.” That is what had happened to me – my social identity had changed without me knowing it. I began to think and feel Costa Rican, and upon my return to the States I found myself a stranger.

My friend Wally spent six years in Russia as a missionary and fought the feeling of loss for a long time upon returning to the United States. I would like to share some of his story:
I felt like a fish out of the water looking for a stream. I still feel a loss and most of that may be due to our isolationism. My wife is and always has been a very private person. Before Russia, we had close, close friends that we shared life with and with whom I could share anything on my mind. Though we returned for visits during our six years away, these friends moved on with their lives, as they should have, and never became those close confidants again. We were never able to plug back into the church scene that had lovingly sent us out on the mission to Russia. By the time we returned for good it was said by a close friend to me that “Russian missions were no longer the flavor of the month,” so our church leadership and many of the flock simply didn’t know how to help us repatriate. Some did try to help with our re-adjustment, so the blame is not 100% the church’s. Eventually after a few years – maybe four – we drifted away from this fellowship and became disillusioned, un-churched believers. We still are of this mindset today.
    The feeling of not belonging is hard to overcome. It isn’t something that can be explained – it needs to be felt. I hate it when someone tells me they are happy I’m home. I know they mean well, but in my head, I hear: Welcome to Hell!

Then there is my friend Harvey, who went to Costa Rica with hopes to live out his life there. He invested his money and time in his dream and came away bitter. I, on the other hand, did none of that. Back in my youth I had been tempted to invest in a dive shop in Greece. A friend talked me out of it – thankfully. His advice, about not playing poker with someone unless you know the rules better than they do, has always stayed with me. I asked my friend back from Costa Rica how returning to the States had affected him:
Well, that’s a question I ask myself and am asked by others as well. To answer in fairness is difficult for me, considering the phenomenally unfair treatment – downright criminal treatment – I have suffered at the hands of agents of the Costa Rica government and legal system. There have been kindnesses from Costa Rican people, here and there, but after 12 years I must concur with Alvaro Arias’s warning that 99% of Ticos are after your money and whatever else they can get their hands on and would just as soon you go back destitute to where you came from in order to make room for a new victim. As another guy once said (and he’s married to a Tica and has a baby), “Costa Rica would be great if it weren’t for the Costa Ricans.”
    So, the fishing, the monkeys, the topography, the climate, my own little house with bananas, and my new fig tree in the yard, my little dog, mamacita, whose passing at the hands of a trusted vet was unnecessarily painful – sure, I miss those things. But the structure of the society and the culture of greed and dishonesty that pervades daily life – no thanks, gotta pass. I was so happy to get back here. I can hardly wait to divest myself of any connection at all with Costa Rica. It is a third-world Latin American country and all that that implies.
    I never found this to be the case. The people I knew in Costa Rica were warm, open, and caring. These were not the business people of Costa Rica, however. I am sure that that class of people does lay in wait for gringos, or anyone else with a large amount of money. This to me is a worldwide problem and not limited only to third-world countries. My wife, although not as bitter as the friend quoted above, also had bad experiences and is having no problem being back in the States. But there must be more to it than that. People have bad things happen to them here in the States, but the first thought that comes into their head isn’t to move to some other country.
    Like so many other expats, I never knew that I had gone native. In my wife’s and my mind we always planned to go back home.

Here is how time fooled Geoffrey, another expat:
At first I viewed my time in Bulgaria on a year-by-year basis, imagining that after one more year I would return to the US. That was 1991-1996. Then I began to imagine it in 5-year segments. This was from the time that I joined the Dimov Quartet at the start of 1997. In 2008, when I renewed my permanent resident status, I was given a renewal for ten years, until 2018. Or it may have been in 2003, for 15 years. Being promoted to Associate Professor at the American University was another factor in reimagining my life as firmly taking place in Bulgaria, indefinitely. That and being able to pursue meaningful musical projects that allowed me to perform music that I was deeply interested in, such as the complete Beethoven string quartets and cello sonatas, or that brought me in contact with musicians (both professional and aspiring, representing different generations and stylistic orientations) from around the Balkans, Europe, and beyond. So in many ways, even though I did spend 7-8 weeks each summer in the US, I was not ready to return for good, and didn’t really consider it seriously for some time before, in 2014, I did not go back as scheduled….
    I did not immediately respond when you asked for input, because, although I am perfectly happy and comfortable with my present life in the US and feel competent to lead it, I am still working through my remaining connections with Bulgaria and trying to come to terms with being an ex-ex-patriate. It is not an easy process, and not responding is perhaps part of my reluctance to focus on that process as such, because it brings up issues and emotions that are not much fun and distract me from my present life.
From my cousin Down Under, Vic:
Having grown up for the most part in India, visiting America only on three occasions somewhere along the way in my first 17 years (perhaps for survival), I seem to have decided that wherever I was, was “home.” I have also lived fairly extensively in three other countries besides India, the U.S., and Australia, and I have visited 34 others, taking my time in each to seek out the “real” of each.
    A recent happening caused me to discover something about myself that totally floored me: I would rather die in America than in Australia. Astounding, I felt! How is that possible? Everyone tells me I am far more Aussie than American, and I feel that way too.
    I don’t know whether that feeling will change back, but that is how I feel now. And this might be a clincher linked to your troubled repatriation disturbances, Ed: I am willing to change my mind on anything, anytime, and forever, if my personal need becomes great enough. However, for now, I choose to seek out others, like you, who are willing to unconditionally delve into the true, direct, and meaningful.
One more friend, Paul, shared his thoughts on the matter, thoughts that seem very real to me:
I have friends who have had nothing but great experiences in Africa, and yet they loathe the place and the people. I saw someone near and dear to me killed right in front of me, yet I love the place and the people. No, I don’t love the zealots who run around killing people for some bullshit pseudo-religious reason, or the corrupt police and politicians, but the rest of them are great. So I don’t know if how we feel about a place is as simple as our experience; I wonder if it is instead what we feel about ourselves and what type of situation turns a key in an unknown psychological lock buried so deep within us we don’t even know it is there. It may be some sort of primordial instinct rearing its head – some people live in fear of being attacked by a mugger, other people hope it happens because they think they have a good chance of winning the battle, or they truly believe the second happiest person in the arena is the loser.
    One of the first books I read that really spoke to me was Jack London’s Call of the Wild. There is a passage in there about the irony of life being that one feels most alive when most deeply involved in something (battle, pursuit, whatever) you forget about life. Maybe when some of us find a place (Africa, Nam, Costa Rica) that speaks to us in that primordial dialect, we finally feel fully alive, and when we go back to some tamer place (like the US) with no such wildness to offer us, we never again feel alive. Maybe that is why we never re-connect even if we return to the place we grew up in and once thought of as home?
Take from all of this what you can. Like Jack London said, in Costa Rica I found time to be a meaningless distraction. I forgot about life and lived.
    Another friend told me that after a three-week visit in a European city, he and his wife continue to feel a connection with the city and miss it. However, that feeling of attraction isn’t what I speak of. I fell in love with Costa Rica from the first day. But simply missing it and wanting to be there again is not what I’m dealing with. It is more like seeing a beautiful woman and thinking, Man, I would love to marry her. We all bring some bad shit to a relationship, so until you have seen the bad (which you can’t in the space of a short vacation), you can’t know whether you can live with it. Many expats fall in love with their new country, but leave calling her a bitch.

Copyright © 2016 by Ed Rogers


  1. Recently repatriated to the U.S. from Costa Rica, Ed Rogers explores why some expats can return comfortably to their home country while others – like him – feel like strangers.

  2. Thanks for sharing everyone ! Enjoyed these thoughts.

  3. All great input! I never thought of my feelings,returning to the States, from the Philippine Islands. Loved it there and wanted to stay. I was not looking forward to returning particularly from military life back to civilian. Unresolved feelings.

    1. I had no idea, Sharon. I would have loved to have added your voice to the others. It is something I had never heard anyone speak of before. I have people say how sad they were to leave a country they had called home for many years but I had no idea that the sadness they were speaking about went so deep.

    2. Sharon, I suspect that you had once told me about the Philippines (though maybe not) and I forgot, and so didn't think of you in connection with Ed's project. I apologize if I did forget.

    3. Sharon, could you say more now, in a comment (if not in a follow-up article by Ed, if still more cases come to light), about your experience returning to the U.S.?

  4. Most of my Peace Corps friends (including my wife), report a re-entry problem. "How can people live so wastefully?"
    They report getting used to it again after a few months, though

    1. Chuck, I think there's a technical term in rhetoric for your artful concluding sentence ("They report getting used to it again after a few months, though"), but I don't know what it is. Something to do with understatement, I think. Nice!
          The reality, of course, isn't nice. Here's a paragraph from an upcoming 9/11 piece by Bob Boldt:

      I don’t care whose statistic you use – it is not going to be possible for every Chinese, Russian, Afghani, Indian, Mexican (add whoever you want to add to the list) to have an SUV, a TV/DVD, an air conditioner, internet access, garbage pick-up every Tuesday, and two packs of cigarettes a day for life. We have taught the people of the world well and they all want exactly what we want. I cannot see how there is any hope for the survival of the human race under these circumstances, unless we (meaning the U.S.) also begin to practice a level of conservation that clearly the overwhelming majority of the people in this country seem unwilling to do.

    2. It was reportage, not art. They knew before they left that the American Dream is unsustainable, they certainly knew afterward. Still, they live in houses and drive cars, and would not willingly stop. Me neither. Not many Ghandis among us, are there?

    3. You're right, of course, Chuck – not "rhetoric" at all. I think I over-reacted to the statement's simple purity. If not a "senior moment," then an "aesthete's"?

  5. I'm not so sure getting over it are the right words, Chuck. I believe we adapt because we have to adapt, we don't get over "IT". The "IT" is what I was searching for in the article. Costa Rica is not a rich country but it is not poor as we think of as poor. While others have lived in very poor countries, we all seem to have the same experience upon returning, a sense of loss. So "IT" has to be more than just the fact that Americas are wasteful. Maybe, you could forward the article to some of your friends and ask their opinion and maybe even your wife. I would be very interested to see what they have to add. Thanks for you addition.

    1. I suspect that the returning Peace Corps volunteers' reaction to the country's wastefulness, after living among people who had little or nothing to waste, was only one of many reactions, especially among any of the volunteers who to any extent "went native" while on their mission. It'll be interesting to learn whether Chuck's wife had any cohorts who seemed to have done that, and, of course, whether they told her about any of their more serious "re-entry" problems.

    2. Yes, I was a little to one side of your point; my friends were specifically shocked at a) how extreme the American way of life is, and b) how quickly they again accepted it as normal. I have no insight on your "IT". I haven't experienced it (my only long-term relationship was Antarctica.) Those with better opportunity haven't mentioned a sense of loss. Indeed, a friend recently returned from Moldova ended up disgusted with their learned helplessness in the face of corruption. She's now in Rawanda, and speaks well of the people - but is clearly weary of the petty hardships of third world life. I'll ask around, starting with Esther.