Today is historic.
Since 2005, I haven’t lived in any one place for more than two years. I lived in Luang Prabang for two years before making my exit. I spent a year and eight months in Seattle before moving abroad. Cambridge, Massachusetts was home for a year and ten months before I left for graduate school. I stayed in Qingdao for a year solid. Yinchuan ten months. Shanghai, eleven.
When I moved to Laos, I discovered that the happiest expats were the ones who had been there the longest and were most integrated into the society. They had a solid network of close friendships and sometimes even family in the area.
I had spent my 20s on a mission: go to grad school, go back overseas, don’t get distracted, avoid all commitments that interfere with this plan. One Sunday at church in Cambridge, the pastor was talking about the need to be committed to a city rather than just a consumer of it. That message couldn’t have fallen on more deaf ears. Someone may have needed to hear that word that day, but that person wasn’t me! I’d even made a bet with my roommate that I could go two years without dating because I could think of nothing worse than getting stuck there and forgoing my own plans for grad school on account of a man. What I believed to my core then was that men never follow women, women always follow men. I had my own path to follow. I wasn’t going to be that woman who later would wistfully tell her kids, “I wanted to go to grad school once, but then I met your dad.”
I’d made this same promise to myself again once I got to Seattle for grad school, only this time I wanted to move back overseas. I made no bet or vow of singleness, but still lived by my motto of maintaining a life that was easy—in terms of material things, commitments, and relationships—to quickly exit.
Exit quickly I did. I finished grad school early skipping town even before the ceremony. I took a position overseas at my dream job—a job of impact, creativity, and close connection with community. I felt like I was winning at life: I’d gotten into my first choice grad school then scored a highly rewarding job overseas where I’d get to learn my third (and fourth) Asian language. I’d learned by this time the art of goodbye as well as the art of hello. I was confident in my ability to make friends in a new place because I’d done it five times over the previous seven years. Despite learning to do them well, goodbyes were hard but they were always on my terms; I was the one leaving to chase this dream or that.
I threw myself a nice going away party, entered my first swing dance competition, spent an afternoon zip lining between trees, and then set off for my next great adventure.
People called me brave. I didn’t feel that way. And yet, I didn’t not feel that way. Instead, I felt like I’d lost sensation in my danger/discomfort receptors or been born without them. I just dove headfirst into what interested me. It never felt brave; more like just taking the next step, even if some had been leaps.
Actually, I was a little scared. I had just come out of a three year spiritual funk and knew I was going to be largely without Christian community. I was afraid of what that might mean for my faith, but otherwise, I was overjoyed to go to a place I’d never been and experience a new culture even though it meant I wouldn’t see my family for two whole years. I remember talking to a good friend during the decision making process and she asked, “Are you sure you won’t come back two years older and unmarried and regret that you didn’t stay and find someone?” I thought I’d regret not going more. I would remake all these decisions today if given the chance.
Laos was not what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderfully rewarding experience that taught me more about myself than most other places I’d lived. I got my adventure and my fun but it was often lonely. I had persistent and serious problems breathing. I had a hard time dealing with the bugs, rodents and other pests that sought refuge in my home in the beginning. I got a parasite early on and went on a strict M&Ms only diet for a few weeks because I didn’t know what would and wouldn’t upset my stomach. At the very least, I trusted M&Ms wouldn’t let me down and they didn’t.
It would be wrong to say I reached the end of my ambition in Laos, but the big things I’d wanted—the masters degree and the overseas job—were already mine. The things I’d put off to get them now taunted me. Maybe it’s that we’re never satisfied—though I felt satisfied with my choices—or that I was finally in a place careerwise where I could shift my focus to the other things that I wanted, but I began to really long for a rich community and a partner. Physically, I wasn’t in a place for either. If I stayed in Laos long enough, I knew I could get the former but I also knew that as a black woman in Asia, I’d probably never find the latter.
I came back to the States for three reasons. First and most practical, to pay off my school loans. It didn’t make financial sense for me to stay in Laos. Second, I wanted to try the whole putting down roots thing. I wondered what it’d be like to be in face-to-face community with people for more than two years. And third, I hoped to date and, at some point, eventually get married. I found it challenging to live overseas as a single woman.
These past two years, I’ve more or less failed at making a dent in the first and third items on my wish list, but I am incredibly grateful for the community I’ve landed in. I’ve also discovered that DC is not the best place for people who are looking for stable, enduring relationships as I’ve had to say goodbye to so many more friends here than I ever did anywhere else. I’ve amended my original plan to stay here for ten years to staying for a few more then re-evaluating it.
One of the hard things about being in DC is that the goodbyes have not been on my terms. Friends leave. I didn’t even get to leave my job on my own terms, a painful first for me as well.
Overwhelmingly, though, there is much to celebrate about DC and my time here.
Diversity of cultural stuff to do
I’ve been to the symphony more times than I can count, two operas, a ballet, a play or two, jazz in the garden, swing dancing, salsa dancing, waltzing, masquerade balls.
I love my friends here. Ok, I might be slightly annoyed at how flaky DC people are, but beyond that I love my people. I really feel like I had found my tribe when I landed here and even outside of that circle of people who are true friends, the outer circles are filled with people with shared interests who make me better.
Travel with friends
I’ve gone on a ski trip, two beach trips, camping and hiking trips with friends here. These have been really great ways to connect and get to know people better.
Same thing goes for retreats. At all of the retreats I attend I always meet new people or come away learning something new. I went on the prayer retreat last year, I met some of my closest friends at the first fall retreat I went on with my church, and always have a great time at the retreat for small group leaders.
I love my church. It’s not perfect by any means but I feel more or less comfortable there (haha, sometimes more, sometimes much less but I’ll take the average). Many of my close friends I’ve met through my church and I’ve grown from being a part of that community.
Mmm, mm, m! Can I testify for a minute? Y’all don’t even KNOW how hard it is for a sista living in Asia to have her hair on fleek! This was one of my initial reservations before moving to China: “Who’s gonna do my hair?” This was the ultimate sacrifice. Really, the sad saga of my hair while living overseas is more suited for sharing over coffee, or rather not sharing at all—blotting from my memory and erasing all traces. Coming back to the homeland is like HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH, Halle-lujah, Halle-lujah, Hal-le-lu-jah! I have taken 75% advantage of being in probably the next best place outside of Atlanta and Africa to get my hair hooked up this year. Don’t believe me? Look through my Facebook pictures of when I lived in China and tell me my hair don’t look a hot mess!
Just cause I’m in DC doesn’t mean I couldn’t indulge my love of language class and language learning. Last year, I took Indonesian at the Indonesian embassy.
The means to enjoy the city
Grateful that I’m not in DC as a grad student or entry level worker. At least while I had a job, it was nice to be able to have the funds to enjoy the city.
Time to enjoy the city
Again, if I were in grad school my whole DC experience would be different. I’m grateful for time to enjoy the city.
I’ve gone rock climbing, apple picking, ice skating, touring the Washington monument, caroling, Easter egg hunting with friends. There have been game nights, Messiah singalongs, rice and beans football watching parties, Korean food outings, movie nights, outdoor movies, picnics in Meridian Hill Park. I’ve seriously had so much fun hanging with friends.
Regular lunches with friends
One of my close friends that I met at my first fall retreat and I discovered that we worked next door to each other so every Wednesday we’d meet up for lunch. I really appreciated the consistency of seeing a person same time same place weekly. Another two ladies I got to know through a course I took through my church also worked close to my office and we’d meet up for lunch every other Tuesday. Grateful for recurring commitments with friends.
I have access to a real gym! I don’t use it enough, but yay for access. I did do much better this year than any other year since I’ve been back in the States about going to the gym and eating healthy. Haha, what a strong wave of nostalgia I’m feeling. Time to get back to the gym I suppose! Also, my trainer is great.
Being a part of more family stuff
Being back and being in DC means I’m much closer to home in southeastern Virginia. I’ve been able to go home for birthdays, holidays, just becauses, a baby shower, and a funeral. I would have missed these things if I’d been overseas. It’s nice to be able to participate in family get togethers.
Winter and summer
I definitely got my fill of summer temps in Laos, but I have to say, as someone whose favorite season was winter first before including summer on the list, that I’ve been pleased with the DC winter I got last year. The first snow is really special to me (must be all that Korean drama and movie watching rubbing off of me) and I remember standing on the street in Chinatown during the first snow of the season last year and being so giddy. Who knows, maybe this year’s first snow will be special. I digress. My point: I love that it was so cold this past winter and so hot this past summer and supposed to be even colder this winter. These seasons make me happy.
I don’t like sports but I do enjoy going to games and occasionally participating in some. I’ve gone to a handful of baseball and soccer games; I played on my alumni softball league team as long as I could last year before it became uncomfortable, awkward, and obvious that I didn’t know the rules; and ran three races with at least a few folks coming in behind me.
DC is a surprisingly gorgeous city. I love row houses and all the historical architecture makes me so happy. I love a good city with history and you can’t really beat DC. Well…ok, there was a lot of history where I grew up too around Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg, but DC does alright.
My two years in DC can only be described as full. One of my old coworkers used to say that I do in a weekend all the socializing she usually did in an entire month. I’ve made a lot of close acquaintances and friends. I hope soon to be on my second job in the same city, a new experience for me as job changes have always had location changes too. I’ve had three wonderful roommates. My capacity to love has increased. I have been brave in confronting and resolving conflict in relationships. Even though I’m not overseas, which I often miss and am tempted by, life in DC is good.
While the cost of living makes paying my student debt off quickly seem daunting and I can’t seem to get anyone I like to like me back, I continue to plod forward in fits and starts toward those goals. I do however look forward to digging in to more of that community goodness over the next year. And who knows, if the stars align, maybe even a little of that romance stuff I’ve heard about, and if I’m really lucky, at the first snowfall.