Before I post my own blog about being back in the US, for those of you wondering how I’m partially feeling, I had a fellow SAS-er post this:
There is a story that I like to tell my students about a fish in a fishbowl. There is a way in which a fish swimming around in a fishbowl knows nothing at all about water. Because water is so much a part of the fish’s life. It’s surrounded by water … it’s embedded in water. In that sense, the fish does not really know water. If you want the fish to really understand water, you have to take the fish out of the fishbowl and say, “Look, that’s water.” Now … if you put the fish back in … the water doesn’t look the same any more. Well, in a certain sense, we’ve all been taken out of our fishbowls. You have been out of your fishbowl for three and a half months. Now you have to go back.
It may not happen immediately. Caught up in the excitement of seeing your friends and your relatives … it may take a day. Maybe a week. But sooner or later there is going to be a moment. It might happen to you at the airport. It might happen to you in your hotel room. Maybe not until you get home. But sooner or later there is going to be a moment when you realize that the world just doesn’t “fit” the way it fit before.
Many of your friends … even your good friends … are going to seem suddenly, strangely … stupid. You’ll want to talk about India. And they will say, “Yeah. Right. That sounds great.” And somehow that is just not going to be enough. And you’ll say, “Yes, but I was at Varanassi … let me tell you about the colors and the smells and the people … and the babies! Let me tell you about the babies!” And your friends will say, “Uh huh.” And you will watch their eyes glaze over as they smile and not and glance over your shoulder. So you will try Vietnam. “You know, I was in Vietnam. Saigon. Well, really it’s Ho Chi Minh City, but everybody just calls it Saigon. And they have the most unbelievable traffic! Hardly any traffic lights … and no one pays attention to them anyway.” And your friends will say, “Oh.”
And then your friends will suddenly get enthusiastic again when they begin to tell you all the great things that you missed while you were gone. Like that big party … where everybody threw up on each other. And that really funny episode of “Greys.” And they will start telling you some of the lines … and laughing as they are telling them to you. And you will be crawling out of your skin.
And you’ll say, “But I saw beggars. I saw children begging. Did you know that parents sometimes actually maim their kids to make them better beggars?” And your friends will say, “Awesome.” And you’ll know they don’t get it. In fact, you might even begin to wonder if some of your friends really know what it means for something to be … awesome. Standing on the Great Wall of China and seeing it zig zag off across the mountains and into the mist, that’s awesome. Waking up in a hammock on a small boat chugging up the Amazon River, that’s awesome. Looking out across the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal at dusk, is awesome. The big party you missed while you were gone, isn’t.
And you are going to hear yourself sounding pretentious. You won’t feel pretentious, but you are going to hear yourself sounding pretentious. You know, here on the ship, if you are sitting around with one of your friends or your roommate and you start a sentence like, “One night in Saigon I was taking a cyclo back from the War Remnants Museum …” That doesn’t sound odd, here. But can’t you just see your friends back home, rolling their eyes? You are going to have to choose between sounding pretentious and being silent. And you are going to long to be back here with us … where you can be normal.
And maybe you have a relationship back home. An important one. One that seem really comfortable and promising … last August. Oh boy. All those emails you wrote … or didn’t write? Some of them maybe feeling a little forced as you wrote them? That relationship might not feel right any more. Like an old pair of jeans that’s all broken in, but out of style. And you think, “I just can’t do this any more.”
Many of you have become independent on this voyage. Much more genuinely concerned about the world. About other people. Stronger. Braver. Better than you were last August. And the life that you had planned for yourself might not seem big enough any more. You might be thinking about changing directions. A new major. A new career. Maybe even a new country. Who are you going to talk to? How are they going to understand?
There are a thousand little ways in which the world is just not going to fit anymore. And a thousand little reminders that it doesn’t fit. Television commercials are going to look really stupid. Houses and cars are going to be obscenely big. Restrooms are going to be disgustingly sanitary. Salespeople will look at you like you’re an idiot when you try to bargain. And everybody is going to have so much … stuff
Even words aren’t going to seem the same. You’ll hear the word, “Singapore.” Singapore is a place … it’s not just a word. Cape Town. It all comes back. It’s not just a word any more. How could you have possibly imagined, back in August, that you would spend the rest of your life smiling whenever you thought of the words … Mister Skylight. The world is never going to be the same again.
So what do you do? Well, I think one of the things that you have to do is to forgive your friends. Looking at your pictures … listening to your stories … it’s not the same as having been there. You know that. You’ve looked at people’s vacation pictures before. You know that pictures can’t capture the same experience. They are going to looking at it … and listening to it … you’ve lived it. It has changed you … it hasn’t changed them. So you have to be a little patient with them … you have to be a little forgiving if they don’t quite get it. But I think that you can only do that if they are willing to let you be the person you have become. It is not the places you have been to … and it is not the things that you have done that have to be shared. It is who you have become that has to be shared. You don’t have to find people who have been around the world to understand you, but you have to find people to understand you. And if your friends won’t let you be the person you have become, make new friends. There are plenty of people out there. Let me give you a good suggestion. You know those foreign students on your campus? Those strange people with the accents? You see them wondering around confused and not knowing what building to go in to. Been there. Done that. Go talk to them.
There are a lot of people out there who can confirm who you are … and who you are becoming. Even if that it is not clear to you now. In many ways, the person you will be six months from now is still developing right outside of consciousness. You don’t know yet how much you have changed. And you won’t know for another six months or a year. It isn’t a good idea to make any major life decisions before then. You may want to … but give yourself some time.
Yesterday I suggested that you might want to find a cause … something that you believe in … and work for it. I think that’s a good idea. But I’m not worried about you. I don’t think that you need to be urged to do that … you don’t even need to be reminded to do that. I think you are going to have to do that in order to feel at home. If the world doesn’t fit any more, then you have to create a world for yourself that does fit. A place where you can feel at home.
I have been on this ship before … and gone home. So has Dean Campbell … Dean Wright … Dr. Jack … and some others. We’ve all been taken out of our fishbowls and put back in again. And I think I can speak for all of them when I say, “Come on in. The water’s fine.”