July 4th, 2010



A month ago I referred to myself as being in the "honeymoon stage" of reentry, which drew objections from a friend who said that it's entirely unnotable that I'm happy to return home and find value in my own culture.

However, it seemed notable to me because people who are repatriating often do experience reverse culture shock. Many of my friends who've moved back to the States have expressed only small senses of loss at the transition -- missing the adrenaline of the roundabouts or the beautiful desert sunsets -- but some have talked about more serious reactions, like feeling an emotional disconnect from the friends and family they'd been so eagerly looking forward to visiting. So it seems worth saying that many people do feel a bit lost or disconnected when they come home.

I expected to feel significant ambivalence about leaving Doha after 6 years; after all, I had reverse culture shock after moving back from only 6 months in London. I felt overwhelmed by American grocery stores, and had a surprising sense of loss about the sudden irrelevance of all the small daily things I'd worked so hard to master, like learning the Tube map or how to hold my knife and fork.

After a month back from Qatar, though, I have to say I'm still genuinely thrilled to be home. The most striking feature of American culture to me over the course of this month has been how friendly most people are to each other most of the time. I think that every day I have witnessed some small act of kindness towards strangers: bus passengers shouting to the driver to wait because a slow-moving elderly person was coming, a jogger stopping to check a loose dog's collar for contact information, a stranger letting me know something had fallen out of my pocket. What's more, every time I've wanted to change lanes, merge, or make an unprotected left turn, someone has immediately paused to let me in. All these moments too are tiny and insignificant-seeming, but they add up to feeling like I am in a community where people are looking out for each other. It's strange, because I would never have said that Doha was unfriendly or that people were particularly unsympathetic to each other. Perhaps it's harder there to feel fellow-feeling for people whose lives are so inscrutably different from your own, or perhaps I'd underestimated how much daily interaction was stymied by language barriers. At any rate, I find my heart embarrassingly warmed by every routine pleasantry and small gesture of decency I experience here.

I'm not really one for national days or patriotism, but on this Independence Day I find myself remembering seeing a typo just before we moved to Qatar that referred to Americans in Doha as "ex-patriots" instead of "expatriates." That would make me a repatriot now. And maybe I kind of am. There are lots of really terrible things about the US, and I don't want to be Polyannaish about it, but I can't deny that it's really, really good to be home.