Repatriation sounds like a dirty word. And it is. A lot of emotional and mental mess comes with moving from a foreign place you called home back to the place you originally called home. A lot of that mess comes from expecting to be able to fall right back in with how things were before you left—the same friendships, the same habits, the same communities, the same you. But those things aren’t the same as when you left, and the most different of them all is you.
In the year and a half I was away, my siblings grew up. My church family is made up almost entirely of a new group of people. People got married, had kids, moved away. And in my own year and a half, I learned a new language, made new friends, changed my habits, and learned more or less how to be at home in a completely different culture.
Bringing all of those experiences back with me wasn’t as simple as just packing up my suitcases for the plane ride, which I’ll assure was no easy task in and of itself. And sharing those experiences wasn’t as easy as unpacking my suitcase and showing off my Bulgarian pottery or books or tablecloths.
Even though I’ve been back over four months, I still have no context for many of my overseas experiences and stories. Many people don’t have a clue what I’m talking about when I explain my favorite Bulgarian foods. Most people don’t understand when I explain my yearning for at least one chance to walk to the grocery store, or chat up the lady at the fruit stand before I buy half a kilo of cherries she picked that morning.
In my head I know that this is the same experience in reverse of when I would try to explain living by the river to my Bulgarian friends, or fireflies and starry skies to kids who had only ever lived in the confines of a Bulgarian city. But my heart doesn’t understand the similarities of the two experiences. It only feels yearning—for both places.
And that’s where the mess of repatriation comes in. Is it wrong to miss my new country when I have the blessing to be back in my native one? Is it wrong to take my native country for granted and forget the foreign country that showed me hospitality and kindness and grace? Sometimes I feel guilt that I can enjoy bluebell ice cream or a quick drive to the grocery store when I know my Bulgarian friends never will. And sometimes I’m confused when I have to make a schedule to meet a friend, or when I take for granted that I can hop in my car and drive anywhere I need to.
But those feelings are comparable to times in Bulgaria when I would feel guilty about the far places of the world I got to see that none of my American friends had experienced, or when I would feel confusion at the beautiful parks full of snow, or the fresh produce markets I took for granted because they filled my every day.
The guilt and confusion come in deciding, what should I like more? I love my native country. But I also love the country that became home to me in the past two years. They have both nurtured and grown me in ways the other couldn’t. Now that I’m back in my ‘home’ country, my native country, I realize that BOTH Bulgaria AND the United States are my homes now, in different ways. It’s not wrong to miss and love both of them. My experience as an expat grew me and shaped me, and the most gracious and grateful thing I can do with that experience is to acknowledge its place in my life.
I can love both Bulgaria’s yellow sunflower fields as far as the eye can see and the lazy mayfly haze that hovers above the tall grasses shimmering in the Oklahoma sunset. I can appreciate the chilling beauty of Bulgaria’s snowy mountain vistas just as much as Oklahoma’s mile-long sunset shadows across the flat fields and the golden sunlight that seeps in through your skin. I can remember the grey ghetto dirt just as fondly as the Oklahoma red that sifts through my socks. I can long for the taste of fresh strawberries and yoghurt just as much as I enjoy homemade ice cream sweetened by good company. And it’s alright for my heart to race through the peaks at memories of rushing mountain streams just as quickly as it races when the lazy Oklahoma rivers trip along their banks and stir my childhood awake in me.
Repatriation, I’m learning, is largely a personal thing. I am the one most changed by it. I carry the change with me, and if I let it, it will continue to grow in me and stretch my heart wide enough to carry two loves for two very different countries.
You all know by now that Tolkien’s deep, earthy Middle Earth stories are some of my favorites. And it should come as no surprise to you that the picture I think best encompasses my repatriation comes from them. In the film version of The Hobbit, the main character Bilbo was just an ordinary, armchair variety person until he was called off into the wide world for an adventure. Near the end of his adventure as he sits musing on it, he pulls an acorn from his pocket—one he picked up along the journey.
The leader of his traveling companions asks him, “You’ve carried it all this way?”
Bilbo answers, “I’m going to plant it in my garden, in Bag End.”
The leader of the amazing adventure, a king himself, surrounded by a royal hall filled with treasures, remarks, “It’s a poor prize to take back to the Shire.”
But Bilbo answers thoughtfully, “One day it’ll grow. And every time I look at it, I’ll remember. Remember everything that happened: the good, the bad … and how lucky I am that I made it home.”
My experience overseas feels in many ways like a small acorn I carry with me, unsure of what to do with it. As I’ve continued to examine and sort through my last two years of adventures overseas, I’ve noticed it growing. Planted in my native soil, my kernel of experience has already sprouted and become a sapling. As I remember my experiences, good and bad, I remember what they’ve taught me. And that tiny tree has already stretched my heart big enough to love my two countries as my two homes.