by Gabriela Aleman

I’m back. I’m back in the United States. And I’m not going to lie—it’s weird. How could I find my home country more strange and foreign than an actual foreign country? Suddenly, my adaptable nature has been put to the test… back home.

Leaving my school in Bali was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do; I had created a family and a home there, but unlike most homes, I didn’t know when I’d be returning. When I said goodbye to my friends and family in America, eight months was the timeline. When I said goodbye to my students and Balinese friends, I came up empty-handed. You make lots of promises, reassuring that you’ll be back soon, because no one wants to acknowledge the reality. Tears were shed as my car drove out the gate of the school for the last time, and as I sat alone at the terminal in the Denpasar airport, I seriously considered missing my flight.

And then I pulled it together and by the time I made it to my lay-over in Taiwan, I was starting to feel the buzz of excitement again. I thought about my brother and sister, who coincidentally were waiting for me at the San Francisco airport dressed in cow costumes in order to make me laugh; I thought about my friends that I’d be able to contact again, about my parents, and about the fun summer I’d be having in San Francisco. It was with these thoughts that I ran into my brother and sister’s furry arms.

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But now I’ve been here for a week and my personality doesn’t seem to mesh with those of Americans anymore. I’m overwhelmed by overstimulation in the streets; after not being able to understand the languages around me for eight months, I became good at blocking it out. But here, every conversation holds some sort of interesting, or not, piece of information. I miss pop-culture references; jokes and social cues slip just out of reach; and my phone, which I can use 24/7 now, updates me on everything I don’t care to know about.

It hasn’t all been rough though; San Francisco is a wonderful city with equally wonderful food. How did I live without creamy pasta, cheesy pizza, bagels, and Ghirardelli chocolate for so long?? The people are quirky and interesting and receptive. To everyone I meet, I’m that girl that just came back from traveling abroad, which by now, has made every conversation I have about more or less about the same thing.

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But I get it. I understand the fascination; I understand that I just finished doing something relatively unprecedented, and, even though no one will ever really understand what I experienced, it makes me excited to talk about it, to open people’s worlds to the possibilities out there. They’ll tell me they’re impressed, or amazed, and I try to bring it down to their level and admit: anyone can do it. I’m not special.

And so I’m back. And it’s great but also difficult, and I accept that, and I’m working on it. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not which I think is the most important thing. I’m excited for what is to come, but I know I’ll never forget what those eight months taught me abroad. I know when I begin university at Chapel Hill, the impact of those eight months will become much more apparent. But until then, I want to focus on myself and experiencing my once familiar home in a new way, through new eyes and with a new mind.