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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

|

JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2017

97

REFLECTIONS

Rip VanWinkle in the Foreign Service

BY DONNA SCARAMASTRA GORMAN

W

e were gone for a decade,

living in Asia, the Middle

East and Eastern Europe.

When you land in Beijing

without knowing a word of Chinese, you

expect to be overwhelmed. As a woman

who doesn’t cover in a Muslim country,

you know you’ll get some curious, maybe

even hostile, stares.

But when you go “home” again, noth-

ing quite prepares you for the feeling of

being a stranger in your own city. My first

day back, I watched in confusion as the

people in line in front of me at the coffee

shop put their phones up to a scanner,

one after another. What on earth were

they doing? Who knew you could pay for

a latte with your phone?

I paid cash. It took a while, because

I had to pick through my wallet, search-

ing for proper American coins amongst

the kopecks, euros and dinar. I gave the

cashier a broad grin, “I just came back

from Russia.” She stared back at me

blankly, confused by my confusion.

Once fully caffeinated, I needed to

purchase a phone and a phone plan. At

my last two posts, I was given an option:

Do you want this plan? Or no plan at all?

Here they won’t sell you a phone plan

until you tell them how many gigabytes

of data you’ll be using. And will you be

streaming Spotify? How about Netflix?

Again, I grinned foolishly and asked

the salesperson to explain gigabytes of

Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared

in

Newsweek

,

The Washington Post

and the

Christian Science Monitor

. An FS

spouse, she has lived in Amman, Moscow, Yerevan, Almaty and Beijing. Gorman,

her Diplomatic Security officer husband and four children recently returned to

the Washington, D.C., area.

data to me, telling him I’d been overseas

so long that I still remembered unplug-

ging the phone in my old house in order

to access dial-up internet.

He looked vaguely interested. Or

appalled, maybe. He had those strange

plastic hole things embedded in each

ear, stretching his earlobes to the size of

silver dollars. It made me feel vaguely

ill, staring through those holes while he

talked.

Everywhere I went, I felt compelled

to explain—Rip Van Winkle-style—that I

wasn’t really a foreigner, it’s just that I’d

been away. A few people nodded sym-

pathetically. “State Department, right?”

they’d ask, before moving on. Most

people didn’t care at all.

Sometimes, walking through the gro-

cery store aisles, I’d get a bit dizzy. Those

bright ceiling lights! The shiny floors! The

row upon endless row of breakfast cereal!

Everything seemed overwhelming, and

I was certain the other shoppers were all

laughing at my befuddlement.

Other times, though, I realized

nobody was noticing me at all. Did I

really look the same as all of these other

suburban parents wandering the aisles?

Didn’t anybody realize I’d been off on a

decade-long adventure?

I had to stifle the urge to casually

mention this fact to the guy behind the

counter slicing the cheese. “We didn’t

have this kind of cheese in Jordan,” I

wanted to tell him, just to make sure he

knew I was different somehow.

Repatriating is a strange beast. You

want to fit in; you want to stand out.

Sure, it’s great that people here mostly

stop for red lights, and nobody drives

down the sidewalk. But you miss that

sense of wonderment combined with

annoyance that you used to feel every

time a shepherd crossed the highway

with his flock during your morning com-

mute.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table in our

temporary apartment, going over the

bills with my husband, trying to figure

out how to pay for everything associ-

ated with this move. How much money

will he make here in the States? How

will I find a job after 10 years of random

embassy employment?

One of the kids wanders by, and sighs

deeply. “Will we ever go on an airplane

again? Maybe just to the Caribbean? Or

to Cuba?” he asks. The whole family, it

seems, is waking up to our new real-

ity—the idea of a life lived at home in the

United States, the way normal people

do it.

It’s hard being normal again, after all

those years spent not fitting in.

n

Didn’t anybody realize I’d been off

on a decade-long adventure?