Today as I was motorbiking on an unfamiliar road through green rice paddies and fields, past mud-soaked water buffalo and cows with large humps on the back of their neck, I had to pull over because I was on the verge of tears. I stopped to more fully admire the soft rain clouds and mist over the mountains and appreciate all of the things that are around me here in Asia. After 5 years living here (1 in Korea, 2 in China, 2 in Myanmar, plus 2 in Turkey, but those don’t count), I have adapted so many of my habits and preferences.
I can squat on a toilet with only the slightest bend in my ankles- a pose I also now sometimes take while waiting for transportation or choosing the best mango at the local market. And also a pose I’ve considered taking on top of a dirty Western-style toilet—the exact thing so many signs say not to do. I carry tissue in my purse because I know it’s unlikely there will be any toilet paper in the bathroom. I know chopsticks are far more convenient for some foods. I can pick up the slimiest of foods or take the spine out of a small fish with chopsticks. Like my Chinese co-workers, I’ll take a spoon over a fork any day. I crave rice hard if I don’t eat it for about three days. I can appreciate good rice (there are different varieties and qualities and also it takes some skill to get a perfect consistency). I bow my head a little and give a slight squint to smile with my eyes when greeting strangers (though I think the squint comes from Turkey, where I also picked up a wink). I smile at strangers on the road. They can see me because I’m in the open air on a semi-automatic motorbike. This is my preferred mode of transport- independence without the bulk or closed feeling of a car. I do like to bicycle too. For the number 6, my instinct is to give a “hang loose” sign- they count up to 10 on one hand in China and it stuck with me. I also waver my hand in place to show “no” as they do in Myanmar. I put one hand on my other forearm when I’m giving someone something to be polite, as they do in Korea and Myanmar. People look at me funny in Thailand when I do. I try not to point my feet at anyone or directly at anything because it’s rude. I don’t leave chopsticks in a bowl- they must rest on top so they don’t look like incense for the dead. When they’re available, I choose to buy socks and erasers and notebooks with cute animal faces on them. I like to occasionally throw peace signs on both sides of my face for a photo. I document my food regularly in photos. I’m not shocked or amazed when a stranger wants to take a photo with me, though it does make me feel like Mickey Mouse. I am also not surprised to find a live snake, monkey or elephant out for a photo opp. I’m not surprised to find stray animals or farm animals in the street. I lie in wait to stalk and kill mosquitos darting through my bedroom. I don’t worry about geckos in the house because I know they’re on my team. I try not to touch my boyfriend outside of our home. I feel naked if my shoulders, knees or chest are showing and I frown at foreigners who are culturally baring too much skin. I also am alarmed by noisy ones (when I visit “home” this is the thing that annoys me most—I hate understanding all of the ridiculous things that everyone thinks are important enough to talk about). I once rode my bicycle off of the dusty road and into pure dirt because I was too busy staring at a couple of foreigners I didn’t recognize, wondering what the heck they were doing there. I feel drawn to serene temples, I am compelled to bow my head in respect and ask the Buddha for guidance and calm. Rather than saying uh-huh I grunt a sort of eunh noise if I agree with someone or to encourage them to continue their story. The first language that comes to my mind for greeting a stranger is rarely English but it’s also rarely the correct language of the stranger. I use big facial expressions and gestures in case English isn’t enough. I almost don’t notice typos on menus or errors in speech- I know what they mean so I don’t question it. But in turn, this makes me sometimes uncertain of my own language or spelling. Often words come out of me out of order. The backs of my shoes are all scrunched from going barefoot in temples, restaurants, classrooms and homes and being too lazy to put my shoes on properly afterward. My fashion is whack. One day I’m wearing an Indian kurta, the next day a longyi top and a long Turkish skirt, then a shan shirt and culottes, then a business-y button-down with Thai pants, and on the weekend a beachy flowy cover-up or a T-shirt and grandma-fit pants with pineapples from the local market for under $3. “People look at me anyway so I may as well wear what I want.” I don’t know a thing about modern fashion (I’m tourist-chic?). I also don’t know much when people ask where I’m from and want to talk California. I’ve learned to say “I’m from California, but I’ve been living in Myanmar.” People are regularly flabbergasted by the word, country and concept of Myanmar.
In a short month and a half, I will be leaving Asia for the foreseeable future; and in a couple of days I’m leaving the part I know best, this place that I have learned to love and call home. This is where I learned to cook and what to eat (now that I’m celiac). This is where I first dealt with bodily harm. This is where I learned to get up and go to work. This is where I learned how to teach and how to relate to children. This is where I learned how to make a house a home. This is where I learned to budget my money and to pay bills. This is where I learned to plan a trip. This where I learned how to deal with Winter. This is where I learned to be brave. This is where I learned to challenge myself and norms. This is where I learned to take risks. This is where I learned to trust. This is where I learned to be alone. This is where I learned how to cross cultural barriers. This is where I learned to accept help sometimes even when I don’t want it. This is where I learned to smile and always say thank you for niceness. This is where I learned when to follow my gut and say no. This is where I learned to ask for or take the things that I really need. This is where I learned to stand up for myself. This is where I learned when I need to scream. This is where I learned about what it means to be poor or rich, and to really understand the greater value of right and wrong. This is where I learned to value my family as much as they deserve (and I thank them for nurturing me to become someone curious and kind, who can and will go beyond). This is where I learned to understand passion. This is where I fell in love wholly. This is where I learned to give more. This is where I learned to be me—and where I found out who I really am (or maybe I should say where I’m finding out because I am still learning. I hope I never stop learning and growing).
I grew up in American under the guidance of my parents and grandparents, my teachers, social norms, rules, and media. But I was only half-finished. I became an adult here in Asia. I have some new values and I have cemented stronger belief in some old ones. I don’t know if I’m really culturally American any more. But I don’t think Asia would claim me as one of their own either. I’m not sure I fit into any standard box. What’s left? Me and a one-way ticket to Nicaragua (via California for a visit “home.”).