Twenty-two years old, and freshly returned to North America after a year spent in France, I was craving junk. Almost twelve months of craft cheeses, bread, crunchy, golden and exquisite, and choucroute rich, fatty and sour, all I could think of was a peanut buster parfait at Dairy Queen.
And so, that’s what I ordered on my first post Europe outing with my girlfriends. Waiting at the counter, I counted out my change. I had just enough, without having to break a twenty.
The cashier announced the total; about 50 cents more than the listed menu price. I was shocked. I fumbled for a moment, confused at the discrepancy, wondering if she was trying to rip me off. As I handed her a twenty, I asked her, cocksure with my newfound French recalcitrance, why the price was MORE than what was listed on the menu board.
“The tax,” she said, as though I was the biggest idiot in the world. And I kind of was for forgetting about that detail, so pervasive a part of Canadian life.
After a year of paying exactly what was listed on the price tag, an add-on tax seemed foreign to me, despite the fact that for 21 years of my life it was very much native.
And so goes the way of the expat. As we move through foreign lands, our own ways and modes of being slowly erode, and we disremember what once was natural.
This trip back to North America is no different. I’m forgetting how to be a North American. In my mum’s minivan waiting for a light to turn, a wave of anxiety pass over me, as I fret about what lane I should be in. Is it the left? Or maybe the right?
When I return to my hometown, I’m lost, turned around, amazed at how the landscape has changed in my absence. My aunt gives me directions to a shop that I want to check out. She names off roads and landmarks. They sound familiar, but I can’t place them in my mental map. Routes that were once part of my regular territory are now uncharted. I’m from there, but not really any more.
At a coffee shop, I’m paralyzed with self-doubt for a moment. Where do I order? What kind of drink to I want? How does this work, exactly? I feel exactly as I do when freshly arrived in a new country: unsure, self-conscious, strange. The girl behind the counter senses my hesitation and I want to explain, I’m not from here. But my pale skin, my familiar accent, the car keys in my hand betray me. I’m from here, I guess. But not really.
Stella and I are heading back to Japan this week, and I’m looking forward to being back at home. I’m from there. But not really.