Returning to the Nation that Pretends You’re Welcome
When Going Back Means Facing Depression Because Not Enough Has Changed
Two nights ago, I was Netflixing Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. A part of the documentary, which linked Davis’s introduction to heroin addiction, reminded me of how depressed I became knowing that I was returning to the US, after 2 years of living my best life abroad. Like Davis I had lived the “illusion of the possible” and leaving it behind caused me to feel a mixture of negative emotions, that unfortunately I am still faced with in 2020.
In 2013 the urge to leave the USA grew stronger and stronger. I knew that I needed to experience life abroad and get a break from the chaos in this country. Time passed and in 2016 the opportunity presented itself, after dealing with racist coworkers who were relentless in their pursuit of my unhappiness on a daily basis. I could no longer listen to the microaggressions and distasteful conversations in our department meetings about the Black children we claimed to be collectively be teaching.
One of my coworkers casually revealed her ignorance in stating that all Black men did is “make babies and leave them.” I had to shut her down real quick, explaining that though that may be the case in some homes that it was not the case in my family, immediate or distant and that she should refrain from making stereotypical comments to anyone about black families, since she was a bitter Italian woman whose personal life was in shambles. Yes, I took her comment personal despite her speaking generally. This woman complained about everything and had no solutions for any problems she brought up to administrators in her disrespectful rants during professional development days. She was one of many Trump supporters who was vocal about her disdain towards Black people, in a school where the student body was approximately 97% Black. Working there I often felt isolated and disrespected. Discussions about work often came up in my therapy sessions.
So when I decided to relocate to an Asian country under a one-year contract to teach English I was excited to be escaping the madness of the past few years. I had some sobering moments that left me shocked. Honestly, I expected to have a transformation of some kind. I knew I would NOT return the same, but I had no idea how the change would come or what would be different.
There were 3 things that were unexpectedly revealed. I became aware of the emotional baggage I was carrying around, even in spaces that were supposed to be peaceful and safe.
Sleep. I did not expect to sleep better than I ever thought I could. Seriously. I had no idea I could sleep with such peace of mind, which caused me to sleep soundly. I rarely needed an alarm clock most days to wake up, because I was truly rested. I had less worries, which positively impacted my mental health.
Safety. I did not expect to exchange the illusion of safety, sometimes felt in the States, for the reality of safety in a foreign land. No more would I carry the anxiety and fear of going outside only to be senselessly murdered during a traffic stop or when walking down a residential street. No longer did I feel that I had to go back home at a decent hour after partying to avoid run-ins with suspicious cops. There, I was safe from racist strangers drawing guns on me out of their own fear, because only the military and law enforcement were allowed guns.
Whenever I approached officers in Asia they were helpful, despite the language barrier. Many times the officers would feed me, offer water while drawing over the maps I came in with as I faced directionally challenged moments. Within the first 3 weeks of living abroad I took my first solo trip to an island; I got lost trying to find my hostel. It was after 9:00pm, as I wandered around trying to read foreign street signs and the hostel’s directions, I found a police station. I hesitated in the dark of night, wondering if I should go in to ask for directions. After a few moments of debating, I said a prayer and walked in. Once the two officers understood my desired destination, one was so helpful that he walked me to my hostel, some 5 minutes away down dark allies. Of course I was terrified and even had thoughts of this being a terrible decision and how I could possibly die without anyone ever finding me…you must ask yourself why I had such thoughts.
Sorrow. I did not expect to feel so dreadful as the days neared to when I was to move back to the States. For 24 months I had a major mental hiatus from the woes of America. Yes, I followed the political and social injustice news, but it wasn’t in my face. I wasn’t living it. My anxiety, fear, sorrow and other ill feelings had been washed away a little more every day I was absent. I’m human and needed a moment to recuperate, privileged and grateful to have the resources. I encourage all Black people who are able to travel and/or move to regroup and become rejuvenated. It is essential to one’s mental wellness, in my opinion.
The MD documentary captured what I felt as I prepared to return to the US and how I felt once the plain landed. It was returning to my abuser, just like returning to that hostile work environment had been a form of actively participating in a socially abusive relationship. There were so many things I had considered when moving back.
One thing I will never forget was debating with myself on buying a jet black or light gray hooded windbreaker for travel. I wanted the black one, but opted for the gray one. Why?! Well if you don’t know the answer, you don’t know what it is like to live in a country — where you are a citizen — and have to be conscious of what you wear (hood=criminal), where you go (predominantly White neighborhoods), what you do (running for exercise) and how you do it (removing and putting phone in pocket).
Some people call it “reverse culture shock”; for me it feels like depression as a direct result of oppression. Oppression in media, oppression in workspaces, oppression in publishing Black stories in literature and film, oppression in status, and oppression in financial equality.
So why did you come back you ask? I felt a responsibility to continue my work as an educator and save more lives through education. That is a part of my contribution towards police brutality and other forms of racial injustice. The reality of this nation is ugly, but our past does not have to dictate our future. Stay hopeful and work towards the reform of institutional racism. Do your part! Collectively we can heal and grow if we are open.
Educate. Participate. Donate.