I took a week off this month and went to Japan. It was a hard decision for me to make, because every time I saw a beggar on the street, I felt guilty. I thought about all that money I was going to spend, and I thought about all the good that money could do here, and I wondered how I could justify spending it all on just a vacation.
Eventually, I talked myself into going, and I had a fabulous time. No matter how much I love this country, no matter how enjoyable and meaningful my work, no matter how adjusted I've become to daily life, I can't deny that my trips out of country have been little tastes of freedom. Japan was a fascinating place, and it was great to spend time with my friend Leah. While I was there, I wore T-shirts. Gasp! Took off my headscarf. Gasp! I went running every day, wore jewelry, ate frozen yogurt (and sushi, of course!), went hiking, saw more of my skin in one day than I have in the last six months. Gasp!
But the thing about vacations is that they end. And you return to normal life.
That moment came when the loudspeakers at the Delhi airport announced my flight. I went to change into my Kabul-appropriate clothes, and just like that, I changed into a different me. The one who doesn't wear T-shirts, who doesn't leave her hair down, who keeps her gaze down when she walks. The one who has (partially) learned to guard what she says, who has discovered that freedom of religion isn't universal. The one who walks past street kids on her way to work. The one who sat in the Delhi airport with a scarf wound around my neck, delaying the moment when it had to go on my head, when it ceased to be a pretty accessory and instead became a chadar, an annoyance, a blinder, a symbol that trumpets my gender and my worth and my status in society.
When I got back to Kabul, culture shock didn't hit me so much as knock me over with a sledgehammer. It broke my heart to return to streets with beggars in burqas and little kids selling sticks of gum. Tiny linguistic misunderstandings made me want to throw my arms up and leave, and I couldn't bear the thought of living through several more months of that. I got annoyed when I couldn't take a hot shower, or roll my sleeves up on a hot day, or walk down the street without being stared at. The call to prayer woke me up at 4:30 am again, which hasn't happened since I first arrived last year. My running shoes sat in the corner, resigning themselves to more months of disuse.
And then, a week after I got back, I had a day off. My cold was finally on the mend, the sun was shining, and I had enough free time to sit in the garden for a while. I brought my Bible and my journal and a book, but once I got outside, I didn't touch any of them. I just sat there, eyes closed, face turned up to the sun. And I heard the ice cream truck go by, and it made me smile. I heard the scuffle of a street soccer game, felt our dog lick my hand, smelled the fresh naan that the guard had brought for lunch, and they made me smile.
I'm glad I went on this vacation, no matter how hard it was to justify the cost. Even more, I'm glad I'm back. When I boarded that plane in Delhi, I wasn't an entirely different person than I had been in Japan. I was a blend of the two, and in the process of blending them together, I learned something about myself.
They say that living abroad gives you new perspectives, but it's not until we stop to examine that perspective that it has any impact on our lives. I've become so accustomed to daily life in Kabul that I couldn't fully appreciate the changes it has made in the person I am now. Those changes are sometimes hard to see until we take a break from ourselves and remember who we used to be. Until we leave for a while, return to the person we are used to being, and realize exactly how different we've become. That's why vacations are so valuable, I think. They give us a chance to distance ourselves from the changes, to go back to the person we were before, just for a little while. Away from communities that know us and people who expect things of us, we have time to examine what we have learned. We can separate the personal growth from the pure survival. We can find the elements the have made us better, or worse, or simply different. We can decide which elements of the “new me” get to stick around.
A few photos from Japan: