When I take my headscarf off in the Dubai airport and show my hair in public for the first time in months. When I see men walking around in shorts and women wearing camisoles, and when I get a tan line for the first time this summer. When I feel strangely uncomfortable wearing a T-shirt and flip flops and I see my curls in my peripheral vision and realize how long it's been since I've seen that and can't decide if it's pleasant or just weird.
When we have errands to run on the way home from the airport and we stop at Ross to buy a few bits of clothing. We walk through the front door and I'm hit by the bewildering and frightening display of things-I-don't-really-need. It's not a big store, not compared to some, but when I've done very little shopping in the last year and the places I have shopped were stalls the size of a small restroom, a store with Juniors and Women's and Petite and Shoes and Children's and Men's and Jewelry is... overwhelming. When I think about the street children who were knocking on my window just days ago and their dirty, ragged clothing and bare feet, and I think about all the people in this store who are spending money they don't need to spend, and when I have to bite my tongue from saying all of this and sounding exactly like the holier-than-thou person I'm trying really hard to not let myself be.
When little things make me grateful: the feeling of walking into an air-conditioned house from the 109 degree heat outside, the convenience of drying my clothes in a machine instead of on a clothesline, being able to walk and run outside without fear, having sewage systems that are capable of flushing toilet paper. And yet, when I remember the cost of cherries or apples or medical tests in Kabul and compare them to what I'm now paying, and it reminds me that the US isn't perfect. I spend so much time longing for home whenever I leave, and sometimes, my memory is a bit selective. It takes coming back to remind me of the concerns I have for my country, for its people, for its future even as I am reminded of its good side and feel grateful again for having grown up here.
When little things make me homesick for the place that became my second home: silence during the time of day when I'm used to hearing the call to prayer that I've come to find beautiful and haunting and annoying depending on the hour, not having Fur Elise and the birthday song herald the coming of the ice cream truck, speaking Persian without thinking and having everyone in the vicinity give me blank looks, craving chicken kabobs and hot naan but having no way to satisfy that urge. When I get messages from friends in Kabul and think about the amazing people I know there, and when I picture Afghanistan's future, and realize it's not so directly tied to mine anymore, and realize also that I still want it to be.
When I go to church for the first time in weeks, to a Catholic church for the first time in months, to a Catholic church service in English for the first time in ten months, and when I lose myself in the music and the prayer and think how much I've missed this. When I, at the same time, remember my church community(s) in Kabul and remember the way they made me feel so at home from the very first time I met them. When I realize that a year ago, I had very little understanding of the meaning of freedom of religion, or courage, or faith, and when it makes me even more passionate about the necessity of a world where everyone has the right to say what they want to, write what they want to, worship how they want to.
When those moments of awareness hit that have nothing to do with politics or money or even what clothing I'm wearing and everything to do with the people I love. When I sing with my dad or laugh with my sisters or eat homegrown currants and realize how glad I am to be home, but also when I see posts on Facebook or get emails from friends I may never see again and remember how hard it was to leave them. Culture shock is a lot of things, but I think the root of it is unrelated to culture. The shock of coming home is more the realization that I have multiple homes now, and I love both of them, all of them, dearly. It's seeing how much I've changed, and trying to fit the changed me back into a community that doesn't know all the parts of who I am now. It's the understanding that going to one place means leaving another, and that's especially hard when you don't know if you'll ever be back there again, and when you feel guilty for liking either place too much when you have people you love in the other. Culture shock is knowing I'm home...but also feeling like it won't be possible for me to ever be one hundred percent "home" again.