The question is so common since our repatriation that we’ve joked about creating business cards summarizing our answers in an easy-to-read bulleted format. It’s the ice breaker du jour—a convenient, six-word sentence uttered by virtually everyone familiar with our recent two-year hiatus from U.S. residency. It’s a crowd-pleasing, comfortable, mildly depressing party question that evokes a fair bit of stammering, questionable statements, and creative explanations on our part. It’s a question you shouldn’t ask lightly—because you might just get an answer that surprises, or delights, or possibly sets one off balance in a way that leaves you wondering why you asked in the first place.
“Are you glad to be back?”
Why would anyone ask such a ridiculous question? Are people trying to be polite? Are they genuinely curious about our state of mind? Are they looking for validation? What drives so many people from so many different backgrounds to ask the same question?
Why not ask something meaningful? Did you enjoy living abroad? What’s the best part about being back in the U.S.? What things do you miss most about living overseas? “Are you glad to be back?” is the interview equivalent of asking Snow White if she likes living with the dwarves—“Well, they’re messy and smell bad, but great in bed.” It’s framed to accept a binary answer where a simple “yes” or “no” just won’t do it justice.
Perhaps people are simply being polite, like when we see someone in the hall and ask “How’s it going?” The expected reply is normally, “good,” or “fine,” or in my case, “awesome!”—a response I borrow from a friend who helped to answer a fill-in-the-blank question on a psych eval which started with, “My friends think I am (blank).” When we meet up at the coffee maker in the office cafeteria cum gossip room, most people don’t want to hear about our dog eating a chunk of drywall, or the kid’s digestive issues causing an all night vomit-fest, or how our latest bowel movement might mean we need more fiber in our diet. “Are you glad to be back?” might just be as innocuous as “How’s it going?” Tell me “good” so I can get on with my day.
Yes, we validate.
People don’t ask, “Are you glad to be back?” while passing each other in the corridor. We reply to “How’s it going?” by saying, “Good. You?” When people ask, “Are you glad to be back?” we don’t reply, “Yes. Are you?” That’s ridiculous. People want to hear “Yes,” but not so they can get on with their day. They are looking for validation.
People work hard, go home, do whatever it is they do when they aren’t at work—most of which I don’t want to even consider—then start over the next day. In the best of circumstances people might travel for a week or two at a time, possibly to another country but probably not. They want to know, maybe even need to hear that their home, country, culture, and lifestyle are the best—otherwise, why are they toiling away every day in an office while the sun beckons them to outdoor, OCONUS adventure? When one asks, “Are you glad to be back?” they are looking, nay hoping, to hear an affirmative “yes” so they can feel good about their life decisions. It’s not an indictment. Rather it’s simple human nature—the search for validation.
In most cases I’m happy to confirm with a simple “yes” one’s belief that we live in the greatest place on earth, surrounded by the best people, all of us pursuing our career dreams and personal goals while the rest of the world struggles to find meaning in their wine rich, cheese filled, pasta aplenty, red curry lives. I’m not a total arse—although I see how some people might think so and I respect their right to believe whatever they need in order to avoid even a fleeting moment of introspection causing their world to crumble around them. I see no consequential downside to feeding someone’s delusions about life. Yes, I’m glad to be back—which is as far as you want to read if you need a dose of personal vindication. The truth is more nuanced.
My wife is thrilled to be back in the U.S. She is excited about work, overjoyed spending time with our grandkids on a regular basis, and absolutely giddy every time she visits a grocery store. She is back to somewhat normal 10-12 hour days—down from the expat 16 plus—attends yoga without worrying about catching something incurable, and doesn’t mind in the least not having to ration our wine and beer between home trips. She worked hard and smart the last two years and earned this period of comparative normalcy. She loved our time abroad, but ask her if she is glad to be back and a resounding, “Yes!” followed by a lengthy explanation of what “yes” actually means will echo off the walls of our newly renovated condo.
I’m also happy seeing our grandkids and drinking decent wine until my blood flows Syrah. Living abroad can be challenging under the best circumstances and one occasionally longs for the the comforts of the homeland. It’s fun spending time with best friends—and even a few acquaintances—trading barbs with my brother-from-another-mother over a bottle of red wine not spoiled from sitting on the tarmac under 110 degree heat while Indian Customs officials try to decide whether a 300 percent import duty is sufficient to offset the impact the demon’s juice will have on their fragile, polytheistic society. Even the likelihood of being mowed down by a Tuk Tuk or a herd of buffalo during a morning run is drastically reduced since returning to the U.S.
But therein lies the rub. I haven’t run outside in over six weeks—it’s just too darn frigid. We dodged garbage, hogs, and street dogs in India, but brutal cold and icy conditions keep us indoors in the U.S. There’s no relaxing Sunday pool days with friends, tasty mudslides giving way to smuggled IPAs and 5:00 PM bed times; no mountain biking on trails created by poor, emaciated Indian’s who make their living breaking chunks of rock with hammer and spike for a few rupees a day; no maid on hand to wash dishes, clean toilets, and juice limes into small jars for future cocktail application; no days researching and writing weak and wanting prose for 86 followers with questionable taste in literature. The frigid temperatures and lack of pool time are only the beginning.
The chance to return to work was chief among the myriad of amazing opportunities returning home brought. Here’s the thing, I just spent the last two years doing things I enjoy—writing, blogging, volunteering, acting, modeling, mountain biking, traveling, being creative, learning new things, spending time outdoors, taking advantage of a flexible schedule, avoiding people—and now I’m back doing what is for all intent and purpose the exact opposite and someone asks, “Are you glad to be back?” For fu#ks sake, really? If there is a consolation to returning to the office, it is this: I pushed myself so hard while I was away, a typical day at work feels like it’s over before it began. But I’d still trade it all for the chance to return to a “job” with less drama.
There it is, the unvarnished, raw, blindingly white truth of it. There is no “glad to be back,” there is only being back. The good, the bad, all of it what it is—a situationally dependent, nuanced feeling cycling somewhere between “it’s effing cold here” and “at least there’s plenty of good beer.”
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