I’m back. Chipotle’s cilantro-lime rice is really, really good and so is their guac. I don’t have to use an adapter to charge my phone anymore. The air conditioning is turned on in cars, sometimes a little too much. Everything smells like air conditioning. Water has too much ice. People smile more but are also more aggressive and abrasive when they’re advocating for themselves. I can understand everything when people have conversations around me. I accidentally said “chokran” to a waiter at a Thai restaurant in DC instead of “thank you.” BUT I haven’t heard Shape of You yet here!
During my last night in Rabat, I went to a concert with a friend. I got back around midnight, stumbled into my house and entered my room in a daze, just because I couldn’t believe what was about to happen (i.e. I was about to get on a plane back to the US). My room had also been a mess from my two-week-long attempted packing, but my packing wasn’t even close to finished, so I put some music on and packed in slow motion until 3:30 AM. It was about half packing and half thinking. Nothing felt real, and at one point I found myself lying on the ground in a pile of unpacked clothes, thinking about how my life in Morocco had come to a close. I’d been sleep deprived and have been for the past week because of concerts and friends and everything, but I wasn’t tired—I was done with saying my goodbyes and I felt drained of goodbyes too.
Leaving a place after living there for a year forces you to be minimalistic. Over the year, I ended up accumulating so much stuff without realizing it. Because I’d stayed in the same host family since the beginning the year, I hadn’t packed since then and I didn’t have any concept of how much stuff I had or whether or not it would all fit into two fifty-pound suitcases. As I was packing, I had to make the decision between what I really needed and what I thought I needed.
The day after, I woke up at eight AM, went to Centre Ville for the last time to run some errands and say goodbye to my internship, came back and ate my last meal with my host family (kara3ine and beets), spent the last of my dirhams, and then packed for the rest of the afternoon. Then a bus came to each of our houses to pick us up with our luggage, I said goodbye with my host family, we stopped by at AMIDEAST for some last goodbyes, and then we were off to the Casablanca airport. It was our last time in a Hamaroui Tours bus, and we also said goodbyes with Simohammed, our bus driver, who also drove our bus for our excursion to the South almost five months ago. When the bus was waiting at AMIDEAST, I had my last conversation in Darija. I told him how much I loved Morocco and how I was sure I was going to come back. He then told me to marry a Moroccan and have kids in Morocco, and then started laughing. I think he was dead serious though. Anyway, that last conversation was a reminded on how much I’d improved since late January in terms of Darija, because I was able to have a good conversation with him now.
Travel, in general, was a blur because I ended up sleeping so much. My childhood days of not being able to sleep on airplanes because of excitement were gone, and I ended up sleeping during our three-hour flight to Frankfurt, during most of our six-hour layover, and also during most of our flight from Germany to DC. I also journaled a little bit. And I didn’t try to make conversation with the people next to me on the plane—not because I didn’t feel like it, but instead because I thought that people would be bothered by my taking up their time and space. That wasn’t something I ever had to worry about in Morocco.
When we arrived in DC, we had dinner with the NSLI-Y group, and then said our goodbyes to them, and promised that we’d see each other again. The day after was a day of return orientation. We talked at AMIDEAST about the program and about our years, visited the State Department to give a presentation to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and did a few media/promotional activities with American Councils and with ECA. It was a busy day, but it was also bittersweet, because it was our last day with our YES Abroad cohort.
The next morning, I woke up early for my 8 AM connecting flight to Newark which would eventually take me back home to North Carolina.
When I arrived in DC on Thursday night, and during our drive from Dulles to our return-orientation hotel, the last eight months seemed so short, and almost like a dream. Everything in the US was familiar, but in a different way because I still had to process the environment, and people, and people’s actions. But in terms of the “return culture shock” that we were warned we might go through, I haven’t experienced any of that yet. I’ve only been back for a few days ago, though, so I guess I can’t say for sure.
Maybe it’s because there are two versions of myself that are reserved for certain environments. There’s the Morocco version of Alicia Chen (pronounced ah-lee-see-ah), who eats lunch at 15h (oops, 3 PM), almost never eats dinner, sleeps until 9 in the morning, and who somehow finds all the cigarette butts on the ground okay. She spends many hours and even days around people without any notion of time and she doesn’t prioritize personal development. And then there’s the US version of Alicia (uh-lee-sha), who, in many ways, has higher expectations of herself. She wakes up early, is arguably more in control of herself, is more future oriented. Upon our touchdown, I felt a change in myself that I can’t really describe in words. My brain kept the two places separate, and maybe that’s also why I didn’t have much return culture shock, but upon arriving in the US, I felt like a different “version” of me had surfaced. I immediately started to think about the responsibilities that were facing me over the summer—filling out forms before college starts, doctor’s visits, going to China, working, and so on. Being in the United States made it easier to think about these things.
These two different “versions” of myself are based on not only culture but also on my position in these two places. In the United States, I was a full-time high-school student. In Morocco, I was what YES Abroad and the State Department call a “youth ambassador.” I became molded to my own expectations as well as those of other people around me. I don’t think I’m a different person in Morocco and in the United States just because. Instead, because of the two very different countries and two very different roles that I play in each country, different parts of myself are emphasized. Morocco exaggerates a certain part of my personality and the United States exaggerates another part, but both of these parts always coexist.
During our return orientation sessions, Luisa brought up that she feels more flexible now, that no matter where she’s put, she can end up creating the best situation for herself and making the most out of it. I agree. I’ve noticed that I’ve unconsciously changed myself when exposed to different situations.
I was just in Rabat a few days ago, but it seems so far. Just a week ago, I was at Chellah in Rabat doing return seminars with the NSLI-Y and YES Abroad cohort, and I was eating a galette for lunch at Ty Potes in the Hassan neighborhood, and going to a ton of concerts.
And now, I am in the United States and I’ve done so much busy stuff in the last few days—met up with a lot of people, gone to the dentist, registered to vote, gone to my brother’s last middle-school band concert, run errands at the bank, sent in my visa application for China, and so on. There’s no “better” or “worse”—just different.
When I arrived home to North Carolina, things felt strangely normal. My brother had grown taller than me, my dog had doubled in size, but it was still the all-too-familiar home. Cary, North Carolina is a suburb where everyone knows everyone and I found myself bumping into people I knew almost everywhere. I guess that’s one way that suburb life is similar to Rabat life, but in the suburbs, it’s middle-school band concerts and grocery stores and house parties instead of sitting and reading in a park bench in Centre Ville with people walking all around you.
Today Catherine and I went to our former high school to present about our year abroad, and I found myself frequently and accidentally using the word “experience” as I started out, partially because I couldn’t find any better words. That’s wrong, though. Study abroad isn’t really an “experience” and when you study abroad you’re not using people to learn about “culture.” Instead you’re coexisting among lots of people, just as you do in the United States, and it’s up to you to do what you want with this set up. For most of the year, I saw it as my job to dispel Asian American stereotypes. I wasn’t living abroad just for the “experience” but instead so I could accomplish things. Now it’s my job to think about what I did and could have done better.
Thank you all for reading this blog over the past eight and a half months, and I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it. This blog is over because my year in Morocco is over, but life is still going on, and I’ll try to continue writing. I’ll be in China next, and I’m so excited, and then after that college will start. Excited for what the future holds!