I came home to an empty house: my parents were in Ireland visiting my brother, and wouldn’t get back for another couple of days.
It had been a longer trip than usual: a six-hour layover in Narita, then a three-hour layover in Dallas that stretched out to four when the plane was delayed. By the time I arrived in Philadelphia and met my best friend Jon and his wife at the airport, I’d been awake for 50 hours, and travelling for something like 30, and was in that weird neverland state of jet-lag, soul-delay, sleep-deprivation, and utter bemusement that you get into on long flights.
Jon and Rebecca took me to the Oregon Diner to get a proper meal. Our order took a long time to arrive, and the waitress, a middle-aged, South Philly-accented woman straight out of central casting, said that she’d talk to the guys in the kitchen, but that they were (she lowered her voice) “kind of a-s-s-h-o-l-e-s, if you know what I mean.” Afterwards, Jon and Rebecca dropped me off at home, and since I couldn’t sleep, I spent a while walking around. The streets were very satisfactory – more or less just as I’d left them – and I thought: Ah. Home.
Usually going home entails a few days of reverse culture shock and gradually reconstituted memory — people are so nice to each other here! Oh, I remember now! — but the really shocking thing about this trip back was that I didn’t get that at all. One day I was in Beijing and the next I was in Philadelphia, and it was all like a movie set.
I spent the next couple of weeks taking care of business: begging my university to let me graduate, please; getting a new visa up in New York; doing the paperwork necessary to apply for Irish citizenship; making the rounds of friends and relatives; eating as much as I possibly could. All of it seemed slightly off – like the “remastered” Star Wars cut of my former life, with all of the warts airbrushed out and the color and contrast bumped up a couple of notches. People were too nice, the streets were too clean, the food was too expensive, and one afternoon when I was sitting with my mom in a gelateria at 13th and Sansom, the rain that started pelting down outside was too straight, too fast, too cinematic to be the real thing, and for a moment I thought that I could walk out into it and stay dry as a bone.
Everything about the trip was too, and in the end it all went by too quickly. I headed back to Beijing, shoved and pushed and jostled and elbowed out of the plane, waited in line at immigration, met my girlfriend in the Arrivals hall, walked out to a taxi pen that smelled of car exhaust, secondhand smoke, and despair, and a cabbie who ignored my directions and complained bitterly that he wouldn’t make enough of a fare taking me home, and I thought: Ah.