Coming home is a new country

I have a problem. I don’t know this city very well. I have been living here for over 8 months and I cannot identify many neighborhoods on a map, including neighborhoods where I have been. I haven’t found the perfect burger or steak; I haven’t gone to all the pizza places (only 2 or 3); I don’t have a favorite café; I haven’t been to Chinatown; I couldn’t find a great place to dance in River North without help; I only have one running route with two variations (north or south); I have yet to locate a butcher; I don’t know hidden, hole in the wall, tea shops that serve amazing deserts halfway up a hidden staircase; I don’t take my laundry to the same family run Laundromat every week and have cheerful, stilted conversations with the owner; I don’t have a go-to rooftop bar for warm nights and great views; I don’t have a favorite store for clothing. In short: I have not explored effectively.

Moving to America has allowed me to become lazy about exploration. I have amazon–with free two-day delivery–to bring me anything from books to plants to shoes. I don’t need a specialty store for my staple groceries. My apartment is so big that I don’t feel claustrophobic staying inside all day. I can walk to a hardware store, a liquor store, a brunch place, a brewery, many, many cafes and bars, and I know that when I get to these places I will be able to ask for help in finding something I need. I don’t have to rely on word of mouth from other travelers to help me find the hidden gems, good food to order, best views. I can do it myself. It’s too easy, so what is the point? What is the challenge? Things are at my fingertips on the internet, so why would I go outside? Therefore, I do not.

This is not entirely true.

I do know a few good thrift stores. I have been to multiple Cubs games. I have a preferred Asian foods market for noodles, oils and eggplants (more tasty than the inflated American variety). I have gone to a board game bar multiple times. I know where to get good donuts. I have many cobblers to choose from. I can take visitors to amazing restaurants, which I have tried before. I can tell you whether a neighborhood (some of them anyway) is a good place to live. I have a mental list of places I have been meaning to try. I have been to a few fantastic dive bars. I go to a local pub for live blues.

Photo curtesy of Alan Olson
Photo at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted curtesy of Alan Olson 

Yet I feel like I do not know this city. I know about it, I know how to get by in it, but I am not integrated.

Is this just a normal thing to feel at 8 months into living in a place? Probably. But I can’t help feeling I haven’t been aggressive enough about my acculturation.

When you are living in a foreign country, there seems to be more urgency. You have to learn the crevices of a place quickly to survive, to find your people, your things. It is a huge victory to get an order right at a restaurant, to complete a casual interaction at a check out counter without misunderstandings, to mail a post card to a friend across the globe. But now, these things are quotidian. Of course I can order my curry with extra spice or reject pickles on my burger. Of course I can fax something to a bureaucratic institution without the help of a coworker. Of course I can mail a box to a friend. I speak the language, I know how it’s done.

The lack of challenge and urgency takes away some of the seduction of exploration.

Every time I go out in a country where I don’t speak the language, it feels like an adventure. Either I will have to overcome a new challenge, or the lack of challenge is because of a past victory in navigating an unfamiliar system. When I go out in Chicago, I am not conquering new ground. I am merely going somewhere else, doing something else. Furthermore, knowing the ins and outs of a city is not an accomplishment here. If you’re new in town, not knowing is simply a weakness you’ll have to overcome. If you’re local, of course you know everything, you’ve lived here all your life. It’s natural.

Knowing the places to go—the place that has the best whisky sour for less than any of the snobbier bars, the good noodle place for fast spicy food, the best place for a classic burger or steak—is an accomplishment when you’re an expat. It’s a mark of skill, of worldliness. It shows you’ve been in the place long enough to have some respect from the old hats.

When you’re an expat, knowing the places to go is an accomplishment, but it is also more doable. You can read guidebooks, try things out, and you easily become an expert. In your home country, however, you will never be the authority. Your community is no longer mostly other foreigners, instead it is the entire city who has lived here forever and will always know the city better than you.

Thus I feel it is essential to shift one’s attitude. When you move to your home country, don’t stop being an expat. Living in Chicago is still a new country, and I need to get to know it and explore. Though I do speak the language, and I have an Illinois ID and a Chicago phone number, I am not a local and I am not from here. I will continue be an outsider whether I’m here for 10 years of just 3.

Every part of the country is different. Living in America can be full of exploration, and getting to know your city is the first part. I don’t need to compare myself to friends who are locals, I don’t need to compare myself at all. I just need to enjoy the project of exploring the town.

This train of thought is just in time for the weather warming up (coincidence? definitely not) and thus I shall enact it immediately. Summers in Chicago are legendary with free film screenings in the park and food, beer and music festivals, and I plan to enjoy it, and maybe I’ll even find a butcher and some quality dim sum.

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