It’s safe, sunny and quiet. My girls go to a decent school. We own a home, a business and my extended family lives nearby. The largest Afghan community in the U.S. is here – Little Kabul in the San Francisco Bay Area. This multicultural, thriving hub buzzing with new technology is where I should belong.
And I do belong. But it’s not the only place I belong. If we’re all part of a global village, then why are we so stuck in one place? As Americans, many of us have the means to move and become global citizens, to allow our children to see the world not just as tourists but as residents of different countries. We can immerse ourselves beyond the tourist traps and learn a new language, engage in a new culture, try a different education system.
You may have to give up a few conveniences, rent out your house, hire someone else to run your business, take a sabbatical from your job. But for an American with a college degree and professional skills, work is not hard to find abroad. If nothing else materializes, you can teach English. What you lose in material comfort, you will gain in meaning.
It’s not enough to facebook, text and tweet across the world. It’s not enough to visit for two weeks, clicking photos of old buildings and taking safaris. What creates meaning and empathy among people from different worlds is face-to-face interaction, the frustrations of daily life shared with those who are stuck there.
But when I tell the suburbanites around me about my plan to explore the world with my family, they look at me blankly. “But this is the best you can get. Nowhere is a better place to raise kids,” one friend said. “You can get all the culture you want right here. Happiness is at your feet.”
Other Americans say it’s exciting, but they’re too afraid to give up the life they’ve worked hard to build. Security comes first.
The idea that happiness can be found in one place, and we must be rooted in one country defies the experience I’ve had as an exile. For me, home is a state of mind, as is happiness. I’ve lived in in some of the poorest countries and the people have been happier than they are in California. Maybe it’s easier for me to leave because I lost everything familiar as a 9-year-old when my parents fled the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.
The unfamiliar comforts me.
But I understand why Americans stay put, especially those with children. The fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. We’re so used to our daily routines, so addicted on our Trader Joes, Montessori schools and yoga classes that we can’t imagine life elsewhere. It’s precisely this neurosis with routine that makes me want to leave the U.S. again.
But this time, I’m nervous.
As a single female journalist with no children, packing up and traveling was easy. Whether it was Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Australia, I didn’t think twice about what I was leaving behind. I just did it. I had nothing to lose. Now I do.
As a mother of two girls, ages 4 and 7, I fear my daughters becoming sick, their education disrupted, their sense of home snatched from them. But I know if we treat children as fragile glass, we’ll never teach them resilience. If my husband Naeem and I give in to our fears, then we’ll be no different than the parents who run away from adventure. We want to instill a sense of adventure and the ability to embrace change in our girls.
Also, as a foreign correspondent, there’s not much I can do in the Bay Area. After eight years here, it’s time for me to return to what I love doing – writing about the rest of the world for an English-speaking audience. I miss the chaos of a newsroom, investigating the unknown and exposing truths.
We plan to live in Istanbul for now, where I can freelance, while I apply for full-time journalism work. If we like it, we’ll stick around, learn Turkish and try to give something back to Turkey. If not, we’ll return to the U.S. and resume our life. But we will have returned knowing that we are not trapped here, that we are not afraid to move and become global citizens.
In order to love America, you have to leave it sometimes.