I recently read an article by Chelsea Fagan entitled “What Happens When You Live Abroad”. It’s a great read, but misses an important part of the story –what happens when you return.
What they don’t talk about is the culture shock you feel all over again after you’ve returned to your home country. There is so much confusion and unsettling feelings swirling around. But it’s compounded by the fact that this is happening in your country of birth. If this is supposed to be your home, why does it feel so alien?
For me, it started off with little unimportant things.
My friends just laughed at my silliness, and I was too jet-lagged to notice anything was different. But things were different. I was different. I was excited about finally being able to use a clothes dryer again. Snuggling up in warm clothes right after the machine has finished is a delight that few things can rival. I was jazzed about eating cheese and drinking milk after a year of languishing in the no-dairy desert. I looked forward to not having to think anymore about expertly aiming the shower head so as not to soak the rest of the bathroom.
But then the jet-lag wore off, and adjusting to the culture shock got a little harder.
I was shocked whenever someone walked into the room with their shoes on. As soon as I got behind the wheel of my car I was reminded how much I loved hopping on a bus and going somewhere exciting in Korea. I kept noticing people giving things with 1 hand, and remembered how much I loved the politeness of the Korean people, who always give or receive things with 2 hands as a way of showing their respect to the person they’re interacting with.
The large numbers of obese people in America reminded me of the Korean propensity for exercising and healthy eating. I started cooking again, and was reminded of how much I love Korean food, and how cared for I always felt in my homestay when my host parents cooked for me. Even something as innocuous as being able to flush toilet paper reminded me of the bathrooms at my school, in which you most certainly could NOT flush toilet paper.
And thinking of the school, of course, reminded me of my students and how much I missed them. When my students themselves started messaging me about how much they missed me, things got MUCH harder. I was sitting here in America, among wonderful friends and fabulous new ones, and all I could think about was how I didn’t fit in.
How could I feel more alien in my own country than on the other side of the world?
How is it possible to feel more comfortable speaking broken Korean than I do speaking my native English? Sometimes even now, I catch myself saying a few words or phrases in Korean….and every time I do it breaks my heart. Because nobody here understands it. And it reminds me all over again how truly distant Korea is from me.
Living abroad is a wonderful thing. The fact that I am back is also wonderful. It means I have a family and friends whom I wanted to come back to. But Chelsea Fagan was spot on when she said living abroad tears your heart in half. It is a good thing, a beautiful thing; but it means you will live for the rest of your life with the knowledge that you don’t quite “fit in.” No matter where you go, you’re always going to be missing people, traditions, foods, and customs from somewhere else. That’s a fact I can eventually accept. But I do hope it won’t always hurt so much.