Category: nostalgia

What happens when you return

There’s this article that’s been going around the internet lately called “What Happens When You Live Abroad”, by Chelsea Fagan.  It’s a great read, and talks all about the way that your heart is always torn into different directions and given to different peoples when you live in and invest in different countries.    I would highly recommend you read it if you get a chance.But what the article doesn’t really talk much about is what happens when you return.  What they don’t talk about is the culture shock that you feel all over again after you’ve gotten back on that plane and landed in your home country.  All of the confusion and unsettling feelings that swirl around you because of that culture shock – even more so, because you know that this is your birth country.  This was where you were born.  This is supposed to be your home.  So why does it feel so alien??

For me, it started off with little things, unimportant things.  My friends just laughed at my silliness, and I was too jet-lagged to really notice that something was different.  After all, it was just little things, anyway.  Like my excitement at finally being able to use a clothes dryer again, and snuggling up in the warm clothes right after the machine finished.  Or eating cheese and drinking milk after nearly a near of languishing in the desert of no dairy.  Or not having to think anymore about expertly aiming the shower head so that I don’t soak the rest of the bathroom.  Or being shocked when someone walked into the room with their shoes on.

But then the jet-lag wore off, and it got a little harder.  I started driving again, and 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 was reminded of how much I love the politeness of the Korean people, how cool it is that they always give or receive things with 2 hands as a way of showing their respect to the person they’re interacting with.  I noticed the large numbers of obese people in America, and was reminded of the Korean propensity for exercising and eating healthily, and how cute their fashion styles are.  I started cooking a few things, and was reminded of how much I love Korean food, and how loved and 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 that, of course, reminded me of my students. And how desperately much I miss them.  And then when my students themselves started messaging me about how much they missed me, and how quiet school was without me, and how much they wanted to see me, things got MUCH harder.  I’m sitting here in America, in the middle of some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life, among wonderful old friends and fabulous new ones, and all I can think about is how I don’t fit in.  How I don’t belong here.  How can it be that I can feel more alien in my own country, among some of my closest friends, than I ever did on the other side of the world??  How is it possible that I somehow feel more comfortable speaking Korean than I do speaking 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 very far from Korea I truly am.  

Living abroad is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing.  And the fact that I am back is also wonderful, because it means that I have a family and friends whom I desperately love who have pulled me back to America.  But Chelsea Fagan was spot on when she said that living abroad tears your heart in half.  It is a good thing, a beautiful thing; but it means that you will for the rest of your life live 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 that I think I can live with.  But I surely do hope that it won’t always hurt so much.