When you live abroad, you quickly start to identify with the terms of life as an expat. Even if you’ve just arrived to your new home, even if you have every intention of returning to your motherland, there is something distinctly different about you versus those who are just vacationers. Probably has something to do with the culture shock. It’s not all, “Oh, that dish was interesting, albeit a little spicy for my liking. Let’s take a picture so we can remember it later!” No, it’s more like, “I’m going to be eating this stuff for an entire year.” Or three years, as in our case.
Honestly, the culture shock wasn’t that bad for me. I jumped into the experience expecting the differences. I mentally prepared for things to be really freaking weird at times. And they were. What actually surprised me more was the homesickness that caught up with me about four months into our first year. Out of the blue, I started craving all things Americana. To remedy this, I watched the entire series up to that point of How I Met Your Mother, among other shows I’d barely ever seen, in a matter of months. Since I couldn’t stress-eat hamburgers or apple pie, I chowed down on poorly-made Bravo reality shows and even worse movies. Hey, whatever gets the job done, right? Truly though, it wasn’t so bad.
But what about going back home? Repatriation. What is the cool word for that? Repat? My spellchecker says No.
And what about that little thing called reverse culture shock? I’d heard a lot of other expats talk about that too. I, for one, wasn’t the least bit worried. It’s our own country, first of all. By its very nature, not much should surprise us. Besides, during our three expat years, Steve and I had been home to visit plenty. Sure, during these visits there were bits of daily life that jumped out to us that wouldn’t have before. Like the sheer amount of cheese, cereal selection, or “effing wall of butter” (as Steve called it) the first time we went to a supermarket. But other than that, there wasn’t much actual “shock”. Surely a permanent return home would be pretty easy. We could seamlessly move from one country to another because we are, like, cool Citizens of the World now, right?
Uh, not exactly.
That shock part is a real thing, after all. Perhaps it’s those little surprises that don’t otherwise bother you when you’re just visiting, combined with the new permanency of being on your own soil again that when shaken, not stirred, create some funky cocktail in your frontal lobe. The pieces are all there, but your brain can’t quite process them. Case in point, food. Like that wall of butter for instance. There’s such a sheer abundance of everything in America. When we came back for vacation in the winter of 2011, we gathered goodies like maniacs, ate them all, and knew that within a few weeks we’d be back to eating kimchi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So we enjoyed it while we could.
But when you’re back for good, you have to choose, like, which butter is going to come home with you. The butter is basically moving in with you, and it’s going to stay there for awhile. That’s a major commitment. I would have thought I was positively crazy staring at every option in the grocery store and every restaurant menu item like I was choosing a life partner if not for the fact that my actual life partner had also turned into a blob incapable of making his own decisions. At least I knew I wasn’t alone.
I recalled having read in one of J. Maarten Troost’s books (hilarious travel reads, by the way) that he’d experienced a similar indecisiveness about maple syrup when he returned home from living on a tiny island in the Equatorial Pacific. It sounded a bit ridiculous until I experienced it myself. Could this really be happening to me? Could I spend hours and hours in the same stores I’d shopped at my whole life because I’d lost the ability to make a simple decision? The answer is Yes. I once found myself running back and forth across a Giant Eagle double checking the calorie count, price, and size of mascarpone versus cream cheese. And cursing the damn big wigs at the Big Bird for not putting them anywhere near each other in such a huge store. Did they not understand the importance of making such a cheese-based decision?
Aside from finding ourselves dumbfounded by food options and resorting to asking other people to just choose for us like we were on some 1950s date, there were plenty of other out-of-body experiences.
In the interest of keeping a paycheck and a steady job history (oh, logic), I took the first position offered to me in an attempt to ease back into the job market. Hey, at least I got an offer in the first month. “Woo-hoo, go me!” I said to myself. The company was basically a glue factory. Wait, what? Ok, well, not exactly a glue factory where my responsibilities were concerned. I got to sit on the fancy cubicle side of the glue factory.
So, just months after doing all the decidedly adventurous things I listed in my last post, I found myself driving my sensible Toyota Camry to my sensible desk job in sensible Mentor, Ohio. I had many more ‘Wait, what?’ moments on those days.
And, as if to mess with me even further, when I left work everyday to drive down the very same roads I drove in high school, the same song would play on the same radio station. “May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground. Carry on, on on on on.” Why is it that during the most transitional times in life every lyric on the radio all of a sudden means so much? I was literally driving through my past, in good old Chardon, Ohio, but I must carry on. Korea is gone. Just move forward. Damn you, band named Fun.
Though “fun” is not exactly how I’d label the glue factory job, I knew it was good for me. I got my sea legs back when it came to American office dynamics, learning to not be distracted by the fact that I could understand every conversation around me, and not instinctively bowing to any and all higher-ups, lest I be labeled the New Weird Girl.
As the first couple months passed, the strange feeling in my gut subsided. But then Steve and I decided to return to Chicago. He left a few weeks ahead of me while I finished out my job and readied myself and Frankie to join him. What I really wasn’t prepared for was Culture Shock Times Two. It apparently didn’t lie solely in returning to the country, but in all my old haunts. Deja vu, all over again.
As I was walking downtown during my first week, watching the beautiful Chicago skyline unfold before me, I naturally flipped my iPod to my most recent list. It was my walk-to-work playlist from Mokpo. My brain did the equivalent of a double take. It’s a strange sensation, I tell ya, though not necessarily unenjoyable. You feel simultaneously nostalgic and wish you could turn back time for just one moment while being completely grateful for how far you’ve come.
So why do I write about all this? I can imagine anyone reading this thinking, “Yeah, so? Suck it up. You lived in another country, big deal.” I suppose it’s not something that’s easy to relate unless you’ve been there yourself. I guess I just wanted to get it all out. Because I’ve never felt so downright weird in my life. But like I said, not necessarily in a bad way. And now I’ve got it documented, for myself at least, what is surely turning out to be the strangest year of my life.