Starting in March 2010, I spent one year in Seongju, South Korea, outside of Daegu, teaching English at two elementary schools. At age 54, it was my first time living and working abroad; not only was it an adjustment, but I found it quite a hardship as well. I was soon to find out that teaching elementary-aged children was not for me.
Before I left for Korea in February, 2010, I feared that things in my life would always be the same. I remember, as vividly as if it was yesterday, the last five years of my humdrum existence as a suburban housewife in northern Virginia. I remember driving around in the traffic of Virginia, running the same errands I always ran, going through the same old routines and feeling increasingly depressed and restless. I sat at stop lights in my car, listening to foreign music, thinking about my longtime dream of being a writer, and thinking that I would never have anything to write about. My life was so boring, so mundane. What would I ever have to say? And I would think, over and over during those last five years: Is this all there is? This is IT, for the rest of my life? It took a long time for things to snap, but snap they did, and I was off for my first adventure living abroad.
I couldn’t have been thrust into an environment more alien to that of my Western upbringing. I had never felt so disoriented in my entire life, other than the one month I’d spent in Cairo in 2007.
In Korea, I had a horrible 1 1/2 – 2 hour commute to work each way, in freezing cold or steamy hot weather, on dilapidated buses that seemed to have no discernible schedule. I shivered in my classroom during winter, huddled over a space heater in my winter coat, when the school refused to turn on the heat. Or alternately, I sweated profusely when they refused to turn on the air conditioning. I endured Korean food, which I never liked because of the grisly chunks of meat Koreans favor and the strong vinegar taste of kimchi that accompanied every meal. I was older than almost every other teacher there, and the oldest of all my friends and acquaintances. I lived in what amounted to a college dormitory, a small room in which I could barely fit, much less entertain anyone.
Yet, while in Korea, I set out to explore a country that is quite isolated and not known for tourism. I looked through my trusty Moon Handbook and plotted travels through the country several times a month. I set out to discover new places and new experiences, if not outside of Daegu, then within the city. I enjoyed my friends Anna, Seth and Myrna, our small group of expats in a foreign land, as we spent evenings together either playing Ticket to Ride, watching movies, or eating dinner and singing in a Korean singing room called noraebang.
I learned not only to be alone, but to relish it. And I learned to be self-sufficient, independent, and adventurous. I also learned that I don’t generally enjoy events with random large groups of people, and that certain things about a culture, which one may find endearing on a short holiday trip, can become annoying with constant exposure. I found myself irritated by the Korean group mentality, and the inability of the people to accept individual differences in what is a truly conformist society. I found everyone’s black hair annoying, because it was often dyed even into old age. I remember being thrilled when I visited China and found old people with white hair. I found it frustrating that Koreans refused to try to speak English, even though they had been studying it for years, for fear of losing face. I was put off by their criticisms of my appearance, such as the fact that I didn’t dye my hair or that I had fat arms or a big nose, and their constant offering of unsolicited advice.
I also found them extremely generous and giving of their time and their friendship. I found them to be hard-working and diligent and well-organized. And many of them knew how to enjoy life, with their love of partying, drinking and singing.
In Korea, I tried to make the best of the experience, in my way. It wasn’t everyone else’s way, as most other teachers were young and into partying and drinking into all hours of the night. I had to cope with disappointment, and I was able to do it. I got up in the morning and slogged my way through my horrible commute. I taught my students to sing “California Dreamin’” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” I made goofy faces to keep them laughing. I organized team competitions of Jeopardy.
I did my best. I didn’t know what the future would hold, but whatever it held I knew would be different than the life I had before. It was most certainly different.
After my year in South Korea, followed by three weeks in India with my best friend Jayne, I returned home on March 22, 2011 to find Alex and Mike the same in appearance as when I left home a year before. Adam, however, had grown by 2 more inches and loomed over me. I’d become a midget.
The following Thursday morning, I was wide awake from midnight to 5 a.m. Saturday afternoon, I slept for 3 hours, and went to bed at 9 p.m. My body obviously hadn’t made the leap from Korea/India time to Eastern Standard Time. Not only did I have to adjust to the physical effect of being in a different time zone. There was the mental discombobulation that came from reorienting myself to home. Everything felt bizarre and off-kilter. I had no balance. I was lost.
I felt a stranger in my own land. I thought people really believed I died and was gone forever, into the eternity-land of heaven (or hell, depending on what they thought of me). I returned to my house in Oakton, which I still shared with my husband (from whom I had been separated for 4 years) and my two sons, to find total disarray. A tornado had swept through our house, redistributing all our earthly goods in the unlikeliest of places.
A long hot bath beckoned. After enduring the shower-bathroom of Korea for the last year (a bathroom with a shower head mounted above the sink which sprays water all over the sink, toilet, and bathroom floor), a long hot bath was something I craved. It was one of many things I took for granted my whole life until suddenly, when I moved abroad, I didn’t have it anymore. In 5 days, I took about 8 long hot baths. I soaked in hot water until my skin was shriveled and hot pink. I even fell asleep one time and woke to find myself shivering in room-temperature water.
Everyone walked around me as if they didn’t know what to make of me or what to do with me. Interactions were awkward. I didn’t quite know how to pick up where I left off, how to fall into a groove in our interactions. Patterns which I’m sure they took for granted were a mystery to me. The boys had grown, they’d changed, and I didn’t quite know how to have relationships with these kids whose personalities had rearranged themselves into fresh versions of their former selves.
In addition to the suitcase I needed to unpack from my trip to India, there was a huge suitcase full of stuff I sent home with Alex when he visited me in Korea in December of 2010. Another box full of stuff I mailed at the end of January. One box I sent my last day in Korea by airmail with my computer and important papers. And on Friday, a Korean guy knocked on the door and delivered two more boxes I mailed by “surface” in mid-February. It was as if the post office guy had carried them all the way across the ocean and across continents himself from Korea. Six more boxes were still to come. Where would I put all this stuff?
I spoke to my friend Lisa in Pennsylvania who was my roommate in Egypt for all of July 2007. She, who has lived abroad in Middle Eastern countries off and on, says she knows how strange and disorienting it is when you come back home from living abroad. You get on an airplane and instantaneously you’re in a different world, with a whole new cast of characters and a spanking-new script. You’re the same character you always were but you’re now in a different story. It’s as if you changed the channel and you’re in a thrust into a sitcom…or drama, one not of your own making. Feeling lost and unsure and not knowing any of your lines. A perfect description.
dis·o·ri·en·ta·tion ~ n.
1. Loss of one’s sense of direction, position, or relationship with one’s surroundings.
2. Mental confusion or impaired awareness, especially regarding place, time, or personal identity.
Culture shock: a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or set of attitudes. I have the experience of “reverse culture shock,” being exposed to a “familiar culture or way of life or set of attitudes,” but one that has become unfamiliar over a year away.
I never thought my life here in America, the life I’ve had for over 50 years, could feel so strange. How long, I wondered, before it would feel like home again? And how long before I would get the urge to venture abroad again?
I was hoping to write a post about returning home from the Four Corners, but I haven’t had time yet to sufficiently process it and think about it. Hopefully I’ll be able to write something coherent by August. As I’ve lived and worked abroad four times – in South Korea, Oman, China and Japan – I’d like to write posts on this blog about how it felt when I returned home from each of those long-term expat experiences.
For more on my year in South Korea, you can see catbird in korea.
“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops. How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them? How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.
Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, August 5 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, August 6, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired!
- Meg, of snippetsandsnaps~ Potato Point and beyond, wrote with such vivid description of her return home from Warsaw to her home in New South Wales.
Thanks to all of you who wrote posts about “on returning home.” 🙂