I recently celebrated the one year anniversary of my return to America after seven years living and traveling abroad. While looking back on things, I kept flashing back to the year-long trip around the world I sandwiched between my six years in Korea and my return home. I thought about what I had done in the year since I returned home and pondered what I would have done differently. I even questioned, knowing what I know now, if I would have returned home at all. But most of all, I thought about all the ways I still had not readjusted to my native land, and in modern-blogger fashion, I turned that into a listicle (An alternate title for this list would be “9 Reasons Why I’m Still Single”).
- One of the most important ways I still have not adjusted to being home is that I won’t buy stuff. Well, I avoid it if at all possible. Did I buy a closet organizer? Sure, but I really had no choice. Did I also consider using a blow-up mattress as a bed? Yes. And I might have gone through with it, too, if I didn’t know it would make me un-dateable in the eyes of a lot of women. The short and long of it is that after nearly a decade of living as a nomad and quasi-nomad, I can’t overcome my desire to stay mobile by way of minimalism. In the end, I split the difference with the bed. I bought the cheapest new one I could and then bought a fancy foam top. I can ditch the bed if I need to, and I can easily store the top. This is how my mind works now.
- As an exact contradiction to #1, I horde food, but it took me quite a while to realize I was doing it. Months after I returned to the States, my roommates were watching as I unloaded my groceries. From the expression on their faces it was clear I was doing something that confounded them. I then looked at what I had bought and at my shelf in the pantry I was loading them on to. It looked like a well-stocked grocery store with at least four boxes of every item. It was then that I realized I was shopping based on lessons of survival I had picked up in Korea. Over there if you saw a food item you liked and that wasn’t Korean, you bought a lot of it because you had no clue when you’d see it again. While I’m now in America, the land of plenty, I’m still getting used to the idea that the foods I like aren’t going anywhere.
- I’m pretty fearless about going out by myself. There was a time, long ago, when I did feel awkward about it. How do I feel about it today? Well, today I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I give complete credit for this to all the solo traveling I’ve done in the last few years. If I had allowed myself to feel strange about going out a lone, I would have ruined and missed out on a lot of the best times in my life. So now that I’m back in the States, I continue to travel around town on my own. I have no problem heading out on my own to start the night, and I for sure don’t mind hanging out later, and on my own, when the people I’ve come out with call it a night inappropriately early.
- I still can’t get over people working in a huge variety of professions. Having lived in several different expat communities over the years, I’ve become used to Westerners only working a handful of jobs, mostly because of visa restrictions. Being back home, and as much as I resented DC living because the first question a person is likely to be asked is “What do you do for a living?” I do love hearing people’s professions here. After years of living in a place where everyone was a teacher, and most of them were not that excited to be doing it, it’s great to be around people who are passionate about what they’re doing and some people who are really doing impressive and unique things. It can make for some interesting conversations, and it can also get me outside of my social bubble because I can meet people who have taken a different path in life than me and who maybe didn’t even go to college. If I sound elitist for having said that last part, I suppose I deserve that, but it also comes from living in a country where a visa requirement was having a college degree.
- I still feel most comfortable around people with an international background. In a previous article, I talked about how I knew I’d have to get used to not being able to talk freely about my time abroad once I returned home. A common experience ex-expatriate have upon their repatriation is feeling like their friends’ eyes gloss over at the briefest mention of their travels. While I knew I couldn’t talk much about my time abroad, what has really surprised me is how much I want to talk about it. In fact, it seems like the longer the stretch I go without talking about it, the more urgent my need becomes. This is because of reason number 112 that I love travel: You never stop learning from it. A year after my return, I’m constantly having new revelations about how my time outside America impacted me, but I have to patiently wait until the next time I meet someone who will do more than just tolerate me while I talk about it.
- There are so many rules. Sorry to tell Americans this, but we are not “the land of the free.” There have been so few countries I’ve been to where I had to worry about the laws, at all. To be fair, though, a lot of that was simply not having to deal with owning a car. I hate cars, and I wouldn’t own one if it was possible. But in America, it’s hard to argue that cars are not a necessity. However, after years living without one, I cannot help but to constantly view them as a headache. Between having to worry about speeding and parking tickets, someone vandalizing it and basic maintenance and cleaning, my car occupies way too much of my thought process because it’s what brings me into contact with the most laws and rules here. Back when I used to take public transportation to get everywhere, I had extra money in my pocket, I read an extra eight books a year while being driven around, and I didn’t have this thing that could cost me bookoo bucks at any given moment if something beyond my control happened to it.
- I still have to consciously not gag when I hear people talking about their long-term plans. I’m not talking about deciding to go on holiday to a specific spot six months in advance. I’m talking about the “I’ll be in a position to buy a house in three years,” or, “In 20 more years at this job, I’ll be able to retire.” The numerous instances I’ve witnessed of young and fairly-young people explaining long-term plans that will take the rest of their lives to carry out has astounded me. When I started my new job, I met teachers who had been at the school for 20, 30 and even 40 years. I also met new teachers who explained how after 25 years they’d be able to retire with full benefits. Simply imagining a person, who was not me, being in the same place for 25 years left me feeling suffocated and lightheaded.
I might be back in America, but I still cannot imagine my life playing out in one location or with such advanced knowledge of what I expect it to be like. I also just think it’s plain wrong to completely sacrifice “the now” for a future that’s impossible to guarantee. That said, and as crazy as I feel people who make such plans are, I know that in this culture, I’m viewed as the crazy one for having such an aversion to them.
- A vacation doesn’t equal a trip overseas. America is a big place and if a person doesn’t live near their family, time off ends up being time to go see them. While living on the other side of the world, it seemed everyone was in agreement that anything less than two weeks off wasn’t worth the flight home. That said, in a small country like Korea and among people whose main drive was to travel, having just five work-free days meant an all-out rush to get overseas. As I write this, I’m currently in the middle of a two week vacation, and I have no plans to leave the US. It’s partially because I can’t afford it (money doesn’t go very far in America) and partially because I don’t have people around inspiring me to do it.
- Related to #5, I’m not used to how much I’ve changed. In a book I wrote about my time in Korea, I said,” If I were to ever understand what I had learned while being in Korea, or appreciate and benefit from how my time there had caused me to grow and change, I had to leave.” I still agree with that statement. When a person is experiencing new things – things that are causing them to adjust and adapt – some of those adjustments become permanent. And as certain as it is that a little time abroad will cause a person to change, just how and how much they’ve changed is a hard thing to gauge. That is until they return home.
Home, for anyone who leaves it for a while, is a measuring rod. For better or worse, home usually feels like it changes at a much slower rate than the rest of the world (likely because we know it so well), and that’s why it ends up being the best way to figure out how a person’s grown. For me, after six years in Korea and a year traveling mostly solo, I’ve found I’m much quieter than I used to be. I’m also calmer, more patient, more confident and more aloof than I used to be, too. Along with all that, I value things differently, which has resulted in even more of my priorities in life not aligning with American society.
Sometimes these realizations about how I’ve changed cause me to feel like an outsider here just like I do everywhere else, and I’m fine with that because I’m now used to that feeling. Hell, I might even be comfortable with it. But the thing that makes feeling like an outsider harder here is that everything here is so familiar. I understand and know this culture in a deep and intimate way, unlike most other places I’ve gone; I just don’t relate to it anymore.