What It’s Like to Go Home After Living Abroad

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

I’d imagined what it would be like to go home after living abroad for a long time. I wondered how I would react to those around me and how I would perceive the world that was once familiar to me. I was determined to make the experience as positive as possible despite the inevitable challenges I would face.

I was so eager to leave Korea that by the time it was time to move on, I didn’t feel connected to my life there any longer. I didn’t feel happy and I didn’t like living in Korea anymore. I felt stuck and uncomfortable. Korea was no longer serving me – anyone who knows me knew this to be true. I felt an overwhelming feeling of peace as soon as I felt the wheels tuck into the plane and I watched Korea’s topography get smaller and smaller.

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

Bye, Korea.

COMING HOME AFTER LIVING ABROAD

As soon as I saw the mountains in California I was grinning ear to ear. Tears welled in my eyes and a joy in my heart took over my body. I was [almost] home.

I didn’t experience much of the dreaded “reverse culture shock” that I had heard so much about. My family was incredibly welcoming and is extremely supportive of my lifestyle and ambitions, which certainly made it easy to effortlessly spend time with them and catch up for lost time. My family asked mindful questions, focusing more on the positives on the months to come rather than grilling me on the fact that the next year of my life is totally unplanned and somewhat whimsical.

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

My lovely hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I also spent a lot of time with my childhood friends, reaffirming that these relationships will remain unchanged regardless of whether or not I’m choosing to live my life abroad or not. Knowing that I will always have a loving and supportive group of friends and family is such an awesome feeling and definitely made leaving home a little harder this time around.

MY EXPERIENCES HOME AFTER LIVING ABROAD

While I didn’t totally experience any sort of major culture shock, there were a few things that were a bit overwhelming at first. Some of the issues were definitely present when I initially left America, while others were certainly something that became foreign to me after coming home after living abroad for so long.

I had to get accustomed to hearing English

When I first stepped off the plane in Los Angeles I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the amount of Spanish and English that I was hearing. It’s a feeling I can’t quite explain and can’t be experienced unless you go home after living abroad for awhile. Though I taught English and conversed in English for two years of my life in Korea, I was still constantly hearing Korean at all times. Being able to understand conversations, both meaningless and substantial, was incredibly mind-boggling for the first few days.

 

I came face to face with America’s racism problem

I was extremely embarrassed to witness the way non-English speakers were treated while going through customs and immigration once I landed back on American soil. I quickly realized my privilege when the same immigration officer who told a Chinese speaker to, “get out of my face and try harder to learn English” greeted me with a smile and a few [super lame] jokes. It broke my heart to know these are the first people non-Americans are meeting when they enter the country. This sort of mockery and belittling should not be a representation of the country, and yet, it is.

I took a road trip with my dad through the American south during the first leg of my trip and while I had an awesome time, I was totally confused by a few of the situations I encountered – particularly after living abroad. For instance, while traveling through Tennessee, we had to take a detour through a holler and I was astounded at the blatant bigotry that we saw along the drive. There were lots of gun shops, Donald J. Trump support signs and lots of confederate flags. I definitely felt like I was driving through a different world, certainly one that is full of uneducated and closed-minded American citizens. It broke my heart a little bit to see this type of hatred in person.

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

I loved the irony in that this town is called London.

 

I forgot how to do basic tasks

I searched high and low for a quality meal that I could deem worthy as a first back in the states. I came across an awesome restaurant that had a salad with ingredients such as goat cheese, quinoa, avocado, serrano peppers and red radishes – all items that I missed having easy access to hardcore while living in Korea.

First of all, I was a bit taken aback by the fact that the server at the restaurant asked me several times how my meal was. When I finished eating I requested the check and brought the receipt up to the front counter, expecting to pay. When the server informed me she needed to run my card and give the receipt back to me once more in order to tip, I’d realized that I had TOTALLY forgotten about this sort of paying process in the states.

For those who aren’t aware of the dining situation in Korea, I’ll explain so you can understand why I was temporarily confused. When you eat in Korea, you generally seat yourself, order and then the server brings the food out. There’s not really much conversation involved and often times it’s up to you to get your own water, chopsticks and napkins. Some restaurants have buttons that you press when you’d like to request a server to the table.

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

YAS QUEEN.

Despite the fact this had been my eating experience for two years, I was still a bit embarrassed to realize that I had completely forgotten how to do something so simple.

In addition to completely forgetting how to pay a bill at a restaurant, I had a really hard time remembering to throw toilet paper in the toilet. Much to my family and friends’ happiness, throwing my toilet paper in the trash can was a habit I quickly learned to squash during my time home.

 

I realized most of my peers in America are in severe student loan debt

The student debt crisis in America isn’t a secret. Everyone knows there’s a major problem happening across the nation, and the sad part is that young people don’t always have a choice other than to temporarily defer their loans. Many of my friends back home have moved on to successful jobs; they’ve become attorneys, media consultants, medical industry professionals and teachers.

Almost each of them are swimming in student debt ranging from $40,000 to $250,000 USD. The crazy part is that my friend who has the most debt attended state schools for each of his/her degrees. Hearing these stories after college was crazy enough – hearing how the debt snowballs into oblivion when even higher education endeavours are achieved is something I had a really hard time wrapping my head around. I feel extremely grateful to be able to be living this sort of lifestyle without any debt, which is something I will never take for granted.

 

I was reaffirmed in the fact that nobody really wants Donald J. Trump to be the presidential nominee

While I successfully avoided any sort of political debates during my time home, I did find it comforting to be reminded that most people don’t want that guy to win. Despite this, everywhere I went in America had political news broadcast from the televisions focused on the racist bigot. It didn’t matter if it was Fox News or CNN, he has, and will most likely remain, the topic of discussion in the months to come. This man was the subject of dozens of conversations – both overheard and ones I participated in – and they all were generally revolving around a collective confusion that has swept the nation. And yet, he’s winning in the polls. C’mon, America.

 

I regained a newfound appreciation and adoration for my country

The United States of America has some major issues. In my opinion, one of the most significant problems we’re facing as Americans is the fact that there is such a notable division, which is something I witnessed when I went home after living abroad. The media pins individuals against one another across a variety of categories; political, religions, sexuality choices, women, men, young, old, non-white and white… the list could go on forever. The issues we’re facing as Americans are currently driving our nation into the ground, which is something that has to end.

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

home after living abroad Willful and Wildhearted www.willfulandwildhearted.com

Despite all of this, America is my home and I am proud to call myself an American. I think without appreciating one’s own country, people can get dragged into a negative mindset and can feel a disconnect from their roots. Of course America frustrates me, but it also brings me great memories and connections. After everything, there’s no place like home.

 

 

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17 Comments

  1. March 19, 2016 / 1:13 am

    Laura,
    Well written! And similar sentiments on my end as well. I am reading this as I sit on my parents couch in South Carolina. Tomorrow I fly back to Korea and I am dreading it! Yikes! Coming home has confirmed that this last extension of my contract was a mistake and I know have 5 more months in Korea. I will totally embrace them and use it as a time to save some extra cash, and travel to a few more places, but after visiting home…I so want to stay for awhile!

    I think the biggest things I can resonate with are the amount of English being spoken and eating in restaurants. I have been home for 2 weeks and still keep saying, “Cam-sa-hap-ni-da” to people – I forget that just about everyone speaks English. And tipping in restaurants?! Oy! I also really notice when I see Korean things around. I was strolling through NYC and found a tiny little sign in Korean for a temple or something. Then I was in a convenient store and saw a Korea flag and got to chatting with the owners who were from a neighborhood in Seoul. Though I am so ready for my time in Korea to be finished, living here for two years will always be a huge part of who I am. You are right, there is no place like home! Good luck on your next adventure!
    Cheers,
    Katie

    • March 21, 2016 / 4:50 am

      Thanks for the well wishes! Now that I’ve been out of Korea for nearly a month, I really can’t imagine going back there. I think it’s best to just use the time as an opportunity to save money and explore places you haven’t been yet. I hated living there, but I will say the country itself was so lovely and will always hold a special place in my heart. I accidentally stumbled upon a Korean market with my best friend in Pittsburgh and we purchased 고추장아찌 (spicy pickled peppers) and I chatted with the owner for a bit. It felt nice to speak Korean and made me feel good, but at the same time I’m glad that chapter has come to a close.

      Best wishes to you in the coming months. I know you’ll make the best of it and just try to keep a positive head about everything. That country can feel so daunting at times! xoxo

  2. Jen Klukan
    March 19, 2016 / 1:36 am

    Amazing writing Laura! I’m so pleased that your visit home was a positive experience. I’m so happy you realize how much your family loves, respects, encourages and supports your dreams! You are the best, girlfriend!
    I love you more than life itself. I had an incredible time having you back home for a bit!
    Take care, follow your dreams and make memories to last a lifetime! Remember despite the distance, we are
    ” Under the Same Sky “

  3. March 19, 2016 / 9:36 am

    I love this post! I can relate to everything here. After living in the Netherlands and then Australia for a year, when I returned I had a hard time adjusting to English (and the American accent) and definitely different customs like how to pay a bill at a restaurant! But when all’s said and done, it can be really nice to be back!

    When you lived in Korea did you speak any Korean in day to day life? I just moved to Germany and have started learning German and I’m just reminded how hard it can be to be somewhere where you don’t understand everything that’s going on around you. It can certainly begin to feel a bit lonely.

    • March 19, 2016 / 4:14 pm

      I spoke Korean but it was generally at a very basic level and nowhere near fluent. However, I was able to converse in the day to day and so it made it a bit easier. I grew to enjoy not knowing what people were saying as it made things like reading on the train without music possible. I get distracted easily! Living abroad in general can certainly feel a bit lonely but I hope it passes for you. Thanks for your comment!

  4. March 19, 2016 / 4:24 pm

    I can relate to all of this so much! Returning home after a long absence can make you see aspects of your culture in a more critical light, it can also make your more defensive of your own culture. I’ve always been aware of America’s race issues, but when Europeans point it out to me I get really irritated. We have plenty of static over race in Europe too! Also, I get really tired of people speaking to me as if all Americans are right wing nut jobs who listen to everything Fox news tells them and plan to vote for Trump. There’s a lot more than that to the political climate in the US, although I’m really glad to not have to be in the thick of this most current election. Sometimes it’s nice to observe from afar. The student debt thing is massive too. When I see how my non-American friends aren’t financially hobbled for life after getting their education, it makes me very angry for my friends back home who are being robbed of their futures by a corrupt system.

    One things is for sure, you never look at anything the same way again after living abroad for a while.

  5. March 21, 2016 / 2:14 am

    The toilet paper in the toilet is always something that messes with my mind when I visit home. I visited home in February and I was exactly like you. Haha

    I’ve got to admit that I’ve never had a good experience with immigration/customs when I’ve visited the US. They’re brutal and it really puts a damper on your first hour of your holiday.

    I know you haven’t got many plans for this year but I noticed you were in Thailand so what’s happening, girl?

    • March 21, 2016 / 2:27 am

      I have quite a few plans, actually! I’ve just arrived in Bangkok earlier this week and heading to Chiang Mai Tuesday. We’ll be backpacking Southeast Asia until about August or so and then moving to Auckland, New Zealand. Exciting months ahead!

  6. March 21, 2016 / 5:37 am

    Another well written post. You have a magical way with words lady! When I was home I felt alot of the things you were feeling. I didn’t quite feel the reverse culture shock that had been described in articles I read online. I was overwhelmed with joy when I got off the plane at LAX we had a great experience (although I would have been frustrated to have witnessed what you saw at the airport), someone said, “welcome home Ms. Indoe,” after checking my passport and I almost cried. Immediately after I accidentally walked into the mens restroom and I felt like an idiot. Scott forgot how to use a debit card and I forgot how to read bathroom signs apparently. After seeing all of our friends and family we kind of felt like nothing changed except the billboards. It was a strange feeling, and at the same time we noticed how much we had changed ourselves from living in a new country, our perspectives about how things worked, how people act, our country’s politics, to just tipping at restaurants- all changed. We especially felt similar feelings as you when we were in the countryside in Ohio, it’s really sad to see how racist and closed minded people can be, and unwilling to change their ways. What scares me the most are the kids who are growing up around all this hate, chances are they will grow up with it too. I can’t believe that photo of the stop sign you saw. At the end of our 6 weeks in the US, we were so ready to leave and travel again. Unfortunately leaving home to travel gave me an insatiable thirst of going to more places and wanting less and less a home with kids, even if that’s what everyone else home my age is doing. It will be interesting to see how I feel after going home for the holidays this year. Anyways, good luck on your travels!!! Can’t wait to read more about it on here!

    • March 23, 2016 / 1:38 am

      Thanks for the kind words! The super racist stuff was actually in Tennessee, not Ohio. I’ve never seen anything like that in Ohio which is why I felt like I was on a different planet. I also forgot how to use a debit card machine at check out counters, and it definitely took a few awkward tries throughout the course of a week to finally get the hang of it. Thanks again – this trip has been incredible so far!

  7. March 22, 2016 / 7:36 am

    I’m sorry to hear that your initial coming home wasn’t as positive but family makes things easier. I hope your enjoying your next steps as a traveller!

    • March 23, 2016 / 1:36 am

      I had a lovely time at home! It was definitely hard to leave everyone this time around.

  8. March 23, 2016 / 9:53 am

    Welcome home Laura!
    I’m so happy to hear that your transition back hasn’t thrown you in the depths of despair. When I first came back, it felt good to just be with the people I love most and they were so supportive of what I had gone through and how I needed to recharge. I was laughing out loud when you talked about forgetting to tip! I remember I had to run to the mall to go clothes since it was colder than I expected and at the cash register the girl kept going, “debit” or “credit”… I’m like huh?? I wholeheartedly agree with you that being away from home gives you a newfound appreciation for it. I guess what they say is true, that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But you realize really that there is no comparison to where we have our roots. I hope that you enjoy the rest of your homecoming and I’m excited to hear what your upcoming year has in store! <3

    • March 23, 2016 / 10:32 am

      Thanks! As I mentioned in the post, though, I left home already which is why I said it was so hard to say goodbye =)

  9. March 27, 2016 / 3:49 pm

    Your vacation at home looks like a healthy rest for you – both body and mind. Good luck on your next journey. I recall rading in your previous posts that you are very excited and so looking forward to your next adventure in NZ.

  10. March 28, 2016 / 2:33 pm

    Going home after being abroad for a while is certainly an adjustment, and we’re glad you’re happier. I know that there have been time where you were frustrated with aspects of life in Korea, so it’s great to see you so happy to be home and in an environment that you’re more comfortable with!

    We actually had the opposite reaction on our latest trip home where we were dying to get back to Korea. Maybe it’s personality or maybe it where you’re from, but it’s painfully wonderful to see people relieved to return home, as we, so far, have not had this experience. We just have to stay away a bit longer, I guess!

    • March 28, 2016 / 2:45 pm

      Yes, Korea certainly was not the place for me! I found to be very stressed as most everyone in Seoul had zero chill. I’m sure it may be a personality thing! I find I’m very tolerant but I felt very uninspired by Korea, but I think that’s often why people leave after 1-2 years and some stay for a long time as they might not mind as much. To each their own, for sure! Thanks for the kind words – my time at home was such a breath of fresh air and traveling through Thailand has proven to be even more inspiring. Thanks for the comment!

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