My Country Tis of Thee: On Living in the Land of Giants

We landed in Dallas after a 12-hour flight from Tokyo and stepped foot onto American soil for the first time in a year. I was overwhelmed by how familiar and foreign everything felt at the same time.

In the first gas station we stopped at, Jonathan and I ran up and down the aisles like children, yelling our finds to each other over the shelves. “Did you know that there are Peanut Butter Snickers now?!” “You can get a 32 oz CAN of something! Who ever heard of a 32 oz CAN?! It’s HUGE!”

Driving through my hometown, I was bombarded with new storefronts and neighborhoods that seem to have sprung up like mushrooms over night. Several fast-food chains whose logos have dotted the American landscape for decades have gotten facelifts while we were away and several entirely new chains have sprung up, our ignorance just one more sign of how long we’ve been gone and how far away we’ve been.

Adjusting is not like I expected it would be. In some ways, I’ve assimilated quickly, falling back into comfortable rhythms and familiar interactions I’ve known all my life. But on some subconscious level I also find myself viewing America as an outsider. For the first time, I identify with those who stereotype America as a land of crime and excess where everyone is fat and spoiled. (True story: When I first met one of my Korean coworkers she said to me, ‘When I heard you were American, I thought you would be fat.’)

I find myself shocked by the sheer size of everything. The size of portions and the size of people and the size of my cat who looks like a puffy version of his former self. After years of craving space, now everything feels too big and too loud. I also find that I am more worried about safety here, in my “home,” than I was in Korea. Here I lock my doors and avoid dark parking lots and my eyes are always peeled for suspicious people. Last week I started to panic after standing in line at the bank for 10 minutes, suddenly recalling every bank hostage story I’d ever heard, stealing sideways glances at the other customers, tension rising in my shoulders.  In Korea, I ran after dark down city streets and took cabs across town after midnight and never felt uncomfortable.

Then there are things I didn’t realize I’d forgotten, like the way we Americans chat with strangers while they go about their day – maybe this is friendliness or maybe it’s just an inability to handle silence. Last weekend a girl taking my order told me I looked exactly like someone who worked with her husband. She asked me my name and when I told her, “Lily,” she told me all about how she was going to name her daughter that but her best friend had a daughter first and stole her name. She named her daughter Chloe instead.

After two years of minimal interaction with people around me, I find the sheer volume of words required for daily life exhausting. In the evening, when Jonathan comes home from school, I am quiet, having spent my words on cashiers and neighbors in the parking lot and the librarian with the horn-rimmed glasses. He asks if anything is wrong and I say, “No,” only that I’m tired.

I don’t know how to say that I am dazzled by this life we’ve fallen into. Awed by the strangers who have welcomed us in and called us friends, amazed by how beautiful ordinary life can be, and yet constantly, persistently uncomfortable with this life that is so hauntingly familiar and so utterly strange. How do I explain that I spent my day going through the motions of an ordinary American life like an actress playing a role she’s memorized so well it comes to her as easily as breathing?

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12 comments

  1. Wonderful post. My hubby is suppose to be going South Korea, not sure where, in the future but he won’t be gone for long. I liked reading your reaction. It’s a culture shock. Amazing how quickly we adjust and readjust.

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    1. Definitely a culture shock! And the interesting thing is, by the end of our time in Korea I was really missing America and was eager to come. But life in another culture really embeds itself in you in ways you don’t even realize. I still have dreams almost every night that are some convoluted mixture of Korea and America and very confusing! I’m sure it will be an interesting experience for your husband if he does end up going!

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    1. It’s strange on so many levels. Strange because you notice things you never noticed before and also strange just because you do have to adjust. It’s weird to say that you’re “adjusting” when you’re just returning to what should be super familiar.

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    1. Ah, that’s interesting. I’ve only been to Australia once and for just a week, but that’s probably the English-speaking culture I’ve been in that’s most similar to America in terms of being a bit more loud and rowdy than many places. I really enjoyed Australia, but at the time I was visiting after 5 months in Korea so I think I was really focused on what things were familiar to me and similar to America. It would probably be a different experience and perspective if I ever visited from America.

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      1. I found that many things stood out more to me after living in Ireland for the past 17 years. Each time I’ve visited back in Australia (every 2-3 years) I’ve notice de more differences and felt them more internally. After living here in Oz the past 8 months, I’m starting feel a bit more at home. So take heart, the adjustment will likely happen, with time.

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    1. It’s much different than I thought it would be. I just notice things I never really thought about before. And yes, since Koreans are generally small, fine-boned, and thin the average American really is huge in comparison, haha. It is also pretty common in Korea for people to make comments on other people’s physical appearance that would be considered really rude in America.

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  2. You’re getting a really valuable experience of seeing your country through a foreigner’s eyes…even if your eyes are only a little bit “foreign”! Imagine what it looks like to someone who has never been there before! It’s a good idea to record your first impressions like this, it will be a good reminder when you welcome someone else from another country!

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