culture shock

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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Settled: Chronic Homesickness and Moving Back After Two Years Abroad

It’s been three weeks since we arrived in America and it feels more like 3 months because of all we’ve crammed into those 21 days.

“Are you all settled in?” people ask.

Am I settled? I’ve unpacked. I’ve decorated. I’ve figured out where the bank is and the grocery store and the closest Chinese takeout place. Is that settled?

“You must be so glad to be home!” they say.

Glad. Yes, I suppose I am. I was glad to see my family and my in-laws. Glad to reconnect with old friends. Glad to have a car and the ability to drive where I want whenever I want to. I’m glad to have more space and glad for an apartment with central air conditioning. I’m glad to be surrounded with our old things and glad to have our cats back in our home. Glad to start making new friends and building a new community. But glad to be Home? I don’t even know what that means.

I crave Home like water. Like air. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn my head it fades like smoke in the night, leaving only a shadowy outline where it may have been. I’m unsure of its shape, much less its substance.

In Korea I was homesick for my family and for America. In America, I’m homesick for my family and for Korea. I’m comfortable here, and yet, I’m homesick. And who says I can’t be both?

I miss the river and the mountains and the park by our house. I miss life in a city and the energy of downtown and the ease of the subway and how completely safe I always felt in spite of all the people. I miss my friends and I miss the luxury of two full-time incomes and how little we had to worry about paying for groceries or going out to dinner. It takes my breath away, how much I miss it. While in Korea I thought of America as Home and yet I’m realizing that on a subconscious, maybe even visceral level, Korea is Home as well.

Last week I went to Publix, a local grocery chain I’d never been to before. I walked along the aisles of produce and marveled at the abundance, the novelty of such easy access to foods both familiar and foreign. I stopped in front of a cold case of artichokes, green beans, and asparagus. I picked up a bundle of asparagus, felt the weight of it in my hand – succulent green stalks with their knobby purplish heads that I can never look at without thinking of Junior the Asparagus from Veggie Tales. It wasn’t until the man stocking produce asked if I was OK that I realized I was crying.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m OK.” Embarrassed, I put the asparagus back and wandered down another aisle where I was assaulted by an overwhelming 10 varieties of Oreos. I left without buying anything.

Science tells us that adaptation is crucial to survival. We bend and change and mold ourselves into new shapes, learn to breathe the air and drink the water of a new environment. But I can only bend so far and sometimes I think I’ll never quite fit this mold again, although it once fit me like a glove. I feel stretched thin, spread across cities and continents, straddling an ever widening gap between the world I’ve loved for the past few years and the world I’m trying to love now.

I don’t know if Home is here or there or if I will ever stop feeling homesick for some other unnamable place, but I do know this: Who I am and Where I am are not the same thing, but they are connected. Who I am is a work-in-progress. Who I am has been shaped by Louisiana and Chicago and Raleigh and Korea, and now it’s being shaped by Columbia.

Maybe I’ll never truly feel settled, but I will always know where I’ve been and who I am because of those places. Here’s to the next stage of becoming.