Reverse Culture Shock: No Longer a Foreigner

I’ve been back in the US for over a week now. I’m finally getting over my jet lag and it’s been good to be home again. With the exception of sleepiness and itchy sinuses from the dry Colorado air, I’ve been comfortable in a way that I haven’t felt for the past two years. Among family I’ve let my mental guard down. I may have lost some of my English but it’s still my native language. I feel physically healthier – and I can eat anything in the fridge with no consequences!

But of course being back is, at its least extreme, weird, and at its most, difficult. I’ve been watching for reverse culture shock, and catching occasional glimpses of its ugly head. Many articles and bloggers have addressed reverse culture shock, focusing on quirky cultural differences like the size of bathroom stall doors to deeper repercussions like depression and a sense of displacement. My reflections fall on the deeper side.

When I think about it, my reverse culture shock stems from now being in a position of redefining who I am. (Oooh, dramatic right?) In coming to America, I’ve been stripped of the identities that were key to who I was in Korea – identities that for two years I was usually reduced to: “English teacher” and “foreigner.”

I am no longer an English teacher and I am certainly no longer a foreigner.

But wait, you might say, are you sad about not being a foreigner anymore?

And to that I answer, hell no. Being a foreigner is stressful, alienating and sometimes just sucks. But two years of being the foreigner in your school, neighborhood, or even town definitely has an effect on your psyche. Mine at least.

Being a foreigner meant I didn’t fit in and never quite belonged. It meant sometimes I got special treatment and sometimes I got no treatment at all. It was like always having something on my face, or a flashing neon sign that declared “DIFFERENT!”, except maybe when it was winter and you couldn’t tell that I was a foreigner unless you got close enough to really see my face, which gave you quite the shock.

Not being fluent in Korean, I could never quite communicate everything I wanted to. Language was never effortless because even among Koreans fluent in English, I weighed my word choices carefully, changed my intonation to match theirs, avoided slang, and kept sarcasm and most jokes sealed away.

This might seem like an unnecessary effort; surely if I was there to teach English, speaking naturally couldn’t hurt? But perhaps due to growing up with a bilingual mom and her friends, I developed an instinctive ability for lingual adaptation. My brain automatically analyzes your patterns of speech and feeds out my mouth only the structures and vocabulary it deems appropriate for this interaction. Grammar is irrelevant. This ability proved to be a bit of a flaw for an English instructor.

So instead, I became proficient in the language of culture. I learned bows and honorifics, how to laugh at the right jokes and ignore the “wrong” – the statements that would have infuriated American-Me. Usually these statements would’ve been labeled “body-shaming,” “fat phobic,” “sexist” and “racist,” but I wasn’t in college anymore. I locked up American-Me, and she only came out in the presence of all-foreigner gatherings or vacation time in a different country. But after I brought her out, it wasn’t as easy to lock her back up. She clung to my back, flaring up when old men on the bus wouldn’t stop staring and old women slung petty words and judgments. She and I arrived back home exhausted, hating this country and its culture, and I knew I couldn’t let her out for too long.

Now I’m in America, where American-Me can roam free. But she’s been locked away for so long that she’s a little unsteady on her feet. There’s too much light, and Americans talk so much. She’s forgotten that she’s now expected to respond…


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