Reverse Culture Shock: Unemployed

In my last post I mentioned two identities that I’ve lost in coming back to the USA: being a foreigner and being an English teacher. This time, as you’ve gathered from the title, I’m talking about jobs.

I am no longer an English teacher.

Secret: Sometimes it feels like I never was a real English teacher.

I didn’t major in Education or even English. I took a crash TESOL course before jumping on a plane to fulfill my Fulbright teaching grant, but I’d never taught my own course before, only a class here and there as a teaching assistant. During our six-week long orientation with Fulbright Korea, we took teaching workshops and practiced teaching small classes of students at a summer camp. Still, I didn’t feel like a teacher, but it was soon time to get into a real classroom and teach. Teacher or not, I had to teach.

And I did. It was often messy and always challenging, and I went through many teaching insecurities. I read an article about the high rates of new teacher burnout and felt a little better. I became motivated again and took another online teaching class. I read literature on the subject, learned about flipped learning, and eagerly soaked up advice from co-teachers when it was offered. Then I moved to a new school and felt like I was going through the whole cycle again. Now I’m here, in the US, freed from the scourges of lesson planning and sleeping students.

I am no longer an English teacher, but I could choose to become one again.

Currently, though, I am now “unemployed” and “have no idea what I want to do with my life…still.” It feels like I’m back in college, pre-Fulbright grant acceptance, facing a rising anxiety fueled by my rapidly-approaching graduation and everyone’s questions about what I was going to do next.

How all of this ties into reverse culture shock is this: I’m scared that nothing’s changed.

I worry that it’s like the last two years never happened and I really am back in the same place. Once again people ask what I’m going to do next- this time people on both sides of the globe- and I repeat “I don’t know” or “I don’t have plans” so many times that you’ll have to excuse me if I get a little bit snippy with you, although I’m getting used of giving that robotic response. Sometimes I go back to the answer that satisfied my questioners back in college but didn’t satisfy me: “I’m going to get my PhD in sociology and become a professor.” Am I though?

Yet sometimes I’m struck by my luxury. Most adults in my life (adults older than 30 that have careers I mean) didn’t go though the same struggle, simply because they never had so many choices. They chose what was in front of them or whatever would pay the bills and became that. I’m lucky, spoiled even, in that I will never really have to worry about paying the  bills. Oh sure I’ll worry, but in a sense I’ve already “made it.” Yes, I am unemployed, but I’m never going to be stuck at minimum wage jobs. I’m never going to stay too long in a job that I hate because I have the savings and skills to take my talents elsewhere. I will be solidly middle class, with the potential to go even higher I think, if I focus, choose the right career, and use the right connections.

Yet here I am paralyzed by indecision, again.

It’s silly isn’t it? Maybe it’s a romanticized notion of “what I’m supposed to be,” that holds me back, makes me scrutinize every potential path through the lens of something made up called “destiny” that I’m so scared of trespassing, because then maybe I won’t be happy. But that’s silly, isn’t it?

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…