Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Becoming a Repatriate

Knowing that I'm leaving has changed my relationship with Korea. Things about Seoul that I found annoying before now provoke only amused sighs. Things that I always liked shine a bit brighter. My friends here seem smarter, kinder, and more interesting. OK, not really the last one. They were always pretty interesting, actually. But you know what I mean. Once we stopped trying Korea on for size, both Mystery and I have both been able to relax and admit that it's not perfect, but it's an interesting place, and we've had a nice life here.

While moving to another continent is a pretty daunting endeavor, we've done it together twice already, and I had already done it a few times before I met Mystery, so we pretty much know the drill. Luckily, we didn't bring too many possessions to Korea when we came, and haven't acquired much here (other than tons of baby stuff, most of which we'll just give away). We're also not moving until June, so we have plenty of time to figure out the details. So, while our lives will be upheaved for a while, I'm not particularly stressed about it. And just to make things even better, we have already managed to arrange the rental of a gorgeous house for our first six months back in the US from a family that will be overseas themselves. So, we don't have to look for housing right away, and can look around a bit and see what neighborhood we'd like to live in and what kind of a home we want.

So, on a logistical level, everything seems to be going well. The one thing about this move that has me a little disconcerted is my own emotional reaction to moving back to my own country. I'm mostly feeling good about it, from a practical perspective, but I am feeling a bit wistful. I'm not sure how I feel about not being an expat anymore.

Many years ago, in a former life, I had a friend who went to Japan after graduating from college to teach English. After a couple of years in Japan, she returned to the US. I asked her how it was going, and she said that she was having an identity crisis. When she had been living in Japan, and people in the US asked what she was doing (meaning what was her job), she responded that she was living in Japan, teaching English. The living in Japan part came first. The teaching English was an afterthought. Living in Japan was, for her, the daily accomplishment from which she derived her sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Once back in the US, she went back to being one of millions of relatively new college graduates without much in the way of marketable job skills. She eventually found her way, but for a while there, she felt really lost.

I'm in a different situation, obviously. I am established in my career (which does not involve teaching English), have a husband and child, and have made quite a number of trips around the sun already, so I have a fairly secure sense of who I am. Moving back to the US won't, for me, result in a psychological demotion in the workplace, and I'm moving back with a job in hand. However, I admit that I am feeling a little strange about giving up the perceived glamor (for lack of a better word) of living "overseas". Of course, living in Korea isn't actually any more glamorous than living anywhere else (although the man-purses that I see in huge numbers every time I go out in public do make a compelling argument that Seoul is more self-consciously fashionable than most places). My life here is fairly ordinary on the surface. I go to work. Come home, have dinner. Sometimes get together with friends, etc. But, there is an automatic special something about living in a country that isn't your place of origin, at least for me. The fact that the sights that I see, the sounds that I hear, the smells in the air, and the tastes of the food are different from those that I think of as "ordinary" puts an extra little sparkle on my day on most days. After over two years, I am used to living here, and some of that sparkle has faded into the clear light of day, but there are still moments every day when I take a deep breath and just appreciate the incredible luck that I've had that allowed me the experience of living here.

And soon it will be over. There will be new joys, new sparkles, and new adventures. I'll be able to put down some tentative new roots without any immediate expectation of pulling them up again down the road. I'll be closer to my family, most of my friends, places that sell the foods that I have been missing for so long. These things are huge, and I'm excited about them. But I don't know when, or if, I'll get the chance to live "overseas" again, which makes me a little sad. And I wonder if, when I get back to the US, having seen what I've seen, learned what I've learned, lived where I've lived, I'll fit in.


Rachel Inbar said...

I remember the first time I went back to the US after living in Israel - I felt like a fraud - that no one could even tell that I wasn't from there.

I won't ever move back to the US for more than a year or two, so I've never really considered what it would be like. I still felt some comfort with the feeling of not being foreign, when I was there last summer. I'm completely fluent in Hebrew (should be, after living here for 23 years) but people still often notice my American accent, so I don't get that feeling of being able to just blend in. I kind of miss that. And shopping in the US is just so much more fun :-)

Anonymous said...

Great to hear from you, Sara - I miss you!
I understand what you're talking about. I have been living "abroad" in Quebec for more than half my life now. When I go back to England nobody knows I've been away because I sound like any other Brit. Except that I have to stand there and count my small change because I don't remember the coins, and I don't recognize anything on the supermarket shelves any more. And I write "recognize" with a z now...
Maybe when you go back to the US you'll still get that feeling of discovery that living abroad allows you, but with the comfort of knowing how it all works. At least the language won't be an issue any more.
In any case, having done it myself a few times, I think you are very brave for moving continents again, now with added baby.
And congrats on the new job! You're awesome!
Rose xx

Anonymous said...

I miss being an expat. Your comment about the extra sparkle of being immersed in a different culture is what did it for me too.

I'm still working on my husband to pick up and go for a couple of years, but he's not breaking down in the forseeable future. *sigh*

Isabel said...

I totally get how you feel. I'll miss Japan when we leave next year. We're hoping to be back overseas within two years of being home, though. I think that will prevent us from having the identity crisis that I think I might not yet be immune from (though my DH probably is).

Sarah said...

you'll always be a little glamourous for having lived overseas, and many people you meet when you get "home" (maybe not so much the ones you've known forever) will think there is an extra little sparkle in you for your exotic adventure!