Home again, home again

A Newfoundlander reflects upon the culture shock she felt when she returned home

Home is where the heart is.

There’s no place like home.

Take me home, country road.

I never thought about it much before, but there aren’t many references to home in pop culture that aren’t filled to the brim with warm fuzzies. Then again, I never thought much about home at all, until I was very, very far away from it. Home was always just a word in a sentence, or just a structure down the street that I headed for at the end of a day. And then one day I got on an airplane and let it take me to the other side of the globe, where nothing felt like home.

Suddenly the word was heavy on meaning and light on tangibility.

Running away from it all

Back in the early 2000s, I was in the middle of a Master’s thesis that was going horribly, mounting debt that was overwhelming, and an aching desire to run away from it all. One of my classmates from university had told me about his application process for working in Japan as an English teacher. It sounded perfect. I could travel, live in a strange wonderful place, and work – work for glorious money, instead of spending it constantly. It was all very exciting. That is one of the beautiful things about being young and desperate – you’re willing to do a lot of things that would otherwise scare you to death.

To make a very long story somewhat shorter, I wound up in South Korea and stayed there for six non-consecutive years. There was a year-long stint in Spain, as well. I travelled, I worked, I lived, and I learned so many things. It changed the way I thought about almost everything, and tested preconceived notions I had about where I belong. Meeting new people, and telling them where I was from and what was “home” was always a blast. Being so far away allows you to forget all the things you don’t like, and to think about home in all its rose-coloured glory. I loved being in new countries and working my way through languages, cultures, foods, and situations that were unfamiliar. I missed my home, but I never really suffered very much from culture shock. I mean, I obviously felt culture shock but I was so ready for it, I could identify everything I felt and I could talk about it with other expats living around me.

Being so far away allows you to forget all the things you don’t like, and to think about home in all its rose-coloured glory.

One day, late last year I thought to myself, I should go back home. Things weren’t going well at the job I’d had at the time. I wasn’t feeling inspired or excited living in Seoul anymore. It was time to leave, that much was glaringly apparent. What arrival city to type into the airline’s search engine was less obvious. I was considering a couple of different cities around the world, with a job lined up in Singapore, another in Dubai – but I didn’t want anything they had to offer because I just wanted to live close to my family again. That made the choice a lot easier. I got on a plane that took me back around to the other side of the globe, back to St. John’s. I was home again. If not for good, then for a suitably long time.

An uncomfortable homecoming

In the days that followed, and built up into months, home became less and less recognizable. Some things were physically different, of course. What place doesn’t change within the better part of a decade? But that wasn’t quite it – that wasn’t what was bothering me. You know how in those movies where someone is brought back from the dead, they don’t come back normal but as a distorted version of what they were? That’s what it felt like. Home had morphed into something different, something that didn’t have all the warm fuzzies it’s supposed to. I was not prepared for this kind of culture shock at all. I hadn’t read anything, hadn’t heard anything, no one had brought this up in conversation. My friends who had left Asia to return home, after having lived abroad for a decade, hadn’t once mentioned any of this in our emails and letters. I felt really guilty about not bursting at the seams with happiness all the time. I felt guilty about being annoyed by things people said, or how they manouvered through each day, their choices, their lifestyles. And I missed people and places abroad so much. I ached to see the kids – my students – who I’d watched grow from little tots who could barely hold pencils, to walking talking machines with encyclopedic memories. My closest friends were scattered around the globe, and while I was delighted to be able to hang out with my siblings again, trying to maintain a friendship across time zones and bad internet connections was really frustrating.

Home had morphed into something different, something that didn’t have all the warm fuzzies it’s supposed to.

Coming home meant facing a lot of change. The place was different, how I felt was different, and how I defined it was different. What was once a beacon of light at the end of a long way home; an embrace of quiet and calm at the end of a workday had turned into a structure on a street. Heavy on tangibility, light on meaning. I know it’ll change again, how I see my home and native land. Whether I stay or go far away, it’ll always be where I grew up, and where my extended family continues to grow. It’s a complicated relationship, this home business. It’s further complicated by the ideas and feelings we attach to the word. Is it something we carry with us when we leave? Is it a place that guards the feeling? Can you find it anywhere else? Can it exist in more than one place?

What do you think?

I don’t have all the answers and I’m sure I never will, but that’s not really important. I think of it often, and it is something worth writing home about, wouldn’t you say?

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