As my college graduation drew nearer, it became increasingly clear to me that the only post-grad plan I could be truly excited about and look forward to would be teaching abroad. So, as the summer after graduation commenced and my fellow newly-minted alumni moved away to begin the next chapter of their lives, I enrolled in International TEFL Academy’s Online TEFL course and began researching the process of moving to Vietnam. Almost exactly two years later, five months of saving and living with my parents, a year of living in Hanoi, and seven months of re-acclimation to the United States are behind me. A lot has changed in the two years since I was a fresh college graduate, yet some challenges are the same.
Many people ask me if I experienced reverse culture shock upon my return. The short answer is no, because comparatively, it was nothing compared to the on-going culture shock I experienced the first three quarters of the time I was abroad. The longer answer is yes: There were some forgotten aspects of American life that I was only mildly surprised to encounter again. For example, we have so much space here, compared to Hanoi. Our streets are so wide, our sidewalks and front yards relatively expansive, and our parking lots take up acres, not to mention the interiors of businesses themselves: The sheer amount and variety of merchandise you can find in a typical grocery store is enormous and overwhelming.
There are other aspects of returning that are harder to swallow than remembering how things look: Some people appear not to have changed at all, while you find others to have completely moved on with their lives, and somehow both can be equally hard to digest. I returned, feeling like I had seen and experienced so much that at times, it was difficult to relate to people who were doing the exact same things they had been doing before I left. What amazed you in this last year? What puzzled you beyond comprehension? What made you uncomfortable? I wondered these things, but didn’t say them aloud. Yet other friends have moved alone to new cities, worked three different jobs, and have begun to carve promising career paths for themselves, which left me feeling as though I hadn’t done enough while abroad, living well above the standard of living, supporting myself working part time, and cultivating my hobbies. Where I fall on this spectrum of achievement after a year abroad is neither here nor there, I’ve come to realize. Our adult lives have diverged so much, it’s pointless to attempt to draw any comparisons.
The most glaring culture shock I experienced upon my return was attempting to enter the job market for the first time as a degree holding prospective employee. I was decidedly looking for anything and everything outside of my degree field of the sciences, and I felt optimistic at first because I believed a liberal arts degree was more than versatile enough to at least get me an interview. However, Portland ranks 8th in the percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree or higher, and 6th out of the largest 50 cities in terms of graduate or professional degree percentages. It was a bit of a rude awakening realizing that simply having any degree isn’t enough to land any entry level position, where as in Hanoi, the potential for employment seemed endless.
Educated English speakers were in high demand, which altered my sense of my own desirability as an employee. In the seven months I’ve been back, I’ve had to contend with what I can feasibly do with my degree, what I’d do with my degree if there were no limitations, and how I can bridge that gap.
However, it’s not all discouragement and dismissal: Working in a culture that values the profession of teaching far more than we do here in the US was healthy for my self worth. Having gotten lucky and worked for a company that hired me for my unconventional academic background has shown me that that’s possible. Knowing the magnitude of some of the projects I carried out gives me a lot to talk about in interviews now, and will certainly fuel the resolve with which I approach challenges in the future. I didn’t imagine that I would be a career ESL teacher, so my considerations of what my career will be are as present and persistent now as they were when I graduated and remained constant over my time there.
Spending a year abroad has certainly shaped my values and aspirations: I hope to achieve that work-life balance again. Because of that salary compared to the cost of living that I grew accustomed to, I value myself more as an employee. My job pleasantly surprised me in how fulfilling it was, and I hope to attain that again. I learned to invest as much as possible in my current situation, because it wasn’t bound to last forever.
Reverse culture shock isn’t necessarily always the best term for the feelings we experience upon our return home. Same Culture Revelation or Cultural Disbelief are often more accurate, albeit more cumbersome phrases to articulate. One particularly pleasant and valuable sentiment I continue to experience even seven months after my return is Reverse Culture Appreciation, wherein I continuously apprehend all the wonderful aspects of home. There are some drawbacks of course - things I miss about Vietnam - but an invaluable part of living abroad is learning and living the trade-offs first hand and coming to realize every place has its own beauty and functionality, while every place presents its own obstacles, inconveniences, and challenges.
Moving to an entirely foreign culture and having to figure out literally every aspect of existence from living arrangements, clean water to drink, how to support myself, how to get around, and what’s appropriate to wear to setting up a phone and simply eating, makes returning back to the place I spent over 20 years learning about and where I’m able to ask virtually anyone for assistance by way of sharing a common language effortless and luxurious. The aspects of Western and American culture that are up for critique may be abundant, but I’ve learned that the aspects to appreciate are endless, from our freedom of speech to our environmental consciousness.