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Jumping Across the Ocean - The Challenges of Returning Home from Teaching English Abroad
Written by: Judy Liu
Last Updated: January 14, 2021
What do I do when I move back?
It’s a daunting question. And sometimes, it’s the very reason why we never return to our home country.
That courage it took to pack everything into two suitcases and move across the world? It takes that very same courage to move back.
Moving to a foreign country like Japan was hard. Being relegated back to infant stages of being illiterate or unable to simply use the microwave was a shock. It was a hard few months. For me, it wasn’t a one-day change; going from wondering if I’d made the wrong move both physically and metaphorically that I considered breaking my contract, to letting all that go, to truly calling the foreign place 'Home;. By the end of my tenure, I wanted to stay, and sometimes, even today, I wonder if I should have stayed or gone to another country to continue teaching English abroad and wandering. I enjoyed being uncomfortable ultimately. Unashamedly meeting people and bumbling through words as I tried to communicate, followed by that excitement on both ends when it goes through. I enjoyed the children and adapting lessons to better teach to the host culture. I enjoyed seeing students exuberantly bubble out hello’s and, “I like ice cream!” whenever I entered the classroom because that was one of the most important parts of the job—not just to teach English, but to instill an excitement, a motivation for English into the students.
Teaching’s always been a part of my life, with my mother being a lifelong, extraordinary educator. The classroom is a great place to grow and be challenged, but I also always knew that the classroom wasn’t my forever space. I made the tough decision, same as when I made the tough decision to drop my so-called “normal, nine to five” job and go to a place of a different language, mannerisms, social cues, and thoughts. I made the tough decision to leave the expat life, a life where I made not only native friends but also friends from all over the world. I loved it all. The rice fields, the dark skies. Children laughing in the fields. Riding a bike everywhere. It was simple. It was slow.
I came back and was blown away by the pace of life. I know it’s not the same for everyone, but I live in a major city, which was a stark contrast from the Japanese countryside dotted by persimmon trees and rice fields. Next, I was overwhelmed by the amount of input; suddenly, I could read without a second thought again, with a nonchalant glance, immediately process things out of the corner of my eyes. It was too much. Upon being thrust back into my “home,” I realized that Japan became just as much of a home to me too. I suddenly saw the mannerisms I’d picked up in just a year. The slight bowing, verbal cues, even trains of thoughts that would have me stopping myself wondering how “Japanese” I’d become.
Suddenly, thinking I’d come home, I realized…. I was in-between. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I hermit-ed for a bit. My room was safe where I could reminisce about Japan or just not embarrass myself in public by giving huge exclamations of, “Ehhhhh?!” every time I am surprised or intrigued, something pretty normal in Japanese conversation flow. But after giving myself a month or so (I also didn’t plan well and didn’t apply to a job before moving back...), I went for it. I started applying for jobs and putting myself out there. The first few interviews were definitely not my best executed ones. I was still awkward, unsure of myself.
Am I being “American” enough?
Was that too “Japanese”?
Was that a social faux pas?
I was constantly asking if I was acting in accordance to social norms. I went from landing and handling interviews with poise before I went abroad, to drawing blanks on English or just not connecting with the interviewer. Shouldn’t I have grown over the past year? But practice makes perfect.
Mom taught me something- to not just settle. Aspire for more. And I wanted to do just that. I wanted to make sure that if the job wasn’t the right fit, to ignore that high-pitched, desperate voice in my mind and not take just any job that came my way. Now, I also don’t want to sound unreasonable. I understand that sometimes, we may have to first take any job that comes and go from there. In my case, I decided to attempt to marry some interests and allow me this luxury of patience in choosing the next job that would be a fit for me. The product of that marriage was tutoring. Sometimes, children are far more forgiving when it comes to social norms. I found that I wasn’t judged as quickly when I chain-sawed through an idiomatic saying. And since most of the work is written (something I usually excelled at with my college studies), I also had time to read things, think, and then write- giving me a bit of a buffer to comfortably react accordingly. Tutoring gave me the flexibility to look for my next fulfilling job as it also helped me adjust back.
Currently, I’m a compliance specialist. Sounds fancy, I know. And I’m not going to say it’s not. I probably didn’t even know this existed until I applied- much less what it does until I started. With that being said, I’m saying there’s so much out there that we don’t know. Yes, we’ve taught aboard. And that taught us a lot. We can still work in so many fields. Many go teach. Many don’t. Either way, don’t let your past experience limit your future. Fortunately for me, I work with foreigners as well, and teaching abroad has taught me patience, improvisation and flexibility, and knowing how to simplify our native English to facilitate communication (a truly useful skill, I promise). I’m inspired by my current job and by the people I work with, and I know that’s hard to find. It was months filled with fret and worry and questions, and a lot of doubt. But sometimes, things align with some patience, practice, and a bit of luck.
The options for us, as international sojourners, are endless. I have a friend doing design, as per her major, while custom-designing shoes on her own time. A couple friends have gone to work at study abroad offices or for government foreign exchange programs. Another friend is working at a fragrance company in Japan. Several have gone on to graduate school. A couple acquaintances have continued to teach, but in another country. We just have to put feelers out, not limit ourselves, and pursue wholeheartedly.
Other than what I’m up to career-wise, I’ve been fortunate to have this time to spend with family. In school, it was so easy to get swallowed up by campus life. There’s always so much going on. Friends. Social events. Free food. Studying of course. Exams. We’re obsessed with being the average student. Go to class. Do work. Get involved in clubs. So obsessed that we forget those around us sometimes. Despite having gone to college in the same city as my family, I didn’t really spend meaningful time with them. Note the word “meaningful.” Sure, we had a weekends together or meals. But I was never mentally there. I was there to just take a break from campus.
Now, I’m present. I’m present at home, and it’s made an amazing difference. Perhaps it’s because I was in another country for a year. Who knows. But planning weekend bluebonnet trips or sitting down for a game of Chinese checkers- that’s how I’m spending my time. Well, in addition to competitively dancing on two dance teams but that’s a story for another time.
If we can handle abroad, we can handle anything we set our minds to. Sometimes, we don’t give the abroad experience enough credit when in actuality, it’s provided a skill set that can be molded for any future endeavor we have. Sometimes people think we run off and play all the time. Not to say we don’t enjoy ourselves usually, but we don’t usually share our hardships either.
Where can I buy ibuprofen?
How do I describe this to my doctor?
How do I pay my rent?
How do I set up utilities?
Where do I dry my clothes?
What ingredients does this item have?
The hardships that we don’t post online, the hardships hidden behind the smiles we give our students or the curated posts we share- THAT’S what we should never forget. That’s what made this experience so invaluable. So for those who’ve decided to return “home,” wondering what to do, remember to plan (unlike me), and have faith, just like how we had faith jumping over the ocean in the first place.
Judy Liu is from Houston, TX with a BA in History and Asian Studies, with an education focus, from Rice University. She was working logistics at an international company before flying to Ishikawa prefecture in Japan to teach English in the countryside.
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