The Shock of Returning to American Life

Shantel Dickerson visiting a friend in Washington, DC on her way home to California after having lived in Japan for two years. Shantel Dickerson

After two years abroad, going home wasn't what I expected.

The conveyor belt at baggage claim 13 went around and around as I waited for my luggage. In my decade of international travel, these bright pink companions have never failed me (nor failed to claim the title of "most obnoxiously coloured luggage"). 

Waiting for my bags to appear, I thought about my next move. On the plane from Japan, I sat next to an Australian man who was the first to ask the question I knew I would inevitably hear countless times in the coming weeks: "How was Japan?"

My plan was to use the 22-hour journey to formulate a single-sentence-response that would somehow manage to encompass all that I experienced, learned, loved, and even disliked about my two years living and working in Japan. Instead, I slept most of the journey, only waking to eat or go to the bathroom.

So, as I walked away from the baggage claim, my mind started to spin. I knew one of my best college friends was waiting to pick me up and take me back to "normal life." He was going to ask me the question, but what was I going to say?

It was late. Maybe around 1am. Though disoriented from the jet lag, I managed to spot him and roll my two years of life over to his car.  We hugged a long, comforting hug. It was just the hug I needed to feel like I was actually home and not just in some delirious dream state, where people speak English instead of Japanese and burgers are served at most major restaurants.

I waited, but he didn't ask the question. Maybe he could see how exhausted I was. Instead, he asked questions I could answer like "how was the flight" and "are you hungry?" My anxiety subsided and I knew the question would come another day. 

I had expected my friends and family would be interested in hearing about Japan. Instead, life just resumed as though I had never even left.

Though this particular friend did eventually ask me the question I was expecting, I was more surprised at how few people asked. Some of my closest friends and relatives didn’t even bother to ask anything about Japan. I had expected they'd be interested in hearing about Japanese food, culture or how I celebrated Christmas over there. Instead, life just resumed as though I had never even gone to Japan.

In some ways, it was nice. I didn’t feel overwhelmed about having to condense the millions of experiences and emotions into a tiny digestible story that would ultimately not make sense anyways to someone who didn’t experience something similar.

But I also realized that a core part of my life was going completely unacknowledged. I felt distant with some of my old friends. I felt like there was a gap between us and I was on the other side yelling, "Ask me about this life-changing experience I just had! Don’t you care?"

I am still getting used to people not asking.

I just returned to my childhood home after a week of bouncing from Washington DC to Portland. Now I am finally back in my 3,000-person town in rural California. I went to a coffee shop in the nearby town of Lodi and recognized someone I hadn’t seen since I graduated high school. She greeted me with a big grin and proceeded to share with the customers that I haven’t been around in almost 10 years.

This is something I love about being from a small town. You know someone almost everywhere you go, no matter how many years it has been.

As I looked over my shoulder to say goodbye, she smiled at me again and said, "welcome back." I didn’t know it beforehand, but those words were just what I needed to hear. All of a sudden, it didn’t matter so much where I had been or what I had been doing these last few years. It mattered more that I still had a spot at home to come back to.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Shantel Dickerson

Shantel Dickerson is a Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) participant who is teaching English to high school students in Beppu, Japan. Shantel will join Peace Boat for four months as a volunteer English teacher and travel to 23 countries.

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