odyssey: abroad & back

Be a Greek hero today!

...Odysseus awoke out of his sleep in his native land. Yet he knew it not after his long absence...

Even the Ancient Greeks realized that the wiliest of their heroes could have trouble recognizing home after a long absence. Today, with travel made convenient by the replacement of oar-driven ships by commercial jets, there is less understanding. Here's a recipe: Take one American. Plop him in a country where, even under the same sun that blazes down on the desert sands, women are garbed from head to toe; set him down by the rice paddies where he is greeted with bows instead of handshakes; or drop him in the highlands where the local McDonalds don't serve hamburgers, but instead raise sheep and play bagpipes. Even the most insensitive of souls would expect the result to be culture shock. But even the most sensitive of souls might not realize that when he returns to America after several years, he'll feel like a stranger all over again. Odysseus groaned, "Woe is me, to the land of what mortals am I come?" I was less poetic (sorry, Homer) and wondered, "Why does everything seem strange? Shouldn't I be happy? Aren't I home?"

Erm. Scratch out the blithe "yes."

Home is not merely the homestead.
           --Alfred Shuetz

To put in a way that might be more familiar, "it's a house but not a home." Home isn't just a familiar place: it's familiar people and familiar routines of interactions as well. Which is just great, considering that all three elements are different in other counties. But with our great human adaptability, yadda yadda, with time we can become accustomed to anything--and unaccustomed to anything we were used to in the past. Despite this, a person who returns "home" after years away is expected to readjust perfectly. In fact, he isn't expected to need readjustment at all, because this is, after all, where he's from. He's ushered into his house, the door shut firmly behind him while he cranes his heads over his shoulder for a last glimpse of wherever he sojourned, and is asked, "Aren't you glad to be back?" as though nothing good could've been gained during the intervening time.

Welcome back to home, sweet home.

           --US passport

He might seek an easy answer for his confusion and glance surreptitiously at his passport, but--unsurprisingly and unreassuringly--it still proclaims that he's from America, complete with all those security measures that are meant to prevent forgery. But it feels fake.

Actually, what he's feeling is completely natural. The fancy term for it is "reentry shock," which is the less notorious twin of culture shock. Because of lack of acknowledgement for its existence, it's a lot more stressful: if you don't know about it, you can't anticipate it, and you're completely unprepared. And most people don't even recognize the possibility. "Home" still retains near-mythic properties like permanence and timeless welcome.

My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty....
My native country, thee
           --Samuel Francis Smith

Sweet land, native country, yes, yes. That's how one wistfully remembers America when learning how to eat with chopsticks or with only the right hand, griping all the way. Memories tend toward the nostalgic. After all, it's impossible to directly compare two cultures, and one will inevitably be seen as lacking when next to the other, usually the one being experienced. But, lo! Upon reentry, America suddenly becomes the country with shortcomings. Dissatisfaction over the lack of amenities like toilets or air conditioners in a third world country transforms into dismay over the casual abundance and waste that many middle- to upper-class Americans exhibit. You might think you're crazy for not celebrating the re-planting of your feet upon native soil. And you wouldn't have failed to do so, once--days, weeks, or even a few months into your overseas stay. But after time has stretched into years, you'll be a different person, seeing things differently.

When you come back from overseas you see America as a foreigner does. You view America through a sharper lens, and are able to pick up the strengths and weaknesses of the country much more clearly.
           --Jane Hipkins Sobie

Willingly or not, you start gaining knowledge about the culture you live in. And after you're no longer living in it, that knowledge can't be conveniently packed, sealed, and stored behind closed doors of memory. But try sharing what you've learned, and you may be unwittingly rebuffed. Family and friends simply can't understand what you've gone through because they themselves haven't experienced it. Acquaintances are interested about the international experience for about twenty seconds. They ask about the Indians in Peru, then change the topic to the Indians in Cleveland. They just don't have the personal investment that makes the subject deeply compelling to you. It didn't happen to them--why should they care?

By gaining fragments of that other culture, you've outgrown your home (but don't start shedding just yet). At the same time, as though that's not enough, your home has outgrown you.

America has moved ahead and left you behind, even while you have moved ahead and left America behind.
           --Jack Perry

People and places will change: old neighbors will move away, new ones will move in, and stores will close and open. It's all too easy to freeze remembrances of home when you're away, and to expect relatives and even trends to be the same when you return. But they've had the same amount of time to grow and change. They might end up frustrated with you, in fact, if they want to talk about what's different now, but all you seem able to do is yammer about your time overseas, as if you're the only one to whom something exciting has happened. So not only your perception of home has been transformed. Home itself really is different from what it used to be.

The foreign "lenses" can be removed the same way they were first worn: through time. Reentry shock will eventually wear off, and you should be able to readjust, especially if the belief that America is home was ingrained in you from childhood. This thought will sooner or later reassert itself. You're unlucky, though if you're still young.

There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no....

Children are applauded for their flexibility. They learn foreign languages far more easily than adults; often they learn foreign customs more quickly, too. But this adaptability is actually masking a deep-seated malleability. Children become their experiences by absorbing them. Instilled with a less steady sense of where their homeland is, they start associating themselves with their environmental culture. Their parents, their earlier memories, and their passport will persist in defining home as their country of origin even as they encounter different languages, traditions, attitudes, and morals in their daily life. Even if they consciously believe that they are American even as they're raised in, oh, say, Yemen, they'll experience their share of reentry shock in America--or even more, since for a kid, the effects are often permanent.

There's no such thing as an archetype for such children, but I'm not unusual among them. In fact, my experiences were milder than most. During (and before) elementary school I moved back and forth several times between Texas, my birthplace, and Korea. There I grumbled about the filth and pollution, the reverence in which I was supposed to hold "elders" only a year older, and the street markets where they never took returns, if you could even find the same vendor twice. Taxi drivers lectured me about how I should act Korean, and I told them off: "I'm American, hello?" But in America, I'm overwhelmed by the selection in malls, peers who know how to drive, and even the smallest of details, like the cavalier way people blow their noses in public (taboo in Korea).

You can go ahead and give me the ruby slippers, but if I clicked them three times, nothing would happen. There's no place like home, all right--I don't have one.

Home is but a memory,
changing while you're gone
Home is your imagination,
caught in images, in your mind....
Home is just a dream, gone if you go back.
           --Edward Finn

Monoculturalism is like Humpty Dumpty: once shattered, it can't be put together again. Going back, no matter to which country, is no solution. We're the "international homeless," lost no matter where we are. A more hopeful and accurate name is "third culture kids" (TCKs). Since we can neither let go nor hold onto all of our original cultural traits when we spend our formative years in a country other than our parents', we compromise: we form yet another culture, this one incorporating aspects of both original and adopted cultures without fully integrating both. Whether it's actually the third culture or the fifth, it's unique, and nearly incomprehensible to non-TCKs. We have multiple responses to the commonplace question of "Where are you from?" because the most accurate answer is way too long to share with the average diffident first-time acquaintance.

As Third Culture Kids grow up, they adapt and blend with one culture after another to the point where they have seen so many differences, that differences don't matter any more, and what becomes most important is the similarities.
           --James Gannon

This extra culture isn't all bad. It has its share of compensations for its inherent difficulties. TCKs aren't just knowledgeable about a specific second culture; they're able to understand that any difference is possible. A mind that can comprehend two cultures has no trouble spanning the potential of three or countless more. This helps TCKs relate to each other no matter how disparate the details of their backgrounds may be. Someone from Colombia might strike up an instant friendship with another person from France through an instinctive connection that most TCKs feel upon learning that the other can understand that lack of belonging. And with each other, they can belong.

I am
an island
a United Nations
           --Alex Graham James

This emotional bond can be established with more than individuals. Try the rest of the world. When watching the news, TCKs are especially capable of understanding that the grief of a Serbian mother whose child died is equal to that of their acquaintance in San Francisco who underwent the same tragedy. This compassion is often blind to the artificial borders people insist on forming like skin color or nationality. Some TCKs go so far as to disregard their legal citizenship and proclaim themselves to be citizens of the word. Typical remarks among them: "I consider myself a human being who happens to live in America," and "I am a Terran; a citizen of the globe." The same international experience that caused a sense of isolation with his own people also allows the TCK to reach out to and build bridges between other peoples. Those who venture abroad in their adult years also gain a glimpse at this worldview, and even the briefest glance can effect permanent changes, for it proves that the window is there, when monocultural people don't know it exists, let alone look through it.

The difficulties of reentry shock don't cancel out the luster of the international years. In fact, they're caused by it. The return would never make someone miserable unless he had actually enjoyed his experience in another country. One last quote for you:

The sojourner whose reentry [is] dangerous and difficult...needs only recall the wonder and richness of the overseas experience to put everything in perspective. Who can imagine astronauts, their space capsule rocking violently at the peak of reentry, wishing they'd never gone to the moon?
           --Craig Storti


  1. Finn, Edward. "Home is a Memory." Notes From a Traveling Childhood. Edited by Karen Curnow McCluskey. Washington, D.C.: Foreign Service Youth Foundation, 1994.
  2. Fontaine, Coralyn M. "International Relocation." Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Ed. Clyde N. Austin. Abilene: Abilene Christian University, 1986.
  3. Gannon, James. "Third Culture." Transition Dynamics. Samuel L. Britten. 18 Dec. 1999. Online. Internet. Accessed 20 May 2001. <http://www.transition-dynamics.com/thirdculture.html>
  4. Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation. Trans. A.T. Murray. London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1919. Online. Internet. Accessed 1 Jun. 2001. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Hom.+Od.+13.184>
  5. Koehler, Nancy. "Re-entry Shock." Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Ed. Clyde N. Austin. Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1986.
  6. McCluskey, Karen Curnow, ed. Notes From a Traveling Childhood: Readings for Internationally Mobile Parents & Children. Washington, D.C.: Foreign Service Youth Foundation, 1994.
  7. Perry, Jack. "Commonplace Thoughts on Home Leave." Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Ed. Clyde N. Austin. Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1986.
  8. Pollock, David C. and Ruth E. Van Reken. The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up among Worlds. Yarmouth: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1999.
  9. Smith, Carolyn D. The Absentee American: Repatriates' Perspectives on America. New York: Alethia Publications, 1994.
  10. Smith, Carolyn D. Strangers at Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming "Home" to a Strange Land. Bayside: Alethia, 1996.
  11. Smith, Samuel F. "America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee)."
  12. Sobie, Jane Hipkins. "The Culture Shock of Coming Home Again." Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Ed. Clyde N. Austin. Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1986.
  13. Storti, Craig. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1997.

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Copyright © 2002 by Yune Kyung Lee <yune@stanford.edu>