Saturday, October 9, 2010

What the TEFL?!?!: Musings on Reverse Culture Shock

The other day I had a flashback of sitting in the classroom at TEFL Worldwide, face planted in my lesson plans, stressed and overwhelmed, waiting to use the two copy machines and for some advice from Terry. I was surrounded by all my TEFL peers, who came from so many places for different reasons, at different stages in their lives, with different histories and reasons for being in Prague enrolled in this course. There was something about that camaraderie that was unique. We all suffered through this challenging course, spent Friday nights getting wasted, Saturday nights doing homework, while simultaneously adjusting to a new country and language. We all freaked out before finally calling our one-to-one partner, took the exceedingly long tram journey back to Praha 9 at night, sat awkwardly in Galerie Fénix to get our daily fix of internet, ate potato balls at the beer garden behind TEFL/Hotel Pivovar, spent many nights on the hill that was Letna beer garden, overlooking Praha 1, and of course, were tricked by a pastry that seemed to be filled with chocolate, but was, obviously, actually filled with poppy seeds.

All I could think was, “Wow, I did that?” It’s crazy to think how different my life was during the one month of my TEFL course in Prague compared to now. There’s this weird thing that always happens to me when I’m back in America after an extended time living abroad. For some reason, whenever I’m back in the States, it’s hard to believe my life abroad was real. That everything really happened, and that that girl traveling Europe by train, working on farms abroad, teaching English to nerdy engineers at a Czech energy company, was me. I don’t know why this happens, and it certainly doesn’t work the other way around. When I’m living abroad, my American life and history definitely seems real…just further away and not as important. Perhaps it’s because when I’m abroad there’s usually at least a couple Americans around who can validate my past, even if it’s just a, “Yeah, I always love Taco Bell when I’m drunk too!” When I’m back in America, there are rarely many people who can validate my European existence. Maybe I’m just too busy doing exciting stuff when I’m abroad to think much of America. Or maybe I’ve just lived in America longer. Perhaps if I lived abroad for more than a year at a time, it would stop seeming so transient at some point. Who knows?

All I can say, is reverse culture shock is much more of a bitch than the good ol’ regular stuff. It has always been really hard for me to understand distance and endings. When I came back after a year of living in Brighton, England, I’d sit down and visualize the path the bus took from town to Uni, what all the bus stops looked like, remember what songs I was listening to as I passed them, and be so overwhelmed that I could know something so intricately and so detailed and not be THERE. How could I know exactly what the corner in the refrigerator that held my favorite wrap in the Sussex Uni shop looked like and not be able to GO there and get it?! It’s still a very hard concept for me to grasp.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my year, because there was absolutely no time for reflection during it. It was always one adventure right after another, lots of friends, lots of new friends, lots of alcohol, lots of emotions, and not much thinking. In some ways, it was very freeing to not have any responsibilities. My family didn't even know what country I was in for the majority of the year. Hell, even I didn't know where I would be a few days ahead, with the unique ability to hop on and off trains granted me by my rail card. I’ve always been something of an over-thinker and over-planner, so it was great to step so far outside my comfort zone and just go with the flow. I say that in a completely positive way. If I was asked what I would do differently, the only change I’d make is to remember to take a daily vitamin this time. Once my funds became limited, I basically lived off instant noodles and French fries. Paired with never getting enough sleep and my body was not happy. I am convinced my body is a reservoir for all of Europe’s Rhinovirus strands. Within me the future Super Cold is brewing, watch out. I’ve gotten sick more this year than any other year in my life.

When I left America last time, I was running away. I think almost every expat I met was. From a shitty relationship, from the unknown after graduation, from boring jobs and a predictable future. Though, I guess you don’t just up and move to a foreign country when everything in your own is perfectly to your liking. Of course all of us were leaving something unfavorable behind. Now that I’m back, I feel more like I am DECIDING to live abroad again. I am becoming bi-lingual, I am saving money, researching visas, e-mailing alums, and making connections. I’m not planning to move because I don’t want to live in America, I’m moving because I want to live in Europe (Germany).

I’m still working on the why. I like that I don’t need a car, that nobody uses dryers, that it’s not just the liberal hippie types that hate excess packaging and think it’s silly to waste things, that I can’t find all the shitty processed foods I eat over here and have to actually cook myself real meals. I like that the variety of Americans I meet, the ones that actually live abroad, are always DOers. They don’t just talk about shit, they make it happen, and tend to be more independent, confident and adventurous than the average people I meet at home. I like that the Europeans whose countries I’m sharing often have such different backgrounds from mine, if only because our countries had very different histories. It never ceased to amaze me how casually my students in the Czech Republic mentioned waiting in line for their food during communism, or what foods didn’t exist to them. Of course, it is something from their past that was routine and familiar, not much to think on for them. To an American who can really only imagine communism from the perspective of a history textbook, it is crazy to think how someone even a few years older than me could have such a completely different childhood. It’s weird to think of what it would be like if America was communist when I was growing up and I wasn’t allowed to leave to go on vacation to Canada, like my family often did. Or what it would be like to not have pineapples or bananas.

Things like this just make me realize how absolutely small my world is and how little I really know. It’s easy to feel smart when you’re surrounded by people who know the same things as you, who were required to take the same courses in high school, know the same collective national histories. There is definitely sometime about throwing myself into foreign situations and finding my way out that I’m addicted to. I want to learn and understand everything about the world…how could I just stay in one place?

I write this as another fall comes around, making me a bit nostalgic for all my TEFL and Prague friends, for cooking in my flat in Prague, then curling up on my couch and watching shitty American TV on the internet. For sitting in the beer gardens shivering, just to get as much time out of the not-quite cold yet weather, for dancing in Chateau Rogue while my friends have dance offs and kids on drugs break their glasses on the dance floor, for parties in the Bubenská flat, for the entire experience that was Cross Club, beers and movie nights at the Globe Café, for the high pitched sound the tram makes while accelerating, for the little lady at the Potravíny near my flat that always held up “Coriander!?” when I came in. Even more, for the walk home from Hlavní Nádraží, that always involved a stop in Mama Coffee, where my Czech ordering skills slowly improved, followed by a walk through the park and the vineyard to get to my flat.

While my life in Prague was not the perfect one for me, it was a good one. I’m happy at whatever Powers That Be for putting myself and such an amazing group of people together in one place for the time we had. The past year really did change my life. When I arrived in Prague that first day, I absolutely never imagined what lay ahead for me. While it will never be exactly the same, and that’s okay, I’m still very excited to go back for New Years to kick it with the kids holdin' down the fort, and even more excited at the prospect of living only one country away next year!

In the meantime, things here are not so bad. I’ve downsized to one job, which means I can actually have a life again, picked up a volunteer position teaching English for which I start training soon, and hopefully will soon acquire a free German tutor/conversation partner through Smith. I love my apartment, love my housemates, and while I still feel like I’m just waiting for time to pass until my next adventure, this break and peace from constant activity and new things was surely something I needed, if only to keep my body from acquiring yet more strands of the common cold. After this year I’ll be re-charged and ready for the next venture! In the meantime, y'all should come kick it with me in Northampton!