I check my e-mail to see the response I have been waiting for sitting there in my inbox, calling my name. I told my friends this is “my dream job,” even though I knew the chances of me actually snagging the position were to slim to none. Still, this organization called me in for an interview (to my surprise) and they seemed impressed at my credentials and skills. Since the position was in Washington DC, I knew the likelihood of me being selected as a candidate from halfway across the country was extremely unlikely, but I still had hope.
I opened the email. I don’t even read it all, just scan to the middle to look for the one sentence that determines everything.
I see the word “unfortunately” and “other candidate” and I close the window. I had a gut feeling that I wasn’t going to get the position, and I was right. I sighed and put my phone away, then concentrated on making dinner for my aunt and mother. This wasn’t the first rejection letter I received, so I knew that I could handle it. I knew that my chances were slim, I knew that it probably wasn’t going to happen, and I knew this wasn’t going to be the last rejection–life goes on, I told myself. The right opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet.
Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and maybe that’s precisely because this isn’t the first time I received a rejection letter and it definitely won’t be the last. After weeks of job hunting, the “unfortunately” e-mail has come all too often. After scouring countless websites, contacting various friends, inputting my information at dozens of company portals and interviewing at over 30 positions, the most recent rejection really hit me hard.
Moving back to America has been really difficult
I don’t want to lie and say that life in L.A. has been full of martinis on the beach and parties with movie stars. It’s been a rough adjustment to a life I find hard to return to. I don’t have a car of my own, I have no place to call my own and I am starting from scratch once again. I feel more lost than ever… even though this is supposed to be “my home.”
The ex-pat returning home already struggles when it comes to reverse culture shock in their search for a new sense of belonging, but the more pressing and difficult task at hand is the setting up of basic necessities such as finding a place to live, a means of transportation, and most of all a job.
I attend weddings of old friends married to their sweethearts. I go to graduations of loved ones receiving their doctorates or law degree. I swap drinks with old acquaintances that have developed careers as bankers, lawyers, doctors, or even a CEO. I tell captivating stories about China and Japan and make my life sound as attractive as possible, yet I still hold a strong feeling of disconnection between myself and the friends that stayed behind.
While they moved forward here in my home country, I find that I’m just the opposite. When I left for China and Japan I was almost certain that the international business experience I would gain would make me an attractive candidate and open up a floodgate of opportunities–but what I didn’t expect was a market crash the year I graduated (2008) and a sluggish economy where the job market is cutthroat and everyone is struggling to find a job.
And then, I think the worst.
Maybe my life abroad didn’t benefit me at all. On the contrary, maybe it just made me fall even further behind.
Was living abroad a mistake?
I remember waking up in my apartment in Shanghai. My room faced the rising sun, so I always woke up to a stream of sunlight filtering in through my window. Every morning I made a fresh cup of coffee and my usual breakfast of eggs and toast, then strapped on my heels and suit and headed out for another day at the office.
The walk to my office in the morning was always my favorite part of the day. I had a 20 minute walking commute in the French concession, with bike peddlers all around me, street vendors selling Chinese breakfast of soymilk and dumplings (bao zi), and fruit vendors bringing out their fresh produce of the day. Chinese and foreigners alike whizzed by and meshed into a literal sea of people that washed over me in their rushed commute to work. I walked the same path to work everyday, passed the same shop owners, security guards and dog walkers. In this routine I felt a sense of peace and belonging: I felt like I had a real life in Shanghai.
I took the crowded elevator to the 10th floor of my office. I said “zao” to all my co-workers until I reached my desk next to Takada-san. She mostly wore a suit, sometimes a leather jacket, but one thing never changed: She always looked up at me with a smile, and I greeted her with a “good morning.” I shared lunch with my co-worker turned close friend, and in the evenings I created magical memories with a smorgasbord of people from around the world either dancing, listening to jazz music, eating delicious food or cooking at their home which was wrapped in a warm blanket of friendship, comfort, and happiness.
After remembering Z, and J, and Shanghai and Japan… all I can do is ask myself:
How could something so wonderful be a mistake?
The Traveler and the Journey Home
The time I spent in China and Japan has given my life so much meaning, depth and joy. I didn’t cure cancer, I didn’t put an end to world hunger, and I didn’t develop an app to change the world–but I met and impacted groups of people from all walks of life, and in turn they made me feel more alive in 5 years than I had in the previous 20 years.
The traveler thrives on the unknown. A new city, a new destination, a new group of people, a new experience–this is what makes the nomad feel alive.
Yet despite all the traveler has faced in the past, the most difficult obstacle the traveler will ever encounter is ultimately:
The return home.
Like many return ex-pats, I’m in constant conflict with my emotions as I struggle to fit back into my “home” society and find a job. After fulfilling my dream of traveling the world and learning the languages and cultures s, really… what’s next? What goals do I have? What do I want to do for the world? What work would make me happy? Where do I want to be in the next five years?
Finding a job and a new place of belonging in a country that is supposed to be “home” is paralyzing and frightening. Re-joining a race that we left many years ago has us feeling far behind the other athletes, and even further from the finish line that we call “success.”
Yet honestly, I think that race isn’t for me. We need to find our own path, our own means of happiness, our own personal meaning to the everyday. Everyone doesn’t have to run the same race.
And I think all of us returnees know that if we had the chance to redo it all over again–we would.
Standing Back Up Again
It’s been two months since my return back to America. There are times I feel absolutely defeated, and there are other times when I look out to the horizon and feel that chance I’ve been waiting for is almost within reach. I’m working hard to find a job, and I know if I can survive 2 years in the boondocks of Japan and throw myself blindly into Shanghai with nothing to my name, then starting a new life in the USA should be a piece of cake.
It’s been a long battle, but I feel job opportunities are closing in and all of those days laboring over a computer, perfecting my cover letter and writing the perfect resume are finally paying off. I feel hopeful, and more than that, I’m learning to find peace with myself in this new environment.
I miss Shanghai. I miss my friends. I miss that near perfect life I set up for myself over there.
But I’m here in America now, and I have to give it my best shot.