Web Feature: A Return to Normalcy

Written by Lea Crowley, ETA 2014-’15

As I began planning for my return to the United States, the phrase “A Return to Normalcy” kept coming to mind. This phrase was Warren G. Harding’s 1920 campaign promise; he was offering what nearly every American sought after the instability of World War I. After bringing WWI to an official end, the American people wanted to return to the way things were before the war. Back to normal. However, the definition of “normal” had completely changed after the war. American society had undergone innumerable drastic changes in a short window of time: women as wage earners, a lost generation of men and boys, transformation of technology, fashion, music, and art. Nothing was the same, but Americans desperately wanted to return to “normal.” After living in Korea for nearly a year now, I’m surprised at how well I can relate to that desire for normalcy.

I have decided to return to the United States, and I am beginning the process of accepting my decision. Throughout this process, I keep finding myself revisiting the phrase “a return to normalcy” and wondering, “What is normal?” Normal in Korea is nowhere near normal in America, and vice versa. I have spent the past year adjusting to normalcy in Korea, and I finally feel comfortable with Korean norms. It’s normal to walk down crooked cobblestone sidewalks, to bow and be bowed to by my coworkers and students, to buy vegetables from grannies sitting on the curb. It doesn’t faze me that I’m completely surrounded by a foreign language; whether it be blaring from a radio, on a restaurant sign, or spoken aloud, it’s all completely normal.

When I return to Chicago, what will normal be? Before I came to Korea, it was completely normal to be constantly prepared for a stranger to attack me in some way, shape or form. It was normal for the public transportation to be dirty, smelly and relatively unreliable. I became hardened to the negative aspects of my city, because I had never known anything else. Now that I’ve lived in Korea, my expectations for public cleanliness and personal safety have been drastically altered. I can walk around outside while looking at my phone without having to worry that someone will snatch it out of my hands and sell it. I don’t have to clench my fists and wear an angry expression to prevent people from trying to attack me whenever I step outside. And it’s really nice. I like this sense of safe normalcy. But in a few months’ time, I will have to get reacquainted with everyday, normal parts of life in Chicago.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I do not hate Chicago, nor do I only recall the negative aspects of living there. Although I’m anxious about my capacity to readjust to Chicago’s low standards for normal public behavior, cleanliness and overall safety, I am looking forward to the more positive aspects of normalcy in Chicago. I’m ready and willing to embrace Chicago’s food scene once more – real pizza, tamales, curries, hot dogs, falafel, Chipotle – as well as the weight I’m sure to gain from enjoying it so thoroughly. I am excited to explore the diverse neighborhoods of my city, and rediscover the treasures each has to offer: thrift shops, cultural centers, yoga studios, musical performances, and views of Lake Michigan. Chicago may be rough around the edges, but that’s part of why I love it so much.

Korea has become familiar, comfortable, and absolutely normal; how can anything else feel like home after this? Like the Americans who wanted a “return to normalcy” after the chaos of WWI, I am desperately hoping that I can adjust to life in Chicago once more. I am not hoping for things to return to the way they were before I left. I’m afraid that the intense changes Korea has wreaked on the way I think, speak and live, will make it impossible (or at least extremely difficult) for me to feel normal anywhere else.

For example, living in Korea has changed the way I perceive social situations and how I decide to interact accordingly within specific social situations. I cannot shake the habit of being subconsciously “polite”; by Korean standards, younger people are expected to show politeness and respect to their elders in very obvious ways. Some of these obvious ways include: bowing to anyone who may look even slightly older than you, pouring drinks for others while eating a meal together, always handing things to people with two hands, and not crossing your legs in public. I feel afraid that these subconscious and completely normal parts of interacting within Korean society will earn me nothing but dirty looks and rolled eyes back in Chicago.

In addition to affecting the way I perceive social situations, living in Korea has changed the way I communicate with others. Because I speak broken Korean seemingly more often than I speak fluent English, I have found myself attempting to speak English in a more Korean way. My grammar has become awkward, and I have begun using “aegyo” when speaking English. “Aegyo” is a Korean  term used to describe acting intentionally “cute”; female Korean pop stars often use aegyo to win over fans. For example, these women will speak in a higher, more childlike tone of voice, overemphasize their “girlishness” by overdramatically failing at athletic activities, and use lots of cute hand gestures when they speak. In general, women in Korea (foreign or not) are expected to show off their aegyo, especially when addressing their elders. However, I know that my interpretation of  “aegyo” would not be seen as cute or normal in Chicago; in fact, I am positive that Chicagoans would find it weird, annoying, frustrating, or some combination of the three.

In a way, I’m grateful that I feel so conflicted about moving back to America. Feeling this apprehension about going back to my hometown made me realize just how meaningful my experience in Korea has been. The Fulbright Korea ETA program gave me the opportunity to join some of the most brilliant, motivated, and vibrant people the United States has to offer and create a community together. Being surrounded by such hardworking people has pushed me to develop myself into someone I can be proud of. Not only have my fellow Fulbrighters inspired me to be the best version of myself, but they have also become some of my closest friends. I realize how much my Fulbright friends have impacted my life, and I am not looking forward to separating myself from them in the near future. Also, working as an elementary school teacher has been more meaningful than I could have possibly imagined.

My students see me as Lea Teacher, the grown up, the adult. Personally, I still have no idea what exactly it means to be an adult. Sometimes I imagine my Korean co-teachers running up to me in the hallway, shouting that they’ve figured out my secret – I’m just a child disguised as a teacher.  (Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet.) Despite feeling like I’m only impersonating an adult, I do try my best to act the part. Teaching young children has made me constantly aware of the example I set; every day, I become a little more comfortable with the idea of adulthood. My experience teaching in Korea has been indescribably meaningful because I grew up here; I became an adult here. Korea is home, and it always will be a place I can call home and mean it. But now, it’s time for me to travel back to my other home – Chicago, Illinois. Flaws and all, Chicago is still my first home, and I’m open to changing my perception of normalcy once more. Whatever normalcy may be in Chicago, I hope I’m ready for it.

Featured image: “Che-cha-cha”. Kevin Duong. Bali, Indonesia.