People are fond of telling me this – so fond of reminding me that Heather-of-five-plus-years-ago would not have said/done/thought/dressed as I do now. As an observation, this is a harmless sentiment. People change. I too have noted how my friends have become different from who they once were, and been surprised by who they’ve become. Unfortunately, the tone often indicates that this isn’t an observation. It’s an accusation. It says You’ve changed and I don’t like it.
I am not who I was. That’s true. Every stage of my life has changed me and made me someone new. Throughout our lives, we human beings are constantly changing. I’ve found that living abroad – separated from all my anchors – has hurried and exacerbated these changes. The strangest thing in coming home has been noting all the ways in which the world I once knew like the back of my hand has changed, and all the ways in which it has not. This I had expected. What I had not anticipated was just how much I would have changed.
For emphasis – I am not who I once was.
It seems so obvious – I lived abroad for two years, entering an entirely new profession and making an entirely new set of friends. Of course I’ve changed. The skills I had to learn in order to survive my life abroad have changed me.
That being said, I think it’s hard to measure change when everything around you has changed as well. In an entirely different environment, I don’t think you can truly say just how much you’ve changed. What is there to measure it against? It’s possible to estimate, but can you really approximate the degree of something when even the thing you measure it against has changed?
Now I’m back in familiar territory. My world isn’t exactly the way I left it, but enough of it is. I have a frame of reference against which to measure everything around me. And against which to measure myself.
I went to the same bar I’ve always gone to with a friend of mine not long after I got back. I found myself chatting to the barman. I found myself chatting to the waiter as I settled the bill.
Who is this person who can make small talk with complete strangers?
Later that week, I found myself talking to someone I’d been tangentially introduced to who was sitting at the table next to me. I couldn’t even recall his name. For some reason, this was fine by me.
When did this happen?
This isn’t what I’m like, I thought to myself. I don’t talk to strangers. I don’t like it. I don’t know how to do it, even.
But of course, talking to strangers was part of surviving my life abroad. I had to meet new people – all the time – and make friends with them. Some were temporary. Some are not. In the moment, it’s not always possible to tell.
I also find myself asking for help in shops these days. I always dreaded speaking to the staff in a shop, preferring to wander around and hope for the best. But not now. Perhaps it’s the fact that for a while, I couldn’t really ask for help, or, if I could, I couldn’t be assured that I could make myself understood. If I could get help from a Korean shop assistant, I can handle asking a South African shop assistant to point me in the right direction.
I also put up with less bullshit when I don’t have to put up with it.
This, of course, it is not the kind of thing that makes people say You’ve changed as though it’s a bad thing.
I also had to learn to cope with my work environment – to smile when I didn’t mean it, to suck it up when I was told I was wrong, to keep quiet and play nice, – and to a lot of people, these skills make me seem insincere. The problem is that I learnt these things in order to survive. My blog is proof of how I almost didn’t survive Korea.
Yes, some of this – a lot of this, if I’m honest – meant putting up with bullshit. I had to.
I had to change. I had to change in order to survive.
But if I’m honest, the person I am now is a much better person than I was before I left. 2010 me would be intimidated 2015 me. Heather-the-first-year could never have survived what I have. She’d never even have left. I’ve learnt to be brave. I’ve learnt to survive.
Here’s the takeaway from this whole piece:
If you know someone who’s come back from abroad, please don’t expect them to be the same. They know they’re not the same, and just because you expect them to be a certain way doesn’t mean they should be that way. Your expectations shouldn’t define how you see your loved one.
They’re still the same person. They’re the same person in all the ways that matter.
Here’s the thing – you’ve changed too. Most assuredly. And that’s not a bad thing. Life is all about change. There’s no going back to the way things were. Your friend is back, and if they accept you and all the ways you’ve changed, you should do them the same courtesy.