Over the last three months or so, I had increasingly noticed that something was off, not quite right. But I could never put my finger on it. Then, one day, as I stood waiting for my son to be dismissed from school, watching other parents, it hit me -- ever since coming home, I'm often at a loss as to how to behave or what to say when interacting with my fellow Americans. It's like I'm that awkward teenager again, all squirmy and twitchy, not sure where to look or where to put my hands.
The first example is interacting with my son's teachers. Before Thailand, this was a no-brainer: my child's teacher is a professional, an authority figure, so our interactions are more formal in nature. In Thailand, though, all the lines were blurred: my son's teachers were not only professional educators and authority figures, but they were also our colleagues, our friends, part of our social circle, and sometimes our bosses! And sometimes we were our colleagues'/friends'/bosses' kids' teachers, too! We had to learn to straddle being friendly-casual and formal-professional. In one conversation, we could have discussions on travel destinations, where to shop for groceries, and hiring maids, to how our children were doing in each others' classes and personally, to professional development! This new kind of socializing took a while to get used to and learn to navigate, for sure.
So now we are back, and I have NO clue how to behave towards my son's teachers. What do I say to them? If I ask them about their families and personal lives, is that too casual and out of line? Would that be seen as being nosy? If I ask his main teacher about her life abroad (she's from New Zealand and has lived all over the world), is that getting too personal? Would she think I only cared about her as my son's teacher if I only ever talked to her about school?
These days, I must seem like such a strange creature in others' eyes -- standing off to the side, watching people, looking confused and consternated. But it's only because I'm trying to figure out all over again how the heck to act and what to say in different social situations. Luckily, I'm not too bewildered to make sure the thoughts racing through my head stay in my head and don't come flying out of my mouth.
Then there's the act of walking down the street. During the last two years, I had gotten used to smiles from everyone while walking down the street, and returning those smiles. Strangers strike up conversations and talk comfortably with each other. However, the friendly ways of the Thai people are very different from those of the American people, especially in our area of the country. Most people don't even make eye contact with others, either looking past or through each other, let alone smile. So many times, I've found myself smiling at someone, then wiping it off my face as I see the stony expression on the other person's face and it registers that no one smiles at each other here. Once or twice, I have been surprised when I unexpectedly receive a greeting initiated by a stranger. My facial muscles have been performing gymnastic feats as I continually, and sometimes quickly, contort and distort my face from stony to smiling to frowning, depending on other people's expressions.
Professionally, I've found myself in a similar position, as if I've just graduated and have no idea how professionals speak with each other! I'm so used to interacting casually with everyone from our maid to the administrators at our school in Thailand that I'd forgotten how to "act professionally" and the words that people use professional settings here. And by the time I figure it out, the moment is gone.
It's hard to believe we were gone for only two years; everything feels so foreign, I might as well be a new immigrant stepping foot on American soil for the first time and speaking a foreign language. Which is how many expats describe their experience when they go home again. In fact, I would probably fare better if I were actually speaking a foreign language....Hmmm, maybe I should pretend to be a foreigner until I'm more used to acting "American" again.