Rediscovering America After Five Years Abroad

“They don’t need you in America, Caitlin.”

These were the last words my dissertation supervisor told me before completing my Master’s degree as I told her I was considering returning to the U.S. in the New Year. She was a fiercely intellectual, innovative, and stylish French philosopher. She was pretty much the embodiment of what I had envisioned for myself when I first came to the United Kingdom except for the fluidly European air she carried with her. However, this was four and a half years after I had first sent off the application for my undergraduate program. Times had changed. I was starting to wonder how America had changed, too, while I had been away.

At a distance, it seemed almost as if all the reasons that had led me to flee in the first place could be put aside in order to reconcile a relationship with my home country. I had grown up in an abusive household in a suburban neighborhood where many of my peers would remain for the rest of their lives. My father sought to control the women in his life. My mother was formidable in this respect; I was not. I spent hours away from home, but the lack of creative outlets in the neighboring towns pushed me to focus all my efforts on getting into a university abroad.

Looking ahead towards the day when I would board a plane an ocean away from my parents and the community that had raised me was at times my only saving grace. I let my life be consumed with class assignments, saving up money from my after-school job, and researching what colleges would suit my intellectual curiosity. My extended family, like many domestic and familial abuse situations, found it easier to turn a blind eye instead of investigating our forced painful group dynamic. I hid away and fought against a deep depression to hold on to the hope of  escape. Without it I would have stood no chance for survival. When that September day came, the plane departed and  the 18-year weight on my shoulders was left behind on the tarmac. I felt free, independent, and a had the security that I—and I alone—was the only one responsible for this new life I was creating.

While I was gone, the U.S. seemed to be brimming with change. In the news I saw the trending topics of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and Yes All Women as well as learning of the terribly tragic events that had started these movements. I watched fierce debates between political pundits on the issue of gun control, the implementation of Obamacare, and whether the nation would finally legalize marriage equality. I heard the voices of American women speaking frankly and openly about street harassment, mental illness, domestic abuse, reproductive health and sex.  

England seemed to have it together for the most part (of course there will always be problems in any government, economy or nation, but hey, at least my birth control was free) and its progressive success in many areas were the hot button issues becoming more prominent at the centre of an America that was on the cusp of positive change. I wanted to be a part of that revolution. I felt in my bones that I could contribute in some small way. I had learned from adults abroad how to be fiscally responsible and it seemed to make more sense to make a comeback instead of wasting my savings on applying for a citizenship I was not guaranteed to receive. I had two advanced degrees from international institutions. I had exhausted myself with extracurriculars and acquired management experience. I thought I was assured success and a bright future upon my return.

I had no idea how quickly and comfortably I had adjusted to life in the U.K. until I was thrown back into rural Michigan. The first few months I remained hopeful as I spent days filling out online applications, stranded without a driver’s license at home, searching out programs and positions across the country I was qualified to take up. Yet that optimism quickly receded.

Going to the cinema alone for the first time, I remember being acutely aware that there was the possibility that a shooter could be in the theatre with me. Once that feeling dissipated it was only magnified by the realization that in America anyone could have a gun at any moment, and I had to decide how I would let open carry and legal firearms affect my day-to-day life.

I was amazed at the lack of public transportation available. The great distances between buildings and businesses, virtually impossible or increasingly dangerous to travel to even on foot or bike, meant that I had no choice but to buy a vehicle. When I received my driver’s license I felt fooled into the public reliance on the auto industry. Bills piled up from auto insurance, gas, and maintenance—for four straight months I became a weekly regular at the local repair shop as my new car steadily declined and fell apart in a short space of time.

My savings were beginning to deplete and I was still unemployed. My frugality and smart money making decisions were not part of an American reality. I wanted to live somewhere where I could walk to work, where fresh fruits and vegetables for the week didn’t mean going without electricity for a month, and where I could travel without being forced onto a plane for more than five hours at a time. I wanted to stay in good health physically and mentally. I bought a pair of running shoes and instantly injured my foot. It cost $100 to have the doctor look at it for two minutes and then print out a sheet of stretching exercises that did nothing to help it heal. I sought out a therapist, but soon it became unrealistic for me to make a weekly visit a stranger who I used primarily to feel like I had someone to talk to after most of my childhood friends had moved out of the area.

In England I had played an active role in local causes and national campaigns through my work as a Charities Coordinator and in my free time to assist organizations in need of volunteers. If I couldn’t find a paid position that allowed me to advocate for human rights, at least I could put the copious amount of time on my hands to good use in local charitable outlets. I immediately thought of Planned Parenthood but the closest location was 25 miles away. The Pregnancy Resource Clinic in town was run through a ministry and strictly provided extremely biased information on reproductive choices. The managers of the local domestic abuse shelter referred to the women seeking their services as “looking after children in a day-care” whilst rolling their eyes expecting me to join them in the exasperation of helping those in need.

It was jarring since I had become used to the privilege of having access to medical and reproductive care through the U.K.’s nationalized healthcare. I was used to being a part of nonprofits who were passionate and fought tirelessly for the causes they believed in. I was accustomed to walking down the street unconcerned that strangers could be in possession of a concealed weapon. On my return, people asked if I had suffered culture shock in England. They asked if it was difficult to adjust myself to a different way of living that I had been raised to accept. I found instead that I had acclimatized seamlessly in the U.K. My sheltered adolescence and the domineering presence of my parents had served me well in this respect—I appreciated my freedom as well as a country who had positively welcomed and embraced me so quickly. Coming back to America I felt isolated, out of place, and that transitioning to a new way of life would not be as easy as it had been before. Soon I was unsure of why I had come back at all.

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Every morning I would get up early—defiant against becoming a stereotypical unemployed slob—make coffee and sit at my desk ready for rejection. I would edit cover letters, redesign my resume, read career guides until my brain felt hardwired to a checklist of what employers would look for in prospective candidates. It was as if I was continuously inputting data into a system that returned to me zero results. Emails regularly came back into my inbox full of letters of apology that the employers had pursued other job seekers but to keep an eye on further postings.

I tried unsuccessfully to network through friends and felt distraught that after all the long hours I had put in, all the effort I had made to be qualified in retail and service industries (fields unrelated to my studies) I still could not land a job. Family tried to assist and lend their advice. It has become a common trope in the media to now joke about aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, berating recent graduates about their future. However, the cripplingly anxiety and depression that was setting in made it nearly impossible for me to respond to their inquests about my job hunt cordially. I slowly began to answer each one with the sound of silence as a coping mechanism. I knew that I wasn’t the only one in this boat, but I had been naïve in thinking I would be an exception to the graduate rule: That jobs with salaries, security, and stability are nearly impossible right out of school.

I’ve been torn between so many possibilities, knowing that the choices I make now will lead to uncertain futures I never had planned or conceived. Should I stay in the U.S. to make the changes I want to see in this country? Or will I be broken down and become even more jaded the harder I fight against normative culture? I’ve always wanted to have a happy home one day filled with bundles and bundles of children, but I wonder they will be able to afford their medical bills or an education when they grow into adults. Will my daughters be forced to have babies of their own against their wishes and receive a smaller paycheck than their brothers? These are the questions I find myself asking as I continue to debate whether my future lies in the U.S.

They used to call it the land of opportunity. It’s encouraging to hear the success stories of immigrants and families who have found a better life in America. I want them to be happy, but I want to be happy, too. Though I’ve become a bit more used to the routine of commuting to work each morning, figuring out how to balance my deductible from what’s left in my HSA account, and defending my liberal politics against oppressive conservatism—it’s a  continuous struggle. A learning experience.

Perhaps it’s it’s a chance to cross into the uncharted territory I was not prepared to engage with at a younger age. The opportunity to decide with time whether or not my identity and my nationality will ever correlate. When I’m asked whether I’m happy to be back in the U.S., and I answer honestly, I’m usually told that if I don’t like it here I should just go somewhere else. If only it were so easy. I’m still applying and looking for jobs abroad. Not many companies however are willing to give away work visas, while in the U.S. not many industries take you seriously if you’re applying out of state. I’m at a crossroads to just accept this as my temporary reality or whether to cut loose and take risks if it will allow me to breathe a little easier at night. This next election is sure to give me more perspective in which direction this nation is going to take over the next four years and by that time I need a plan. I’ll give this country a little more time to sort itself out, but I can feel my patience and commitment to the American dream wearing thin.

View Comment (1)
  • Very well written. An excellent read. Though, don’t let the masses of our country keep you in too much a negative light. There is beauty here if you only know where too look. Glad to see you’re doing well for the most part Caitlin.

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