Return to Oz: What It’s Like Living Outside the U.S. for 7 Years

Categories:Culture, Inspiration, Travel
Jessica Peterson

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For the past month, I’ve felt like the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

You see, I’ve returned to the U.S. of A. after living on Guam for seven years. I have much to catch up on… like the appearance of touch screens in restaurants and the disappearance of long distance charges. My ignorance leads to puzzling looks from cashiers because, well, I look and talk like an American. Yet, living on Guam is a bit like living in a bunker. (If you haven’t seen Kimmy Schmidt, you might be living in a bunker.)

I am constantly being corrected in stores and restaurants about how or what to buy and order. I get a lot of blank stares from said employees when I don’t know the basics about their establishment. The U.S. is feeling a bit cultish, but like a cult I was born into, escaped from, and returned to at will (continuing the Kimmy analogy). Each state feels like its own little country in that people talk as if its the whole world. I don’t know their landmarks or abbreviations or combo meals. Heck, I don’t even know their football team. My friends are having a field day with my silly ignorance of such things.

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It’s not that Guam doesn’t have many modern amenities — it’s not exactly a developing nation, after all. It’s just that even the most modern Asian cities aren’t like the States, so how could this tiny U.S. territory compete with its 210 square miles? Hashbrown, no filter.

In Oz — I mean, the U.S. — in 2016, you no longer “try to get the good seats” at a movie theatre, you select them on a touch screen when you purchase tickets. And these touch screens are everywhere — on my table at Olive Garden, at the drink fountain at every fast food chain… Do I sound old? ‘Cuz I feel it.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is still the only country that charges for luggage carts in the airport ($4 is outrageous).

It’s also increasingly violent and volatile, which I knew well from living in Dallas where even road rage could end with fatalities. I’m glad to have learned patience in Guam because virtually no line can really upset me anymore (wish I could say the same for crappy cell service).

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It is upsetting, however, to see how much waste the U.S. still generates. I am sick of disposing of a whole trash bag of food containers every week, so I’ve decided to carry my own around every time I eat out. Yes, I’m the bag lady, but I don’t care.

Race relations are another disturbing norm in the U.S.

Directing a documentary about the impact of colonization on an indigenous culture in the Pacific certainly opened my eyes to the psychological effects. There is multi-generational damage done by imperialism and racism. There’s even a movement for trans-generational collective healing on the part of indigenous cultures. Having started therapy this year, I can see the benefit.

Linalala Chamorro culture park, Guam

Living outside the U.S. allowed me to better understand just how indoctrinated a student in the American school system becomes over the course of 12-14 years. I grew up in a multi-racial neighborhood and went to a very mixed school and was not taught racial superiority by my parents even in the smallest ways. My mom’s friends were Rastafarians and I counted black and Asian kids among my best friends. I loved a black man and had black roommates and friends. I have black family members and they are also loved. It’s not that I don’t see color, it’s that I am attracted to people who are different from me. I very much see color and I love it. This explains why I love travel so much. I need diversity in my life or I go a little mad.

The irony is that, yes, I was raised to be accepting of all races and cultures, but that no, I didn’t really understand that racism is still a problem. So while my upbringing helped me love people for who they are, it didn’t help me understand the plight of many minorities. I don’t mean that every American is racist, obviously, but that the U.S. history taught in schools is painfully long on tales of American ingenuity and freedom and democracy, but quite short on the long-term effects of slavery and legislature biased against non-whites.

It’s confusing coming back here.

Much like Oz, I feel the curtain has been drawn and there’s just a scared little white man pulling the levers (no, I don’t mean Bernie Sanders). I’m talking about our policymakers and law enforcement, but also the general public who seems poised to react violently both for and against minorities. I was never much of a patriot (I’m anti-war), but I feel a new disillusionment setting in.

I saw a little girl with a beautiful afro and I didn’t know if it would be offensive to tell her mother so. (Hey, I’ve seen Good Hair and I’m not going there.)

I don’t really know where I fit in to this society.

I know that every time I see a muslim woman in a hijab, I wonder how she feels living in this country with public opinion so volatile when it comes to Islamic immigrants and refugees. I was walking into Target (okay, for this I love America) behind a Muslim mom and her toddler. The little girl stopped and smiled at me and I heard the mom say, “No, that’s not so-and-so but she looks like her.” I assumed she was talking about a family member. I thought for a minute what it would be like to pass as a Muslim woman for a day. (I saw a lot of my “cousins” in Dubai.) I honestly think I’d feel afraid.

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I don’t feel this racial tension when I travel abroad.

It’s not that there isn’t racism in other countries. It’s partly that I am not fully immersed in the culture on a daily basis, but also because white tourists are mostly, 1) tolerated, 2) treated as superiors, or 3) treated as intriguing oddities. Turns out I don’t mind being treated as an oddity (hello, China!).

It’s obvious that minorities in this country are treated far worse than as oddities. I feel pretty powerless against it and very sensitive about speaking out since I am not a minority, in this country anyway. However, I lived on an island where I was a minority. Seven years later, I know what it feels like to face racial discrimination, hate speech, and cyber bullying. Most people treated me kindly and showed hospitality, but a few bad apples did indeed spoil the whole bunch at times.

This racism towards me affected the way I spoke, did business, and projected myself online. I felt oversensitized at times. I lost sleep. I may even have lost business. I know my husband faced a ton of discrimination when he applied for jobs. I haven’t spoken publicly about it until now for fear of making enemies. Still, my life was never in danger, so I can’t say I’ve experienced what minorities in the U.S. must be feeling right now.

The fact is, I never feared for my life as a minority in any country.

I don’t naively believe hate crimes, unjust shootings, etc. will decrease. In fact, I fully expect this country will become more of a war zone. It is certainly ripe for civil war now.

But, I’m learning to do what Americans do best and that’s numb myself with all the amenities (albeit, blunderingly). Why else would I be eating at Olive Garden?




Jessica Peterson
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Jessica Peterson

Jessica Peterson is a travel filmmaker, photographer, and journalist. She released her first documentary film about indigenous culture on Guam in 2016, after having lived nearly 7 years on the Pacific island. Jessica is currently on the Great American Roadtrip in her Airstream trailer.
Jessica Peterson
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  • Thank you for such an amazingly honest post. As a multiracial American traveler, when I came back from living in Spain, I was once again floored by the heavy focus on race in this culture. It is something that many of us are grappling with, given the current events. When you share pieces like this I think it creates an incredible opportunity for a dialogue that we desperately need, because the truth is that race and racism are still very much present, but many of us don’t know how to go about talking about it. It was a subject that we spoke about once in my education and that wasn’t until graduate school, and even then most of the students were quiet, too afraid or perhaps apathetic to speak up. I’ve found, like you, through my travels that that level of tension isn’t there, though there are definitely some places where racism occurs. My only consolation is knowing that if I share my stories and others like yourself share yours, we can initiate a larger discussion of these issues and finally begin to tackle them at their root cause.

    • Thank you for your comment, Nina. The root is definitely ignorance and upbringing. There are no quick fixes for deeply entrenched racism, but I believe most of us have biases that we’re not even aware of. Hopefully, discussions like this cause us to question our thinking.

  • Ivana Malarić

    Hope you are having the time of your life. It is a great experience. Greetings.

  • MARINA

    I really enjoyed this reading. It kind of defines what I feel every time I come back home after a period of time abroad.
    I haven’t been abroad for 7 years absolutely immersed in another culture as it seems you did, but I left home 8 years ago to study, I have lived in 3 different countries and backpacked around, and never again came back home for a long period of time.
    However, when I do It feels so strange, and at the same time everything is the same around me. I changed, but seems like nothing else did around me. I’m probably not as good as you are when it comes to describe feelings and impressions, but I could see myself on your post.

    Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

    • Hi Marina. Yes, I know this feeling well. Where did you live abroad?

      • MARINA

        I have lived in Spain (my original nationality), in Norway, Ireland and Iceland so far! Now I’m more in a backpacking mood, but sometimes I just settle abroad with a season job so I can travel and save again abroad! 🙂

  • Nicki McLaren

    I would love to live abroad just to get out of my bad habits at home and experience a new culture. I feel like my house is tied down to work and no freedom.

    • Hi Nicki. It takes some planning, but I hope you meet your goal to live abroad!

  • Kesi Irvin

    I think this is a timely post. Thank you for sharing. Where did you come back to in America? Texas? I’ve been traveling around the world for 16 months and just got back to the states. I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts on how I feel about being back.

    • Hi Kesi. Thanks! I am nomadic and living in an Airstream trailer now. Where did you go when you traveled?

      • Kesi Irvin

        I’m also nomadic. I traveled to Europe, Central America, Tokyo, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, and se Asia. Will continue traveling until sept 2017

  • What an eye-opener it must have been for you and I am sure to many readers too. While Guam is part of US administratively, they are, I think , completely different in terms of culture and maybe even language.

    • Hi Nisha. Yes, Guam is a U.S. territory but has its own indigenous culture with very different values from Americans. They do, however, speak English. 🙂

  • 2travellingsisters

    Such a lovely read! Issue like racism have been ignored or discussed in length for generations but I guess us humans are just born this way. I just wish the minorities from any race didn’t have to deal with hatecrime or any kind of abuse. I am not sure if racism will be abolished entirely in any specific place, but all we can hope is that in the future people works towards coexisting.

  • This is such an impressive and lovely read. I have been wondering where Guam was throughout the whole read, and then I realized it was in the Pacific, and you were living out of the US, where you were born and raised for the most of 7 years. Reading it, I got like it was really such a challenge, and I did felt the same when I came back just after one year abroad in Israel. Issues like racism, or even just some misconception students are fed of constantly is something I aware and trying to understand, since I’m living in Europe, but being part of a minority, I do understand it way more better. Throughout generations, and I guess depending on the place you’re living in the US, you can definitely be part of this so called land where the white supremacy and the racism against people of color is so anchored. I just wish that every minority could live with each other without being under any abuse. I don’t think it’s going to be better soon, since Trump just passed, but we might as well fight for our children future!