I was watching ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ on Netflix when it hit me: WHAM! I missed Korea so, so much. The episode (‘Salt’) wasn’t even about Korea; it was about Japan.
But food is a powerful memory trigger, and the soy sauce got my mind wandering. Soy played a major role in what I ate nearly every day for two years. I lived in a rural town, didn’t speak Korean, used chopsticks at most meals, developed lesson plans, interacted with students, attended teacher dinners.
For two years. And I barely think about it anymore. I’ve even cut the teaching job from some versions of my resume, as if it never even happened.
The same goes for other places I’ve lived and jobs I’ve had. I used to define myself by these travel experiences, but now they’ve become something I did, once.
Tell Me About Yourself
In my 20s, the phrase ‘Tell me about yourself’ felt like a loaded question. I didn’t want to give the wrong answer, which, unfortunately for the questioner, led to me giving the WHOLE answer:
I grew up in Indianapolis, then did working holiday visas in Ireland, London, Australia, and New Zealand. After that I studied in London, moved back to Australia, taught English in Korea, and spent a few months in South America.
My identity was based on the fact that I’d lived and worked in a bunch of places. I wore my World Traveler label proudly, because if I wasn’t that, then who was I?
Looking back, I understand why I had to give the long answer, always—I held all of those locations and jobs in my hands at once. I couldn’t omit any of them, because they held equal weight.
I was driven by passport stamps; my next move was always determined by where I’d been and where I wanted to go. I wasn’t worried about a career or long-term plan; I only cared about following my gut.
For the record, I regret nothing, with one exception—if I had my time again I’d wear more sunscreen.
Ask me that question now and you’ll get something much more succinct:
I’ve recently moved to Colorado from Australia, and I work in marketing.
So what’s changed? I still identify as a traveler, even though I’m more stationary. But I also realize that there are so many ways to describe who I am. The short answer now does the job because I’ve learned to separate my elevator pitch from my sense of self.
‘Tell me about yourself’ has always been an opportunity to present a curated version of life; it’s the verbal equivalent of Instagram. No matter how long-winded my answer is, it doesn’t change who I am.
I could say any number of things:
I went to Indiana University.
I live in Colorado with my husband.
The new CATS trailer makes me uncomfortable.
ALL TRUE. But not all things I would say when asked that question.
The truth, whatever it is at the time, remains the same regardless of what I say.
It’s OK to Change Your Answer
I recently had a conversation with a travel blogging friend about what it means to come back ‘home’ after years of itinerant or expat living. In some ways, it’s like tipping your identity down the garbage disposal and flipping the switch.
As that horrible sound grinds in your ears, you’re left with the fear that nothing you did before matters. It must have been pointless, because here you are, right back where you started.
But none of us are where we started; that would be impossible. Making changes doesn’t mean erasing the past. You’re adding to what is already there.
Identity is dynamic; our experiences shape us, constantly. It makes me think of Michelle Obama’s memoir: the title, Becoming, is a reminder that human beings are never a finished product. We’re always evolving into the next version of ourselves.
And even though once-significant life experiences may fade into the background, of course they matter. Without Korea, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I would have made different choices, even if I don’t know what they would have been. We can’t predict how our past will shape our future, only that it will.
This is all getting a bit woo-woo, so I’ll stop here. But the next time someone says ‘Tell me about yourself,’ remember: it’s your story. You can tell it any way you want, because there are no wrong answers.