That one word strikes fear into every expat heart. And it’s on the forefront of my mind this week as I face my last few days here in the Fiji Islands. In less than a week I will be headed back to the states and my heart is twisted into that familiar yet bittersweet feeling of being happy and sad at the same time. I think it’s safe to say that every expat knows exactly what I am talking about. It’s a feeling you are completely unfamiliar with until you run face-first into it while packing up various trinkets from your first stint of living overseas.
The first time I moved back to America from living overseas, the word repatriation wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. But it quickly became front and center in my lexicon as my heart was inexplicably torn in two while trying to stuff an entire year and a half’s worth of stuff into two suitcases. I loved my home country and I couldn’t wait to see my family again. And I couldn’t wait to eat American foods and shop in American stores. So why did I feel like this? My heart wanted to stay and go at the same time.
Over time I came to realize that what I was feeling was not unique at all. In fact, all expats face it to one degree or another when they head home. When you have come to love a new country, a new way of life, and all the new friends you have made, it’s hard to say goodbye to that and just walk away. And when you arrive home and suddenly all your years overseas melt into the background and seem to be just a dream from another life, it can be hard to reconcile all of your jumbled emotions and thoughts with your present reality.
Reverse Culture Shock
I had never heard of reverse culture shock before heading home after living in Russia for a year and a half. I had no idea it was possible to feel like a stranger in your own country! But it is. I remember arriving in America and marveling that I could understand all the conversations around me. Even if I wasn’t trying to listen I could hear and understand. In Russia I had strained my ears to try and understand tidbits of the rapid-fire Russian being spoken all around me but I rarely understood.
I almost cried the first time I walked into a supermarket after I landed. The clean, fully-stocked shelves were overwhelming and a beautiful sight to me. And the prices! Everything was so cheap! And to be able to go to a store and know that the same products you bought last week would still be available for purchase this week was a comforting thought. No more stocking up on canned black beans because you didn’t know when they’d show up again on the shelves.
There are so many little things you don’t even realize you’ve adapted to overseas until you come home and remember that things aren’t done that way here. Sometimes the differences you’ve adapted to are things you like and sometimes they are things you don’t like, but either way you gradually come to accept them as normal for the culture in which you find yourself. So going home and un-learning those ways of doing things can be challenging.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where you fit in when you arrive back home after living overseas. It can often seem like everyone back home moved on without you while at the same time they haven’t changed and grown at all. Which doesn’t even seem to make sense and yet that’s what it feels like. While you, on the other hand, have been through so many changes and experiences that it can feel like you are a completely different person now than you were when you left. Even if nothing looks different on the outside, everything feels different on the inside.
Often when you arrive back home everyone will want to catch up with you. They all make dinner plans and want to hear about your trip. To them it was just a trip. To you it was life, and it was an experience that is impossible to sum up in just a few hours. But after the initial excitement fades away, everyone expects life to go back to normal. They expect you to just slip back into what you were doing before. And they don’t quite understand why you just can’t. You wish you could. You wish it was that simple. But it’s not. Living overseas changes you in a thousand ways. And it’s impossible to go back to who you were before.
So I sit here, counting down the days till I’m home. I can’t wait to see family and to meet a new niece and a new nephew. I can’t wait to celebrate Thanksgiving. But I also know that it won’t all be sunshine and roses. I’ve done this before and I know how it works. There will be happy and sad at the same time. There will be confusing feelings and uncertainty. It just comes with the territory. Over time you learn to prepare yourself and how to better deal with it. Until then I will savor each moment of the good from my life here and hope that these happy moments are pressed indelibly into my memory. And then I will start planning for my next new country. Because after all, the expat life is a quite addicting one.
Have you repatriated recently? What unexpected challenges did you face?