Friday, March 8, 2013

Returning to your home country

christiania, glass house, august 2007
Home, Sweet ... er ... Home
Photo by SEIER+SEIER
No matter whether or not you plan to return to your home country, many expats do. Sometimes they miss family and friends. Sometimes homesickness takes them. Sometimes the great job/relationship/adventure just ends. If you're returning home after a few months abroad, you'll probably readjust quickly. However, if you've been living abroad for a few years, be prepared to face some issues that many "repatriates" report.


You'll See Old Things In A New Light

When I visit the US, the first thing I notice is how huge so many people are. I know, it sounds snobby, but it's hard to miss. I didn't see it when I lived there, but now I see it everywhere. Of course, the next thing I notice is how huge portion sizes are in restaurants, and how common "doggy bags" are because you can't possibly cram all of that food into your body in one sitting.

And everyone drives everywhere. And don't even think about a train.

Alcohol is more frowned upon in the US (don't you dare have a drink at lunch if you're working!), people are more open, work focuses more on reward than risk and you'll no longer struggle to have people understand you.

These and many more differences will leap out at you and constantly keep you off guard. You'll appreciate some of these things and hate others.

Global Experience

You'll notice those issues because you now have global experience. And you'll quickly notice that others don't and the gross generalizations will shock you. I had one relative in the US assume that I was moving to the UK because "they must have got you pretty cheap". Aside from that being offensive, he assumed that immigrants just lower labor costs.

I've also seen people assume that Europeans are all struggling under the load of oppressive taxes or that people in South America live in mud huts and earn just a few dollars a day. Or would you believe that Luanda, Angola, is one of the most expensive cities in the world? Most people couldn't even tell you where that is, much less what's going on there. And they certainly don't know what medical care is like on the rest of the planet.

You'll know many of these things, but others won't. And explaining won't help because ...

Be Prepared for Apathy

That's right. Repatriate after repatriate (including your author when he returned to the US in 2001) discover that most people back "home" don't give a damn about someone else's travels. Few people back home care about the rest of the world aside from a few political rants from time to time. Yes, there are exceptions, but this is something repatriates repeatedly mention. It can be tough to deal with because it invalidates a huge part of your existence.

Friends and Family May Have Moved On

If you've been gone long enough, thinking you'll slip back into your old life is unrealistic. Many people you know will have moved away or simply have different lives. Good friends that you used to spend time with are now married with children and promise to "get back to you", but they don't. Years of being gone mean that you're not returning to an old life, you're discovering a new one with some familiar faces.

TV Shows Are Different

Surprisingly, some repatriates comment about this quite a bit. I don't watch TV, so it doesn't impact me, but turning on the television and expecting the old shows you used to like are gone. For many people, TV is not just entertainment, but it's also a source of comfort. If you're gone long enough, that comfort is gone.

Danger of Boredom

Ultimately, many repatriates report boredom upon returning home. One talked about returning from Asia and not being able to ride side-saddle on a motorcycle down a dusty road to get into town. Others talk about not learning anything new. It takes a lifetime to learn a culture and returning home means returning to a new life, but with fewer surprises.

Grief

Many repatriates report grief on returning to their home country. In many ways, reverse culture shock is harder than regular culture shock. It catches you off guard and you may find that things you used to ignore or take for granted are now a source of annoyance. Some repatriates throw in the towel and actually return to the country they left. It's a normal experience and it's something to brace yourself for.

All of these issues can lead up to reverse culture shock, something that many returning expats find very hard to deal with. Many of you who find a way to move abroad need to be aware of this if you return home. It's hard to plan for, but perhaps it will be a bit easier to bear when you're expecting it.