It’s been eighteen months already since we moved from Luxembourg to the UK. When we moved here, it had been eight years since I left as a fresh-faced graduate, and I came home with a foreign husband, a toddler, and a baby quickly expanding inside me. There were a lot of things to adjust to, some specific to our situation, but many I am sure are common to the experience of re-entry, of going home after a period of time as an expat.
(A quick note about language. Expat is definitely a label of privilege – we apply it generally to white, wealthy Westerners who move abroad to live and work for a period of time, but generally don’t expect to settle indefinitely. Actually, we’re all immigrants – temporary maybe, and usually arriving with a huge amount of privilege relative to the local population, but immigrants all the same. It’s a sign of the times that we like to disassociate ourselves from that label. There are so many ways that is problematic, but for now let me sneakily side-step that discussion and focus on the coming home experience of us privileged white Westerners…)
I have some friends in the leaving process now, and others who have recently left. It got me thinking back to my coming-home experience and both the good and the hard of that. I’ve put together some of the tips that got me through that period. Maybe they might be helpful for you or someone you know.
1. Be kind to yourself. You will likely swing between many different emotional states – euphoria, boredom, frustration, relief, loneliness, excitement, grief. It’s normal and it’s ok. Lean into whatever you are experiencing, and try to be gentle with yourself. The adjustment may take longer than you are expecting, and that’s ok too. Plan in moments of self-care in each day. Journal through the transition if you find that helpful; connect with other expats who have come home and share your experience; or just take a long hot bath with a glass of wine and a good book. Whatever you need.
2. Recognise that you have CHANGED. You are not the same person who left your home country. Your cross-cultural experience – whether you were the only non-local in town, or mostly existed in an expat bubble – will have stretched you and impacted you. Other people back home won’t always understand this, and may even expect you to be exactly the same as when you left. You might find yourself disappointing people because you’re different than they remember or expected. Don’t be tempted to hide this new you – celebrate it! Bring your whole self home with you and be authentically and unapologetically you. (This post about being a triangle is a helpful concept).
3. Recognise that home will have changed. Life has moved on while you were gone, and that is totally normal. You will need to spend some time figuring out where you belong and how to relate to the people you left behind. Try not to see this as a negative thing, but instead as an opportunity for new and fresh relationships and activities. It can often be up to you to do the work of re-finding your place. Have the same attitude as when you moved overseas – be ready to explore, see it as an adventure, and put in the effort to make it work.
4. Spend some time re-nesting. Yes, I mean making your new/old living quarters feel like “home” again – put up those pictures, get out all the possessions which make you feel like yourself (the guitar, the knitting supplies, the Le Creuset pans, all the books), unpack those last boxes as if your life depends on it. There will be a period of resettling in to your friendships and community, and that can feel destabilising. Let your home be a safe place of rest during that period. And make it ready to invite people in!
5. Re-enter your home neighbourhood with new eyes. Make new memories, explore your home city/neighbourhood as if it was a new destination. Even if you are heartbroken to have left your expat life, there are good things back home too. Find them. Remember them. Don’t deny the things you are missing from your expat life, but also be on the look out for the gifts that are here. At the same time, be ready for some degree of reverse culture-shock. Things that were normal to you before you left may now feel weird, awkward or even plain wrong. That can be a gift too, if you are willing to accept it as one.
6. Spend some intentional time reconnecting. Loneliness is a real danger when you return home. After the initial excitement of having you home, everyone goes back to their regular routines and it may seem like there isn’t space for you. Seek out your old friends and spend some quality time rebuilding relationships that might have scraped by on facebook updates and the occasional skype the last few years. Remember that their lives have moved on too. Try not to be offended by this, but instead celebrate all that has happened for them, and be intentional about being there for them again (and don’t freak out when some relationships don’t rekindle – there will be shifts and changes and new friendships).
7. Be honest about your needs. Probably, most of your family and friends have not had the same cross-cultural living experience that you have had. They may not understand the muddle of emotions you are experiencing right now. Be as open as you can be about your needs – are there practical and administration tasks that you’ve forgotten how to do here? Do you need help finding work/childcare/church? Do you need friends? Say so. I started saying it to anyone I met – at the library, at the coffee shop: “I just moved here. I know no one. I’m looking for friends!” It surprised people but I also made some great connections that way.
8. Think through the values, traditions and practices from your host culture that you want to hold on to and plan a way to do that. This is how we become better people, by purposefully learning from the people and traditions we come into contact with, from the experiences we have, and letting them impact us for the better. Also, this can be a beautiful way to introduce people at home to some of your life the past few years – host a cultural night where you can tell some of your stories.
What have I missed? What is your best piece of advice for people returning home after living in another country? And was your experience of re-entry easier or harder than you had imagined? I would love to hear!