Archive | November, 2015

The Repatriating Question

Posted on 21 November 2015 by American expat!

“So when are you coming home?”

As an expat, this is a question you will hear a lot. Out of all the expats I know, there is just a small handful who actually have an answer to this question. And for most of that very small group the answer is “never”. Everyone else just doesn’t know. Oh, they might have vague ideas, like “if I don’t get my shit together in a year, I’m going back home,” or, “Maybe I will move to  (another city, another country) in the next few years,” or, “My plan was always live here, then move to France/Italy/UK/Czech Republic…But I’m still here”.

The problem is, for most of us, once we’ve lived abroad the thought of returning home is a paradox.  There are hard parts about living overseas but there are hard parts about living in your home country once you’ve spent a long time away. Yes, feeling like an outsider is hard. It can be challenging just getting the day to day things accomplished, but for most of us, the adventure is worth every bit of the discomfort. And while it is sometimes tempting to throw in the towel and just move home, where everything is familiar and you know how things work, there is always the fear that you will slowly slip back into the person that you were before you left.  The fear that you might get caught back up in the mindless routine of a “normal” life, without the self reflection and sense of wonder living abroad serves you daily. You are afraid you will forget about how you have been changed, and worse, that no one will see that you have been changed. That you are different.

It is a legitimate fear. You feel kind of special living abroad. There, you are very different – you look foreign and have an accent that amazingly some people find charming or have a mother tongue that the opposite sex finds exotic or even sexy. You do things differently and people notice. Then, when you visit home, you are different in another way. The cashier asks if you would like to join their mailing list and you reply with “no thanks, I don’t live here”, and  a conversation starts and you are being called “adventurous” or, god forbid, “lucky”. Sometimes you are asked about your clothes, because they are not the familiar J.Crew or Guess uniform everyone is wearing at the moment, and you admit to buying them in Paris or London or whatever city you live in. Oohs and ahs follow, usually with a cringworthy “you are so lucky!” included in the mix. You feel like a special flower where ever you are – it’s a win-win.

Inside though, you recognize that your world view has changed, that you have grown as a person, your frame of reference is now different. You’ve picked up a language or two, learned and experienced places of history and politics and how other cultures live. Your values have likely changed just through the act of adapting to living in a different way – and you most likely live with less.

The fear is that to return would mean you’ll become typical, that without a daily challenge of a foreign language or finding creative streams of income or navigating an unfamiliar culture you will stop growing. You’ve become a resilient person, and you fear that a world of comfort would take you nowhere and turn you to mush.

Maybe you aren’t even afraid of returning, but you do know that it won’t be easy, right? You’ll spend hours in the supermarket, overwhelmed by the cereal aisle alone; the number of water varieties will bring you to your knees;  you’ll never even find the rice. There will be news bombarding you from every screen in every airport/restaurant/bar/shop/friend’s house/gym/market, you won’t ever get away. You’ll spend countless hours navigating parking lots in your car.

While you’ll no longer have to explain that your state is larger than your entire host country (and have to show supporting images from your phone to get the point across that you cannot drive from New York to Los Angeles in a day…or even a week if you plan on sleeping ), you will have to listen your neighbor in spin class tell you all about their trip to Mexico when you mention Spain, or explain that Gibraltar is not in Switzerland, or that French people actually bathe daily.

So, where does that leave you? Somewhere in limbo, planning to move to the country next door in a year or two, or back home if you don’t get your business off the ground, or just staying here…a little longer.

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