Categorized | Daily Life

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.

9 Comments For This Post

  1. Sharon G Says:

    Love this post Britt! Travel and being in different culture increases my self-awareness and connection to the world. I’ve been teasing myself with month long trips to Europe waiting on the time when I can stay longer. Don’t know that I would live there full time, but I would love to give it a try. My goal is next summer.

  2. Susanna Schick Says:

    As someone who spent a year in London, then a year in Paris a few years later, then 4 months in Barcelona many years later, I promise- you don’t revert to the person you were before you lived abroad. Living abroad changes you permanently. After only a month spent in Tanzania I still get a small thrill out of drinking tap water, a decade later. And I maintain an awareness of the quality of life people have in places like Tanzania. I haven’t been able to hold onto that level of gratitude, as a few years back in LA is enough to make anyone want MORE. Right?

    Now I look at apartment listings in Barcelona and daydream about having one of those modern places with the rooftop pool. What costs 900 euros in BCN goes for about $2,000 in downtown LA. As soon as I get my digital nomad income going strong, or get that business off the ground, I can leave this madhouse for good…

  3. American expat! Says:

    Yes, it changes you permanently and that is what makes you feel like an outsider in your home country when/if you move back. Which is why if/when I do, it will be to somewhere full of expats.

  4. Shannon Says:

    Nice article B! I love the “mailing list” part, so true! For me, I think the paradox is I just won’t be happy going back permanently. I won’t know how to manage healthcare for my family (who to trust or how to pay for it). Plus I’d get so bored, unless I moved to SF or NYC (both which are unbearably expensive). Then I’d probably gain weight from the food. Then I’d be blind to what’s really going on in the world. For me, my energy was once aligned with Santa Barbara, then on to “BIG” San Diego, but now it’s been fulfilled. We just keep moving forward, it’s hard to go back (with a lot of things).

  5. jeanine Says:

    It is always difficult to straddle two cultures. I am half Catalan and half American. I learn the hard way of trying to get things done in Catalunya as I do in California. There was a wonderful bumper sticker that said, “the Northern behind you screaming at you, has never lived in the South.”

    I come to Barcelona every year (for 40 years) and I cry when I leave and when I leave California for Barcelona, I cry. I would never have it any other way. I love seeing my family and friends in Barcelona. Plus I call it “Quitar El Abrigo” I leave all my responsibilites when I leave for Barcelona. Enjoy both cultures and take as many pictures as you can. Its a moment in time that you can never get back!

  6. Erica B Says:

    Thanks for this article. I have been thinking about living abroad for many years now, it’s a dream of mine, and now more specifically, living in Barcelona. I debated about whether I should just travel or teach, and I am now leaning towards teaching, so I can make some money while I am there. This was inspiring and helpful, espcially the part about never being the same again once you live abroad. I have traveled a lot and stayed in foreign coutries for months at a time, but have not LIVED, where I have to make a living, figure the day to day things out, and adjust. I hope to make my dream come true…just feeling a little nervous, unclear, and overwhelmed about the details involved in actually making it happen, but it’s calling to me a little more these days. Thanks again for sharing.

  7. Blue7 Says:

    I’ve lived outside of the U.S. since 2003. Mostly Thailand, Poland now Barcelona and many places in between. I’ve been forced a few times for business or personal reasons to go back to the U.S. and the fact is i just don’t fit there anymore. It’s mad on so many levels and there are few there to understand me or my experience.
    To say that we don’t change when we go home that may be true but you aren’t ‘seen’ either. Your changes are your own and it’s kind of lonely now for me to go because there isn’t any understanding.
    The first time i went back i was gone for five years. I met some old dear friends for cocktails and one question was asked: “How was it?” I replied “How was what? IT was five years of many countries.” they laughed and we touched on one country for two minutes then back to normal conversation about their lives.
    Nobody really ‘gets it’ when i’m back home. And they still think of me as an infidel for leaving it seems. I’ve lost most of my friends there because i “left”.
    So for me the U.S. is a distant memory like a restaurant i ate at far too many times, when i think of it i get nauseous. A long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs in a sprawling parking lot. The cities don’t encourage community, they encourage auto travel.
    I prefer the European city zoning and interactions. It’s built for people, not the auto.
    For what it’s worth, good luck to all because it’s still not easy, and it’s worth it,
    b7

  8. American expat! Says:

    I hear you completely!

  9. Monica Says:

    I really enjoyed this post! My husband and I are moving to Barcelona in early October (waiting for our non-lucrative visas to be approved by Spanish consulate). I am a doctor and part of the faculty of a large medical school. My husband has changed jobs after years of work to pursue a new career in the field of GIS. We feel stagnant in the US. I fear for this country. I am bitter about how I am forced to practice medicine now and unable to truly enjoy being an infectious disease specialist. We have been planning this move for several years and looking forward to growing as individuals and as a couple. Thank you for your insights!

    Monica

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