I stumbled off the plane, jet lagged and travel weary, and found the line that said “US passport holders”. A throng of people waited for their visas to be checked. For the first time in a year, I was permitted to choose the shortest line and receive the least amount of passport scrutiny. The man at immigration handed my passport back and said, “Welcome home”. Tears pricked my eyes. I was back in my passport country — a place where I spoke the language, understood the “rules” and would see people who had known me my whole life.
My family and I have made at least one trip home every year since we left in 2009. While I love seeing family and friends, I admit to having some ambivalence about these trips. By the end of the visit my initial excitement often shifts to feeling scattered and exhausted. Excitement, sadness, loss and joy all swirl around leaving me feeling mixed up. I miss my routines. I feel frustrated that I spend much of the year thinking of the US and then, while I’m there, long to be back in the country that I now call “home”.
From my experience, these are the main challenges visiting home and my ideas about how to manage them.
Returning to my passport country accentuates the feeling that I don’t have a “home”. Each time I return to the US I go through a mini-version of repatriation shock. While everything seems familiar, my time away also lets me see my country through new eyes. Every year something different strikes me — “Who will eat all this food in the grocery store?” “Why are people so busy all the time?” “Why do I have to do so much driving from place to place?” Sometimes I like this experience. It makes me feel like an anthropologist observing my own culture. But other times it just makes me feel like I am still outside looking in, which is often how I feel as an expat.
Tips: The best way to deal with the feeling of being alienated from your home country is by expecting it to happen. I look for the part of American life that now seems different after living away. Then I can happily say “Aha! That’s it this year.”
I have also redefined my concept of “home”. I know that for me home is a concept that I carry inside. It is being with my family; it is a sense of belonging. Physical places are part of my feeling of home but not all of it. The US feels like home but so do Switzerland, and Singapore, and Togo, and Croatia. I know that, as much as I want to feel like I belong as soon as I touch US soil, this is not realistic. I also remind myself that I didn’t always feel at home when I lived there.
I never feel like I’m doing it right. Our first year home I tried to see everyone — all my friends and family. I bounced from lunches to get-togethers, sharing my photos and stories. This came to an end when my children staged a mutiny and refused to be dragged to one more event. After weeks of non-stop visiting I also felt exhausted and strung out. The following year, we tried the “have a big party and invite everyone over” strategy. While it worked to gather people in one place at one time, I didn’t feel like I had the chance to really connect with anyone. While I “saw” my friends I didn’t really get to talk to them. Each year I try to make adjustments so that I leave feeling like I spent enough time with the people who are important to me. I always leave feeling like I didn’t get it right.
Tip: I realize that not feeling like I did it “right” is more a consequence of living abroad and less about a failure on my part. While there is a lot about living overseas that feels right to me and my family, there is a part that doesn’t — being away from friends and family. Feeling like I didn’t get to see and/or spend quality time with everyone is a reality — a loss that can’t be made up by squeezing in one more lunch date. This feeling doesn’t occur because I am not organized enough. It is rather an uncomfortable reality of the life we have chosen to live. I try to sit with the feelings of sadness and be kind to myself about what is realistic to do when I’m home.
I no longer have the same relationships with people. When we moved overseas, I thought we would be gone for 3 years. My first few years I believed that my relationships would remain the same — yes I would see my friends and family less but we would pick up right where we left off upon our return. Like many expats, we found that 3 years led to another 3 and before we knew it, we had been gone 10 years with no clear plan to return. When I see my closest friends and family, it does feel like I never left. But during one of our visits the reality hit me– the actual time I was going to spend with people is short. I see friends that I used to see daily for a 2-hour lunch; I see family who I love dearly for only one week. That does not feel like enough to me but I am also not sure what to do about it.
Not seeing family on a regular basis means I don’t see the changes that gradually occur. When we finally arrive home, they strike me all at once. I notice instantly how much my nieces and nephews have grown and how much older my parents look. It is startling and makes me feel sad and confused about the choice I have made to live far away.
Tips: Try to be present with people. Try connect and let them know you value them even though you live apart. I always strengthen my resolve to keep in better contact throughout the year, which is not one of my strengths. I have also encouraged people to come visit us or to meet me in a location that is halfway. While this is not always realistic for busy families, it helps me feel less like I need to be the person to make the journey in order to keep our relationship alive.
I miss having my own space. I have learned that, while I can adjust to living almost anywhere, I need my own space and routine to feel happy and grounded. I need down time, a chance to recharge my batteries. This is very hard to do when there are so many people to visit and we are often staying at different houses during our month long trip.
Many expats that I have talked to say that they rent their own place and let people know they can come to them. This has never worked for us due to expense and logistics.
So we bounce around. Two weeks at my in-laws, two weeks with my family, two weeks at the beach. I live out of a suitcase, am constantly searching for things, and feel scattered and discombobulated. I find myself longing desperately for the normalcy and routine that I complain about all year.
Tips: I try to limit the number of places I stay, even if it means extra driving to sleep in the same bed as the night before. I attempt to keep organized, finding places for my things so I don’t lose track of them. We try to establish some sort of vacation routine. While it is more flexible than our school routine, it does give the day a sense of predictability and flow that I find comforting.
I also make sure to build in down time so I can recharge. For me that means time to read, time to myself and time to exercise, but it’s different for everyone. Find what helps you regain your sense of calm and make a commitment to do it.
Going “home”, whether you are an expat or someone who lives away from your family, is a wonderful but sometimes complicated experience. It is filled with emotions that can sometimes feel paradoxical — love, frustration, joy, nostalgia. While there are some practical solutions that can help make the trip easier, the most important advice I can give is to allow yourself to feel the emotions. Don’t judge the feelings, be easy on yourself and your friends/family. Global mobility has given us complex and rich experiences and with that come complex and rich emotions. If you are travelling this summer, enjoy and, as always, I would love to hear from you.