How To Overcome Expat Withdrawal.
A Repatriation Article
I admit it. I spent an entire weekend depressed when my husband found out that it is going to take him an extra semester here in the United States for him to finish his Physics degree. For teachers like us, a tacked on semester of school will be one more year living stateside before jumping back into international education and expat life. Judging from my swollen, puffy eyes and the mound of tissues I went through, you would have thought that I was banished to Outer Mongolia, not an extra year in New England. But why was my reaction so overwhelming?
After living abroad, moving back to your home country can be even more of a shock than learning to live in a new country and culture. So much of how we define ourselves while living and working overseas is wrapped up in being an expat. Our friends back 'home' think of us as "Mary in Japan" or "Susan in Dubai." In our host countries, we are always the foreigner – the one who is different. Even the very way we introduce ourselves and think of ourselves tends to be connected with this element of 'otherness'.
For repatriates, moving back home, whether for short-term or long-term, can feel as if you have lost part of yourself. Being suddenly surrounded by people who speak the same dialect, dress more or less like you do and have grown up in the same culture can feel strange after spending years living abroad. Yet instead of letting this overwhelm you, there are a number of things that you can do to help you get through your "expat withdrawal".
1. Explore Your Town and Region
When you first moved abroad, chances are that you spent a considerable amount of time exploring the area and learning as much as you can about it. Why not set out to discover your hometown in the same way? Find the best pizza places, the tiny family-run cafés, start-up art galleries and local music joints.
Buy a guidebook for your area just like you would if you were moving to a foreign city. Make up a travel hit list of places you want to visit. Think about possible weekend trips that are not too far from your home base and some longer trips that you would be able to take during vacations. Have things both near and far to look forward to.
If travel in your home country is much more expensive than travel abroad, consider budget options like home exchanges, couchsurfing or even volunteering (in exchange for free lodging) on an organic farm (WWOOFing)!
2. Set Goals for Your Time at Home
Having a vision and a purpose for your stint at home can be the most important aspect to making that time successful and enjoyable. My husband and I came back to the U.S. so that he could pursue a college degree. As soon as we made that decision, I started thinking about how I could best utilize those years and decided to apply for a graduate program in my subject area, advance my horseback riding instructor certification and take a travel writing course.
Think about things that you would love to do and learn, but that you do not necessarily have time to do or access to while overseas. Do you want to earn a professional certification or move forward with any of your hobbies? Do you want to improve your writing, start selling your photography or start an internet-based business to earn residual income while you travel? Living in your home country, where you already know the ropes, can be an ideal time to try something new. So think big and live boldly.
Living at home can also be a great opportunity to invest time with your family. My dad recently called to see if I was interested to learn rock climbing with him this summer. We would never have been able to do something like that if I was living abroad. If your move home has moved you closer to your family, take advantage of this and invest time in strengthening family relationships.
3. Continue Language Study
If part of what you relish about expat life is the challenge of learning new languages and communicating with people in their native tongues, continue your language study during your home term. Keeping disciplined in self-study can be tough, but if you can connect with native speakers, study with language partners or join a class at a local cultural club you will have a natural way to learn and practice your target language. If there are not any opportunities around, you can always pick up a 'teach yourself' book and connect with other speakers and learners through websites like My Language Exchange.
4. Check Out Ethnic Restaurants
A big part of experiencing a new culture is trying all the different foods. You may not be able to walk down the street and find entrées worth blogging about, but you can still check out ethnic restaurants in your town or city – and some of them might even surprise you. If you like to sample the local food, you might also like to 'travel through food' by signing up for cooking lessons at nearby ethnic restaurants.
5. Creatively Reflect
When you are in the thick of living in another culture, it can be difficult to process and reflect on the expat experience. This is especially true if you have been living in a 'hardship' area where just getting basic things done – such as making photocopies, mailing packages or opening a bank account – takes considerably more time and effort than in your home country. While living and teaching in Pakistan, much of my energy was put into just enduring the heat, coping with electricity shortages, and making endless calls to visa offices. Now that I am back in my home country, where I do not need to invest so much time in dealing with 'the system' (...aside from figuring out taxes and insurance...) I have more time to journal and creatively reflect on my time abroad.
Whatever your creative outlet is – music, visual art, fiction, photography, poetry or so on – take some time out of your schedule to allow your cross-cultural experiences to inspire you. Many times this type of reflection can help you learn things about yourself that you did not know or were not able to articulate before when you were in the midst of the experience.
A home term does not need to be an end in itself or merely a time to "get through" while looking forward to your next stint abroad. Instead, it can be a time for personal growth, professional development, building relationships and/or investing in different hobbies and interests.
For me, writing this is a sort of self-therapy, reminding myself that I have purpose and identity apart from being an expat. There is no need to spend another weekend lamenting the fact that I am currently living in the United States: I have decided that there is so much to look forward to – both at home and abroad.