t(here)

I’ve been back in the US for three months and I still feel like an outsider in a place I used to call home. It’s been incredibly hard for me to pick up where I left off because there is no such thing really. How can you expect things to be the same when so much time has lapsed, so much has been seen and experienced, so much expansion gained? I am not the same and therefore cannot really expect anything around me to be either. I can’t help but feel restricted here. My soul craves the things that made me feel so alive abroad – expansion, mobility, cultural diversity, adventure, being out of my comfort zone on a daily basis and growing comfortable in that uncomfortability. Pico Iyer once said, “Home is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.” In many ways I became myself in Southeast Asia. I lived my dreams. I pushed my personal boundaries. I met people from all over the world. I traveled to numerous countries. I learned so incredibly much. I felt so fucking alive. So how do I find my balance back here? How do I keep myself engaged and expanding? How do I come to peace with the familiar when I am addicted to unfamiliarity?

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about reentry, reverse culture shock, returning to one’s country of origin after leaving one’s country of choice, the struggles of repatriation, and the concept of home and belonging. The articles remind me that I’m not alone and what I’m experiencing is not abnormal. They give me license to allow these thoughts and feelings for as long as they need to be. To be patient and kind with myself. To just be with it. To write when I can’t talk with anyone around me who can relate. To reach out to other expats/repats and connect in our challenges and triumphs. To try to not take it all so seriously and find the humor in it if possible. What these articles don’t say are the things I’m most curious about. What happens when the reverse culture shock subsides? Does it ever fully subside? Does the dust of repatriation finally settle? Will I ever feel like I belong again? If you know of any good resources that address this, by all means, please forward them on. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from Corey Heller, founder of Multilingual Living.

As many of us know and have experienced, living in another country changes you forever. You will never be the same and will never see things the same way again. I mentioned this to a friend after having lived abroad for a year. She looked at me confused and responded, “Oh come on, don’t be so depressing!”

Yet, for those of us who have lived abroad, this is simply the way it is.

The first time I experienced what experts call “Reverse Culture Shock” was after returning home from a Year Abroad Program in Galway, Ireland. My home town, which before had given me a sense of comfort and belonging, upon returning seemed stifling and bereft of warmth. I moved about my days feeling that something was missing but I had no idea what it could be. I eventually came face to face with the starling reality that my home would never, ever again feel the same as it had before. I had sealed my fate the moment I had boarded that plane the year before.

I don’t think there is really any way to describe this feeling to those who haven’t experienced it themselves. It’s a little like free-falling. It feels as if we are floating aimlessly on restless waters. We feel distinctly ungrounded.

What, exactly, is it that causes us to feel this way? Why is it more pronounced when living in a different country than just living in a different city? Does the degree of difference between our home country and the target country determine the degree of change we will experience upon returning?

Many descriptions of Reverse Culture Shock describe it as part of a continuum whereby eventually we’ll feel at home again in our native country and the vestiges of the “shock” will slowly wear off.

Although it is true that those initial feelings of strangeness have subsided, I still feel that something will never be the same even now, so many years later. What I constantly contend with now is a continual pull to go back; a pull to go back anywhere as long as it isn’t here. Yet when I am back there, I feel the pull to return here, the place I call home. It is as if I am living in a kind of suspended reality, never really here and never really there; restless.

The joy of having spent time in another country is that you slowly become a part of it and bit-by-bit one of its people. Our attention to detail is heightened and we make a concerted effort to understand and fit in until we become one with our new location. What I have seen and felt and heard and smelled in each of the places I have lived has made me who I am, like a wine having picking up its surrounding elements.

I would never want the clocks to be turned back to the person I was before I set foot on that first airplane. Instead, what I want more than anything is to have my favorite elements from each country right here with me now. I want to have an Irish pub around the corner here in Seattle, full of laughter and music and incessant chatter. After all these years, I still crave the smell of burning peat in the air and delight when I hear an Irish lilt.

But I also want to have the sights and smells and family and friends from Germany and Italy and France. I want to experience Tasmanian joviality and mainland Australian kindness on a daily basis. I want to somehow piece them all together into a patchwork quilt of sorts; to wear it day in and day out to bring me a kind of multicultural comfort of my own making.

Ultimately what I have lost in hometown comfort, I have gained in international familiarity. Whereas once boarding an airplane was an amazing feat and arriving in another country 10 hours later unthinkable, I now feel a safe sense of deja-vu when we are snuggled down into our seats for our long flight. I have a pretty good idea of the sequence of events whereby we will get from here to there and I cherish this opportunity to head to my “other home” of Germany for an extended visit. And after being there for a while, I can’t wait to snuggle back into my bed in my home in Seattle.

Thus, the final question I ask myself is no longer whether I will ever have that complete sense of home again, that sense of knowing I belong in one place above all others without doubt. I now ask myself how I can feel at home where I am at this very moment, in this place, with these experiences; each moment finding my way back home.

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7 thoughts on “t(here)

  1. I came back to the U.S. more than 10 years ago but still feel a little “different,” in an inexplicable way (and now I’m getting ready to leave again). Looking at it differently, I think we’re lucky to have experiences outside the norm and become citizens of the world rather than just one country (even if that does sound slightly hokey!).

    1. You are so entirely right Leslie. Traveling, living, immersing and thriving in a culture so dramatically different than our own is a gift and a privilege more valuable than just about anything I’ve experienced thus far. I wouldn’t trade it for the world so perhaps my rants on reentry are just first-world problems but the sentiments are real, raw and honest and where I happen to be at 90 days back in.

    2. Living abroad changes us indefinitely. No question. And you are absolutely right, we are incredibly fortunate and privileged to have that opportunity. I’m proud to be a citizen of the world and I find nothing hokey about it! I wish I could give the gift of international travel to all the stateless migrant youth I used to teach. Or to my Hindu family in India who have never been outside their state let alone their country. And to all the girls around the world whose hearts yearn to get on a plane and fly as mine does.

  2. Your writing is exquisite and totally conveys your feelings. Maybe you should piece some of all you havewritten on your blog into a book. Hoping you find enough peace and joy that surrounds you to carry you through until the day comes when you leave Montana again. This is just a temporary stop. A placewhere you can get your needs met during and after your pregnancy. I love you Noel and want nothingbut the best for you..Love, Mom

    Date: Wed, 8 Jan 2014 19:50:13 +0000 To: sheilasigg@msn.com

    1. Thank you for your kind words and support mom! I know it’s temporary and this is just part of the journey. I also know that our greatest strengths are derived from our greatest struggles. It’s just hard to accept that reality when you are in the thick of it. In any event, I know Baby B is meant to be born here so leaving Bangkok was the right choice. Breath. Let go. And trust. 🙂

  3. Thanks Noel for the article. I really enjoyed it and can relate to the sense of being trapped in no man’s land when you return home. I work in the development sector so am often moving abroad and back again. I returned several months ago from living in Mongolia and have recently gone through what your expressing in some respects but this time was rather different. I have lived in 8 different countries and this time it was different because I made a more conscious choice to be present in my life right time. Our time abroad changes us intrinsically and at times I personally found myself resentful of those around me who had no idea of what I’d been through or who I was. But the fact is that we are always multiple versions of ourselves depending on context. It is easiest to be the best version of oneself when we are away in an exotic place. We don’t really know how much we have changed and grown until we come back to the familiar and find a way to take those elements of our newly acquired personality and implement them in our home country. To be the exciting and adventurous ex-pat in our every day lives.

    I think reintegrating is very much about choice. When your an ex-pat everything is exciting because you are constantly doing new things. Anything that is new breeds excitement. When you are a re-pat you have to take that same spirit of adventure and rediscover your own home. Unless you live in bum fuck nowhere, in a 100 person town, there are always new places, people and things to discover. People get lazy and choose comfort and ease. In other countries you are the one who is foreign so it inherently makes you more exciting and exotic. Sometimes I think that’s actually what ex-pats are addicted to rather than the idea that the culture is exotic and exciting, its’ that your life “seems” more exotic and exciting. If I could give one piece of advice it would be go do new things. You would do it in South East Asia why not now?

    I have survived living in strange and at time isolated places because I carried my sense of home with me and now the reverse is true. I am able to feel at home in Melbourne because I carry my sense of freedom with me. Albeit harder of course.

    1. Thank you for your words and insights Milena! So much of what you say is 100% accurate and that is the balance I am trying to strike now. How to continue stepping out of my comfort zone in a familiar place. How to find my expansion in a place that can feel restrictive. How to continue pushing my boundaries and having adventures domestically. It’s harder to do when the cultures aren’t as foreign and intriguing but not entirely impossible. Thank god for migration and internationality. And thank god the U.S. is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Everything is right here. You just have to seek it. And yes, as a repatriating expat, I can say wholeheartedly that I was and am addicted to being in places wildly unfamiliar and connecting with cultures vastly different. This, for me, was 90% of the allure, intrigue and excitement, and, well, nothing but travel can really quench that thirst when it comes right down to it.

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