My first time living abroad was when I studied in Sweden. I lived there for ten months and when I stepped off the plane, back in California, my parents rushed to hug me with excitement. But to their dismay, I was sobbing. All I could say was “I want to go back.” Moving back home after living abroad is a huge adjustment. You feel as though no one understands you. You are the weird outsider looking in. Most people go through the stages of reverse culture shock, which can be very close to regular culture shock. There’s the honeymoon period, where everything at home amazes you.
When I moved home from Taiwan, I was in awe that I could drink clean water straight from the tap. It boggled my mind that everyone else took it for granted. Then, there is the negotiation stage. You realize how different your home is from where you’d been living abroad and it stresses you out. It’s your home country and yet, the way everyone acts offends you. I still find the amount of tax and tips I have to pay at restaurants to be highway robbery. The fake friendliness that the waiters show me in exchange for their tips makes me uncomfortable, even though I was once a waitress.
In the adjustment stage, you go back to routines and your own culture becomes “normal” again.
It didn’t take long for me to be driving myself everywhere, eating American junk food, and going to Zumba class. I have settled back in and that in itself, terrifies me. Last, is adaptation, where you become totally comfortable in your own culture. But, this is not to say that you have lost all the traits you picked up abroad. When I go out for a run and I see a person who is older than me, I bow my head to them. This is a habit I picked up in Asia that I have yet to shake. I fear that my neighbors think I have a nervous tic.
Living abroad changes you and when you got that passport stamped, you also got an imprint of the place on your heart. It can be hard to love two, or multiple, cultures. Your heart might ache when you see a Swedish pear cider in the store or when a Spanish song comes on the radio. You’ll try to explain the places you’ve been to the people at home and they will stare at you blankly. It’s not that they don’t care; they just don’t know. I try to explain seeing an elephant on the highway in Thailand or having monkeys scare the daylights out of me in Bali, but most people at home would rather talk about the latest gossip or the new app on their phone.
Your stories are not their stories and they can’t ever fully understand.
Many conversations will leave you feeling like an alien. People will see your prayer flags, your colorful beaded necklaces, your elephant pants, and your trendy European fashions and find you curious. Or even worse: lazy. You’ve been traveling about while they’ve been working to pay a mortgage. There are more important things than seeing the world. Time to get your “real” life together.
I know that it’s difficult to come back home because I’m currently doing it right now. Many of my friends are married and have kids. I’m applying for jobs in offices in cities that don’t have foreign names. I expected so many people back home to stay stuck in time while I was gone, but they’ve moved on. I look around desperately for anything that resembles the countries I’ve lived in before, but it’s all second-hand culture. And worst of all, I feel so totally strange. So totally weird.
People want to put you in a box, but you can’t be put in one because you are now a multi-faceted jewel that is too big and too bright to fit.
Even though you have adjusted to your home culture, don’t lose that brightness. Still seek out ethnic restaurants, foreign friends to talk to, and fun adventures that make you see traveling at home is a joy in itself. Understand that your life abroad was amazing, but it probably wasn’t as amazing as you remember. See that life at home is wonderful, too. There’s actually tons of weirdos out there who used to live abroad in your home and miss it dearly. Don’t take it for granted. You and I, we are forever weird. And that is completely normal.