What Gets Stirred Up When Expats Visit Home
For expats, sometimes visiting home stirs up emotions – things you hadn´t expected can bubble up to the surface. (If just thinking about “Where is home?” puts you on an emotional roller coaster, then check this out: The Struggle with the Question “Where is Home? ”). On one hand you rejoice, “Yeah! I´m home” and you proceed to gorge on long-missed foods till you bust. You´re euphoric that you finally get to reconnect (face-to-face!) with your loved ones. In a frenzy, you fill a cart to the brim with things you can´t get where you live and bask in the conveniences of home that you long for when you´re abroad.
After the sugar high wears off, you start dealing with the not-as-fun stuff. Aside from living out of a suitcase and battling jet lag, you may find yourself ironically missing your loved ones even more now that you are in the same room.
You´ve shared with me stories of disappointment and vulnerability. Disappointed because no one gives a flyin´flop about the hand-carved wooden sculpture you brought from the local village nor the typical [insert national fish, cheese, or meat] that is popular where you live. You start feeling that no one is really interested in aspects of the new culture that you´ve worked so hard to understand.
For some visiting home, it may mean that their loved ones go about their normal routine, not changing much of anything in their schedule. Meanwhile, you run around non-stop to see everyone. For those of us who live in developing contexts, add trips to the dentist and doctor when health services are not as comprehensive or as readily available in a language you speak fluently.
Even better, you may also find yourself back in old family patterns of “parent” and “child” even though you are 40 and have children of your own.
Perhaps hardest of all, you notice the passing of time through your best friends´ babies who have suddenly become preschoolers, your aging uncle, or photos of family gatherings, where you are the only one missing. Time and moments are passing by, and you are gathering the evidence.
These matters are all healthy things to acknowledge, but if you get caught up focusing on what´s negative, there´s a danger of falling into one of these two traps.
Trap 1: The Path Not Taken
One expat living in Europe said the hardest part of going home is “seeing the other path my life could have taken had I not left.”
To be honest, I´ve imagined this myself. While I can totally empathize, the problem is it assumes your life is like a multiple choice test: A) stay home, B) live abroad.
I don´t believe it´s like that. It´s not binary. There´s just your path. Along the way, I imagine you took the next natural next step for you. And if you’re reading this, then this likely means it led to an international life.
When you visit home, you may feel tempted to flirt with the idea of what your life could have been had you stayed. Or maybe you may even think about the life you should be living. Sure could have is interesting to consider but in reality you were drawn to something else, and thus your path led in another direction.
So when you go back home, rather than focusing on what could have been, my bet is that it´s more fruitful to consider what you´ve gained from your journey.
Of course, visiting home can also feel amazing. You love the familiar ways people interact. You may love the services and quality. You might also be warmed by a feeling of belonging. You love how you feel, how your partner is acting, and your kids are asking you why you don´t just move next door to grandma and grandpa.
Then the thought crosses your mind: What would it be like to live here again? You go to the grocery store like it is an audition for how you´d feel if you moved back. Would it feel good? Would I be happy? Does it make sense?
Before making any hasty decisions, make sure you haven´t fallen into Trap Nr. 2.
Trap 2: Vacation Conflation
Vacation conflation, as I like to call it, is when you think that the experience you´re having during a visit is what it´d be like if you lived there.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your visit back home is a fair measure of what everyday life would be like. After all, you are there on vacation. (Make sure you remind your kids of that too!)
Being on vacation is great. You´re less stressed. People make a special effort to see you. You don´t have a daily commute. The weather is usually pretty agreeable. An added bonus is that you don´t have to rush to get groceries after a long day at work.
When you start feeling vacation conflation creeping in, it´s the perfect time to ask friends who live there about what everyday life is really like for them. Do they have help? Easy-to-find and affordable babysitters? Household help? High stress levels? How often do they see friends and family that actually live there? These answers may be just what it takes to help you see things from a more balanced perspective.
No matter if you´ve fallen into one of these traps, or simply feel off, there´s a way to deal with the emotional stew of going home. To help you on your way, I am sharing three important strategies in this video:
- Balance your perspective
- Get curious about the ups and downs
- Don´t torture yourself
Remember ups and downs are not uncommon when you visit home. They´re often a reflection of how you´ve changed and grown. Welcome them as signposts of appreciation, learning and your own values.
As one of my dear Italian friends says, “You can´t have a full barrel, and the wife drunk.” I recognize that I want to have convenience and value for money AND I want quality. I want to have adventure and cultural experiences AND I want to have running water and electricity. I want to be with my loved ones AND do what I love. And since I can´t have both at the same time, I sit in gratitude due to the privilege I have to dip my toes in more than one world.
So ride the roller coaster. Feel the butterflies as you climb up. Hold on tight when you go down, grasping tight onto what it is that sends you flying. Keep these three strategies from the video in mind, so you can break free from the traps that we set for ourselves.
Once you’re done watching the video, tell me in the comments below what you´d like to break free from the next time you visit home.
Can´t wait to hear from you!
P.S. Don’t miss the upcoming 2-part blog focus on managing the expat re-entry blues.
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