We write a lot about how to adjust when first moving overseas. How to adapt to the new culture, learn the language and adopt your new country as your own. But what happens when you come to the end of your contract? How do you reverse that process and return home?
Many ex-expats talk of their reverse culture shock of finding themselves back ‘home’, finding it almost as alien as if it were an altogether foreign country.When you first get back, you’ll be swept up by adoring family and friends, fed long-loved comfort food and swept through familiar locations. After a few days you’ll start to notice changes in what was once so familiar, and your loved ones will notice changes in you too.
They’ll notice your accent, vocabulary and mannerisms have changed, and you’ll realise how out of touch you are with popular culture, politics and gossip. A few more days and you won’t be able to avoid noticing just how strange things at ‘home’ are compared to your overseas life.
Returning expats find themselves distraught that the country they looked forward to returning to so much has changed so that they hardly recognize it. They are also struggling with cravings for food only available overseas and attempting to shake off the habits they tried so hard to acquire when first landing abroad.
If you’re an expat looking to return home any time soon, brace yourself for a jolt of culture shock and a confusing dose of homesickness.
We’ve scoured through reports and anecdotes from returning expats to find what gave them the most trouble when trying to pick up where they left off with their old lives. Our list runs through the most commonly reported symptoms of reverse homesickness: what did they miss most? What shocked them the most? How did they re-adapt?
Homesickness is a tough condition to beat at the best of times, and it’s even worse when you are supposedly at home when it strikes.
We get passionate about food. We celebrate with it, seduce each other with it, binge on it when we’re feeling down and celebrate it as a symbol of national identity. Brits will mumble their way through God Save The Queen but will proudly sing the praises of a Full English Breakfast. The French will fiercely defend their cheese and Australians will force everyone to try vegemite.
So it might seem odd that returning expats turn their nose up at their national dish and old favourites, but expats do miss their foreign favourites.
After spending time living abroad, you’ll have developed a taste for unusual flavours and become used to a range of dishes that are just not available in their authentic form back home. “Getting the wide range of Chinese food back home is almost impossible,” writes Katie Burkhardt for echinacities.com.
She says, “[Even] if we find an authentic Chinese restaurant, it will likely serve up the standard fare and ignore the many local delicacies which we have come to love and hate with equal measure.”
Every country has a different approach to making life easy, whether it’s having assistants to put fuel in the car for you or postmen who will take letters from you as well as delivering them. Anyone who’s negotiated a foreign public transport system will have realised just how different a simple transaction can be.
But those differences will have become the norm to you, and the first time you run into the old way of doing things will be a jarring shock. After a few years of socially dining on fine cuisine, Americans returning from France and Italy are astounded by the ubiquity of drive-through restaurants. Anyone coming back from China will bemoan the lack of services that will deliver just about anything to your door. Paying for items after spending time in the UK can be confusing as the deal can no longer be done by simply waving a credit card toward the till.
Some expats make big investments in making their lives easier overseas. In many parts of the world household help can be hired at little cost, giving expats the freedom to forego domestic drudgery in favour of recreation. Most expats returning from such locations will have to get used to doing their own ironing again.
This might not be true for every expat. A beer in Iceland can cost over USD$8, so getting back to a stateside bar will be a welcome return. But there will be many items that returning expats have to remind themselves are considerably more pricey than there are used to.
Food, clothing, music, books, cab rides and dozens of other products vary wildly from country to country, with import tariffs and government taxes affecting the retail cost. So even after just a few months of living with another currency, returning expats often struggle to adjust to working with different coins and their relative values.
Fuel is an item that causes concern among many return expats. In many countries gasoline is subsidised, in others it is heavily taxed, so filling up your tank can empty your wallet at vastly different rates.
Products you just can’t get
Of course, there are items that returning expats just can’t get.
Brands of beer or chocolate, seasonal fruit and spices for making your new favourite dish can all be noticeably absent from the supermarket shelves of home.
Ronschott, an American who spent time in London, noted that it was the humblest of products that we missed the most, “We have sandwiches in the states, but the English’s sandwich game is on POINT,” he wrote for Buzzfeed. “You can get delicious sandwiches just about anywhere you happen to be. We’re not talking 7-11 three-day old sandwiches, we’re talking delicious (and even good for you) sandwiches literally stacked to the ceiling.”
We all get quickly addicted to technology and miss it when these gadgets aren’t available, too. Portable battery chargers for mobile phones, robotic toilets and universal wifi signal have all given expats withdrawal symptoms at some point. But good ideas spread around the world, so many unique products will eventually circle the globe and find their way back to you.
Living overseas can be a lively, energetic parade of the new and exciting. Every day can include a trip to see something, a chance to taste a new dish or explore a new part of town.
Even with the pressures of an expat job and a family to look after, most overseas workers make time to explore their surroundings and soak up the vibrant, diverse culture in which they live. Suddenly arriving back in the grey, drab and familiar world from which they previously escaped can be a shock to the system for many expats.
Maria, who blogs at iwasanexpatwife.com, writes of a friend called Kat who returned to her native Vancouver after five years in Bangkok. “Life lost that excitement, the zing and joyfulness [Kat] experienced living abroad,” Maria writes. “Life in Canada was predictable, sterile and boring. There weren’t opportunities to ride sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike down a hot, dusty road or to watch the sun set from the top of an ancient temple.”
Coming back home and seeing how sedate life is, and how reluctant family and friends are to embrace adventure or opportunity, can be a frustration that drives expats overseas again.
Old habits die hard
From saying “Danke” to a confused London cabbie or bowing to your boss in the morning, there will be lots of embarrassing moments where your behaviour would be perfectly normal overseas, but is out of place at home.
There are a lot of social norms that may be completely different between cultures. Give a Finn a time to meet and he’ll be there on the dot, though his friend who lives in Barcelona may turn up ten minutes late. Tipping in restaurants will see a once blasé Brit carefully crunching numbers to work out the exact gratuity.
What is considered polite varies from country to country. Holding doors, blowing noses, shaking hands and removing shoes can be the biggest insults or a must-do ritual. It can be a confusing process to switch abruptly from one to the other.
Although you won’t have to learn again from scratch how to negotiate basic social interactions and retail transactions, you may subconsciously find yourself slipping between languages and traditions.
The pace of life
It may seem that life is suddenly on fast-forward, or has come to a shuddering halt.
If you’ve been living in rural Italy, the sights, sounds and smells of a busy metropolis will be overwhelming and disorientating. If you’re used to the frenzy of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, anywhere will seem sleepy and sedate.
The relative difference in pace of life between one country and another is a cause of culture shock on the outward journey and is just as likely to cause drama upon return.
You’ll have met some interesting characters.
Whether they became firm friends or casual acquaintances, the locals could have been helpful, awful or just plain amusing. You’ll have been confused by their habits and amazed by their generosity. They’ll have been annoyed at the foreigner who gets confused by simple things and astounded by the things the same person said of their country.
You’ll have had a strange relationship with the people you shared meals with, bumped into on the street and argued with about the price of produce. Months and years later you will suddenly recall their faces, voices and habits as if they were standing in front of you.
Keep in contact with friends, they were your surrogate family and you will miss them in a very real way. The same people represent a tangible link to your time overseas and can help you bring context to the awkwardness of being at home again.
Katie Burkhardt, writing about her return from China for echinacities.com, said,” I’ll definitely miss all the random relationships I’ve developed with everyone from security guards to minivan drivers.”
Getting stares on the street, compliments on your appearance and even being stopped for photographs. In some countries, being foreign is instant celebrity status. You may or may not miss the hassle, but you’ll surely notice the change.
Expats enjoy a certain amount of privilege in many countries. Their spending power and status as outsiders gives them an elevated position and access to the best a country has to offer.
Expats are also forgiven for a multitude of sins. From poor manners to drunken revelry, expats can always play the ‘I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed’ card and get away with most misdemeanours.
The biggest culture shock we suffer from when we land in another country is the overwhelming immersion in a foreign language. Even getting out of the airport can be a challenge as signs, announcements and airport staff all insist on using vocabulary alien to us.
The same thing happens in reverse when we return. Everything is in a familiar script and everything can be understood. It becomes difficult to filter out the meaningful from the background noise; you’ll find yourself listening in to private conversations just because your ears are honing into familiar sounds they haven’t heard in so long.
It works the other way too. Australian students recently returned from studying in Japan happily discussed personal details on the subway, forgetting that the rest of the passengers could understand them. You may have come to enjoy the secrecy afforded by speaking a foreign language that isn’t widely understood.
After a few months, just as you’re getting used to filtering out the onslaught of familiar language, you’ll overhear a snippet of a conversation in the tongue you spent so long trying to learn and it’ll all come flooding back.
What did you find difficult about moving back home? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer