3 December 2013

5 Tips Part III. Going Home.

I've been dreading this post. I am world's worst Ex-expat. As evidenced by my awkwardness every time we go home. I'm not good with transitions. I've talked about it before and already made a list about this lesser-known culture shock. But really, I've never made the big move home. We go back to the States for a few weeks every summer. It's hard. I have no answers. I still don't know how to do it. Here's what kind of works for me.

1.  Pretend you're SCUBA diving.

You know how SCUBA divers have to surface very slowly and take decompression stops on the way back up? Do that. Take lots of decompression stops. Surface slowly. Or you'll get the bends. Otherwise known as a teary meltdown in the middle of Target when faced with too many options for cold medicine. Hypothetically speaking.

There are so many friends to see and family meals to have, but really, just pause. Breathe. Do something slow and normal and un-jarring to the system with your husband and/or children who are also on this back-and-forth adventure with you. Sitting and watching TV works. Take time off from social engagements. Plan to regroup often between shopping and hamburger dinners out. (Because this is mostly what we do in the States.)

The concept of stopping really hit us during our last visit home at one of those overstimulating/catch-up with everyone/family and friends picnics. A relative who also happens to be a European expat living in the United States said, "Listen, we'd love to have you guys over to catch-up, but we're not going to. Relax with your children instead." Ohdeargodthankyou. It's wonderful being with old friends, but take decompression stops on the way back to reality.

Slowly coming up for air.

2. You'll never really be a local again.

For some people this is a very big deal. You've felt like a stick-out, sore thumb, foreigner for a long time now. You've looked forward to going back home where you fit in and belong. But sometimes that doesn't happen. Once a 15-year-old expat, Indian kid told me, "In Congo everybody knows I'm a foreigner so I can't get a bargain. Then I go back to India, and look at me! They know I don't live there either. There's no where on this planet I'm charged local price."

I took this as a very deep and profound statement from a Third Culture Kid on the cultural complexities of his unique identity. I think he literally meant that he (or his parents more likely) couldn't get cheap video games. Either way, there may be an adjustment period before fitting in again. See Tip 1, above. Or it may never happen.

3. There are no good questions.

Lots of people will ask questions. I don't know if any of them ever lead to an honest answer. I have no idea what kind of question could. I've thought about this a lot. Even I, living this life, have zero ideas for inspiring someone to talk authentically about their experience abroad. So how was Serbia? Was it cold? Wasn't there a war there at one time or another? This is the extent of my ability to ask good questions after someone has returned.

A few visits home ago, Adam returned from one of those quick after church chit-chats and said, "Wow, that person asked some great questions. I had to really think about my answers." Really!? What were they!? What did they ask!? I was excited to be close to the holy grail of the perfect question. He couldn't remember. 5 minutes after his amazing conversation. Awesome.

Honestly, I only remember one question we've ever been asked. It's a clear winner. Adam and I arrived in Portland late one night and hopped in a cab to get to our hotel. The cab driver was unbelievably friendly and obviously, completely stoned. It was a long ride. It came up in conversation that we lived in the Congo. There was a long pause. Then he shouted, "Holy f***ing shit. You live in the Congo!? What's the craziest f***ing thing you've ever seen?" His enthusiasm overwhelmed us. We had no idea what to say to keep from disappointing him. (See Tip 4 below.) We fumbled. I don't know what we said. We probably made something up. But he didn't care. When we got to our hotel he gave us a deal on cab fare and offered us pot because he was so excited we lived in the f***ing Congo. For sure, the best response we've ever received.

4. There are no good answers.  

To use Congo as an example, here's how it usually goes when I answer questions:

Question: So how's Congo?

Bad answer: Oh it's great, we really like it. (I mean wait, it's not great. It's the poorest country and rape capital of the world. I shouldn't mislead this person.)

Worse answer: Well, it's not really that great. I mean it's great for us, but bad for locals. It's a really bad place, but we like it. (What am I saying?! That is the worst answer ever. Just stop talking.)

Question: Have you seen an Okapi?   

Bad answer: No, but I wish.

Question: Have you visited Goma?

Bad answer: No, it would be great to go.

Question: How about malaria? Ever had malaria?

Bad answer: No, sorry. Gosh I'm really striking out here...

Insightful question: Wait. Do you actually live in the Congo? Because it seems like you know nothing and have seen nothing.

Good point.

It works best to prepare a statement of 20 words or less that entertains the question-asker, authentically describes your experience and is something you can repeat with interest over and over again. Good luck.

P.S. Be sure to keep it short. At the end of the day. Nobody really cares. Really or truly cares.

5. You might not be different. Your socks might not be knocked off. 

Recently a great friend, who I've never actually met in real life, returned with her family from living abroad. Someone asked:

How are you different? Are you different now?

This is actually an awesome question. (Scratch Tip 3.) And she has a really great answer. (Scratch Tip 4. See, I told you I don't actually know anything.) She writes all about it here.

The bottom line is that you might not be different. You might not be changed. You might not be newly inspired to take care of stray kittens. This doesn't mean your experience was pointless.

When I thought about it, I don't think I'm much different either. I feel like I'm just more of an authentic version of myself. Then I read the rest of her post. Gosh darnit! That's her answer too. So here I am, still struggling to find my authentic yet interesting answer. The problem is, the longer I do this, the less I know. Wait. Maybe that's my most authentic answer. Yeah, I'll go with that.

Stealing Mama Minutia's thoughts and photos. Seriously, check out the post.

Dear readers: Please help! What tips do you have for this bizarre adjustment?

And in case you missed it: 5 Tips Part I: Before you go. 5 Tips Part II: After you get there.


  1. I love this series! Wish you had "the" question to ask though! I'm always so curious about people's international experiences but it's hard to ask questions that lead to an interesting discussion of the experience.

  2. Whenever we get ready to hit up North America, I prepare a one-sentence answer to the inevitable, "So how's Africa?!" Since we've been here almost 6 years, I change it up a little depending on how things are going at the moment or which country we're currently docked in (the other Congo at the moment). Once I deliver that response, 95% of the time I'm done, and the person I'm talking to goes on to share about their life. The other 5% (these are rough numbers are change a bit depending on which circle of friends/acquaintances I'm around) will have follow-up questions. I find that not forcing it makes for an easier time all around. If someone just wants to talk about themselves, I'm totally fine with that, and it saves us both the uncomfortable experience of not knowing what to say.

    I find that taking time by myself early on in the visit to go and wander around a store like Target for an hour or so really helps me re-immerse myself into US culture. I get stressed out if I'm there with someone else and need to buy something in particular (yogurt's been my downfall in the past), but if I can just poke around aimlessly I find it helps me kind of reset. I just had my Target time this afternoon, and it was lovely.

    1. Exactly! I always find it amazing when such unique experiences are in fact universal. And I totally agree a solo trip to Target is good for repatriation. I wonder if Target is aware of this crucial role they play in our expat lives.

  3. In 1959 we returned to Kalona on home leave. At the first evening meal one of the family asked a question about Karachi. Immediately after my very brief answer, someone said,"by the way, so and so's boy Joy married whatstheirnames girl Mary and it went on from there. I know that the Menno audience has become much more sophisticated now.

    My boys, then 6 and four told their Harrisonburg Lehman cousins about the Pathans. (We had a bearded Pathan night watchman who had a large knife and made, according to them better chapatis than cook). They made up a tale about the Pathans were vicious and cut up children to make germacki noodles which they ate for supper. Needless to say their little cousins were bug-eyed. You'll have to keep an eye on your lovelies in a couple of years.:-)


    1. Well if that story isn't entertaining, I don't know what is!

  4. For me, getting back into a routine helped, and starting medical school within 2 days of moving home had a magical way of distracting me from being overly pensive and weird about my return from a year in Greece. Although I would not recommend this transition for most people, something similar might help (stupidly taking on a new language, for example.) Still, I always think about going back.

  5. I just wanted to say that I wholeheartedly agree with this post and it definitely made me laugh out loud a few times. I live in Panamá and very very rarely go home because it makes me feel so uncomfortable.

    Unfortunately I don't have any good advice to share other than make sure that you plan LOTS of time when you go home to be able to see everyone necessary and do all your shopping/eating specialized food that could never be found nor recreated where you live/catching up on tv shows/sleeping in a bed fit for a king and other very important things that should not be missed out on.

  6. This time around, my need to talk about our experience has been greatly minimized. There are two reasons for this, I think.

    1. My immediate family has risen in importance over extended family. There are six of us, and all of us experienced it. We understand the experience differently, of course, but now there is a whole little group of people who understands what I'm talking about when I say "microbus" or "market" or "Carcha." It's a sweet comfort.

    2. The blog. I wrote hard and steady about many of our experiences and observations and struggles. Quite a few people have followed along and as a result have a pretty good clue. You'd think we'd all be operating at a higher jumping off place, conversationally (and sometimes we are), but usually it feels about the same. The only difference is that I don't have a burning desire to explain. It's nice.

    P.S. I loved, loved, loved this post. It's my favorite of the series by far. You nailed it.

    1. The blog thing is so true! I credit my blog as the single biggest reason I have an easy time slipping between countries and cultures these days. If someone genuinely cares, they've read about it, and we can go from there.

  7. What always gets me is the grocery stores. The abundance of items is just overwhelming. An entire aisle devoted to different kinds of ketchup - REALLY?!?!

  8. "It works best to prepare a statement of 20 words or less that entertains the question-asker, authentically describes your experience and is something you can repeat with interest over and over again. Good luck."

    This is exactly what I do when I visit home! Most people just want to hear you had a great time and are doing well. It seems like only my dad wants to see every picture and hear about every detail (which I love to indulge) but couldn't do more than a couple times, at most. Most people like talking about themselves or something we have in common, which is totally fine by me because I'm there to see THEM. Going home is great; leaving home is great, too!


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