Oasis Magazine Articles

Home Sweet Home?

By Marijke van Liemt

May 21, 2012

The new appointment is in, and you are going home! You might feel relieved that you are going back to a place you know, where you speak the language and where you will be able to see you childhood friends and family on a more regular basis. Or you might be dreading to go back there, to leave the excitement of international live, the traveling, the free time and the climate.

Whatever you are feeling, moving back home is often one of the most challenging moves in your expatriate career. Even if you are not excited to go back, you still expect that you know the ins and outs of your own country. You grew up and went to school there, and you know where the supermarkets are. Every summer you were back home, and you are up to date with the developments and trends there. So what can be difficult about moving back?

From outsider to insider (or not?)

The first big difference when you move back ‘home’ is that overnight you change from ‘outsider’ of the culture to ‘insider’. Or at least, that is how the outside world looks at you. They do not know that you lived at the other end of the world for the past ten years. And the many little things that did change will surprise you. They might be simple things as how you pay for a bus ticket or parking spot. But other not so obvious things have changed as well. Friends of ours moved back home after ten years in the Middle East. They had a wonderful time there and made good friends with local families. They were shocked by the remarks about Islam, Muslims and the Middle East in their home country. During their time abroad the political climate had changed, and they were caught off guard. 

You have changed during your time away, and so have your friends. Events in the countries you lived in, exposure to new cultures and people have all influenced how you look at the world and what you consider ‘normal’. And this is probably different from what is considered ‘normal’ back home. You will make cultural mistakes, but when you expect them it is easier to brush them off, laugh about them and move on. But when you don’t, these incidents will throw you off balance and affect your self-esteem.

You win some, you lose some

When you move back home, you often lose the ‘international lifestyle’ and the diverse group of friends you made. Many of these friends you have known only for a short time, but you have been very close. Making new friends at home is often more difficult. People have their lives, and they are not used to making friends in a short period. They are not moving every two to three years, so why the rush?  You need to take time, and use a different strategy when building friendships.

Libby Stephens (see insert) has a great communication tip for expats: tell stories with dates not places! When I try to remember something we did as a family, I rewind a movie of several countries in my head. And a story might start with “when we were in Brazil, or was it the US? Oh no, it was Vienna. Anyway we went …..”.  I don’t think in years, I think in countries. The place is often not relevant to the story, but the location tells me when it was. But for people who have lived in one place all their lives, this sounds like I am trying to show off how wonderfully international I am. 

In your home country, you most likely will find more long-term stability. The friends you make will not be moving next year, you can hold on to your job and you can make plans for the future. But you will have lost the flexibility and unpredictability of expatriate life. For some, that is a blessing but for others the constant change and subsequent chaos was addictive and fun. 

Be prepared!

Whatever you feel about your upcoming move back home, the best way to deal with the transition is to prepare yourself (and your family). Treat your home country as another new place. Go out and explore, and look at your home country through your new eyes. Suspend judgment like you would in another country, and allow yourself to make mistakes. Experience the culture as something new, and don’t evaluate what you see. Just take it all in and learn how things are done back home. Give yourself time to settle in and do not expect to be up and running within a month and mix the good things of the cultures you lived in with the positive things back home to create your third culture family traditions. Have a safe trip back! 

For children, your home might not be their home

You might (think you are) going home, your kids might feel very different about their passport country. If they have lived abroad for most of their lives, ‘home’ is another new country for them. Libby Stephens is a Third Culture Kid consultant who works with families and international schools. She describes ‘going home’ as the third stage in the development of a third culture kid (‘TCK’): The Hidden Immigrant

“It has been my experience in the 25+ years of working with Third Culture Kids that the Hidden Immigrant stage is the most difficult and painful part of the evolutionary journey. The TCK returns to his passport country and sees people who look like him, speak the same language, dress like him but at the same time they are nothing like him. Interests are different, experiences rarely intersect and neither the Third Culture Kid nor the Mono-Cultural Kid find much to say to each other.

Unknowingly, they have embarked on a cross-cultural situation. But this is a cross-cultural experience like no other. Prior to this stage most cross-cultural encounters have been obvious. It may be skin color, language, clothing, etc. that set the TCK apart from the mono-culturals around him. But when the TCK returns to his passport culture most of the differences are beneath the surface and are rarely seen. But when they are, they are often looked at as strange quirks at best at worst socially slow or under developed. In either case, the child is known not as a TCK but rather a person who is socially out of step.

During this stage many TCKs begin to question their identity and to wonder where if anywhere they belong. It is not surprising to see TCKs embrace the TCK label at this stage when they may have disregarded it before returning to their passport country. Why? Because for many TCKs this is the first time they have spent a prolonged period of time in their passport country.  It is no longer a holiday place…they live there.  For the first time, reality hits that citizenship and cultural belonging are not the same.

Potential pitfalls during the Hidden Immigrant stage:

  1. Deep loneliness
  2. Being trapped in the past
  3. Overly critical of the passport country
  4. Habitual anger and bitterness
  5. Depression

It is true that most of these 5 issues may happen during the early part of the Hidden Immigrant stage and must be worked through, but it can become unhealthy and potentially dangerous if any of these become a permanent feature in the TCK’s life.

For more information on TCK’s go to: www.libbystephens.com

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