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The Journey Home after Living Abroad

Ways to Make Cultural Re-Entry Easier

You’ve taken the trip and lived in a new culture. On the flight home, you may think the adventure is over. But returning after months or years away can actually be tougher than taking leave of your new friends—a huge culture shock all its own.

No one told me that it would take me years to recover from living overseas. In fact, I’m not sure that I will ever really recover—or that I want to. Even after five years back in the U.S., I still miss the smells and sounds of the bay at St. Kilda in Melbourne, and I find many elements of my life in the U.S. a bit strange.

My friend Michael, who spends months of each year in Russia, says that after every return, with the exception of a few days of initial elation at the faces and comforts of home, he is depressed. He quickly becomes restless with the sameness of everyday life in the U.S.

“I find it difficult to come back,” he says, “because I really miss the stimulation. Overseas, the daily chores, because of the different cultural situation, require effort. Here, life is automatic.” He says he copes with the depression and feelings of dislocation by immediately planning his next sojourn abroad.

Coming Home: Years of life in Australia and elsewhere gave me mental flexibility, a sensitivity to cultural differences, and a way of seeing the world that I wouldn’t trade for any missed opportunity at home. But, looking back, I could have made my reentry into life into the U.S. a bit easier. Being forewarned would have helped me understand the topsy-turvy world I returned to.

Let’s start with a book I wish I had read, if not before moving to Australia at least before coming home. Craig Storti, a Peace Corps veteran and cross-cultural consultant, writes about the return process in The Art of Coming Home. He examines the stages of re-entry, focusing on employees, spouses, and children, as well as such special populations as exchange students and provides lists of practical advice on how returnees, friends, and families can make the process easier.

Leave-taking: The first stage of re-entry is leave-taking and departure. The end of my stay in Australia had been punctuated with both formal and informal gatherings; however, I didn’t realize that I had not said my real good-byes to the country that had been my home for more than five years or to the friends who had been my family. My sadness over my departure eclipsed some of the excitement for me in the next stage Storti identifies, the homecoming.

The Honeymoon: In the second stage, you’re wrapped up in the excitement of becoming reacquainted with friends and family. The length of the honeymoon depends on the person and the experience. Mine was very short, colored by such necessities as starting a new job, getting a new driver’s license, buying a car, and learning how the culture had changed in my absence. I moved rapidly into that feeling of being on the margins, of not really fitting in, of comparing home with abroad and being overwhelmed at every turn. I also had to settle quickly into an environment where my international experiences were considered unimportant and were often misunderstood.

As I read The Art of Coming Home, I learned that I was not alone, that in fact many returnees felt as I felt: confused, frustrated, even disgusted. Even after living in a city environment down under, I had to reacclimate to so many cars, so many malls, so many channels, so many choices.

For another friend, Gary, who had lived in the Middle East, the shock of coming home from countries with virtually nothing compared to the U.S. with its vast array of consumer goods hit hard on his first trip to a grocery store: “I have this distinct, if dazed, memory of standing in a long aisle of a seemingly infinite selection of toilet paper—one-ply versus two-ply, plain white versus flowered, smooth versus quilted, generic versus gourmet. It seems silly now, but I was stunned. Any toilet paper had been such a luxury a day earlier.”

Home Has Also Changed

Life has also changed for your friends and family while you were away, and your “exotic” experiences are not as immediate to them as they are to you. Learn to share in small doses and to ask friends and family about their lives, too. Talk with them about what has changed and let them know you may have a knowledge gap about changes that they could help you fill. Find new friends from your overseas “home” to keep the connections you built on your trip. To this day, I email my Australian friends and colleagues, work with Australian students studying in the U.S., and send student interns to Melbourne and Sydney.

Your life-changing experience may lead you to loudly voice your dissatisfaction with your own culture as if to carve a new country-of-the-mind on your home turf. My advice is to go easy on “The U.S. is a mindless temple of plastic consumerism” complaints. You are still suffering aftershocks, so don’t alienate your friends with such pronouncements. Instead, try to integrate the insights of your experience abroad with the best aspects of being grounded in your native land; remember all the positive lessons of that transition from home to abroad and back again.

Readjustment: In Returning Home, Craig Storti writes that sooner or later all returnees will reach the final stage of re-entry—readjustment. How long does it take to get to this stage of re-entry? There’s no real time frame. Much of the readjustment depends on how long you were abroad, where you lived, how old you are, and how many entry and re-entry experiences you’ve had.

Five years later I still fight hard to maintain the “Aussie” bits of my identity—and the other perspectives I have gained in my travels since my long stay abroad—while cherishing the new “take” that all my experience gives me on my life.