“The process of coming home after living abroad is simple and stress free.”
This is a quote from NO ONE . . . EVER.
At least no one who has ever actually attempted the fine, fine art of repatriation. As a follow up to “Leaving Well: 10 Tips” I wanted to add some thoughts about what happens after the plane lands. Prepping for your departure and closing out your expat experience before you leave is SO important. It is also fully exhausting. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and parentally (if applicable) EX – HAUST – ING.
Here’s the kicker. The only buffer between the exhaustion of the last thing and the exhaustion of the next thing is the trip between the two.
Bonus tip A: Take the longest flight you can find.
Sooner or later though . . . you have to land.
Here are ten tips for Landing Well.
Tip #1: Plan the After Party
It is perfectly fair for the people who love you and have missed you to want to celebrate your homecoming. Depending on your personality and, quite frankly, the personalities of the people who love and missed you these reunions can range from refreshing and wonderful to overwhelming and painful. Generally some mix of all of those.
Bonus tip B: Brace for Paradox
The initial “woohoos” are survivable. The dinners, the hugging, the slightly offensive jokes about that place that you called home less than a week ago . . . you can do it. You might even enjoy it and even if you don’t, it will be over soon enough.
The bigger issue is what do you do next?
I recommend taking a timeout. Plan some time to process the reality of your new life. Detox from the experience of back to back goodbyes and hellos in the context of high anxiety and jetlag. Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath and enjoy a very, very select group of people restricted to you, your family (who are also transitioning) and people from tip #2.
Granted, time off or away can be cost and schedule prohibitive but this is a worthwhile investment if you can do it. It could be two days locked up at home or two weeks on a beach. However you do it you’ll be much more ready to start figuring out what normal looks like when you’ve taken a break.
Tip #2: Know Your Safe Havens
Some people just get it. They get you. Often (but not always) they’ve been right where you are and they can still feel your pain. They understand the paradox of what you are feeling and they are eager to help you through the process.
You need to know who those people are. They’re the ones who will keep you sane.
Here’s what to look for:
- They ask questions that they actually want to know the answers to. Then they ask more questions.
- They understand (instead of assuming) what is going on inside of you.
- They listen to your stories without thinking up a better one while you talk.
- They share great stories at the right time and it’s helpful.
- They understand that you can still love your country and be overwhelmed by it at the same time.
- They roll their eyes with you more than at you.
Just a few thoughts to help you spot them but you’ll know them when they come around. Spend time with these people. It will be as energizing as it is therapeutic.
Tip #3: Pace Yourself
There is something sweetly unique about the first few months after landing. You’ve missed so much and now you’re back. You can read. You know the language. It’s pretty normal to be excited about your new found accessibility. You may also find yourselves needing to restock your lives. We sold everything when we went to China. Then we sold everything again when we came back. We felt like we had a lot of catching up to do. Maybe you will too but you don’t have to do it all at once.
Specifically (but not restricted to) these 3 areas:
- Food: No matter how long it’s been since you’ve had a good cheeseburger, you don’t have to eat them all right now. Pace yourself.
- Money: You will get into trouble quick if you try to catch up immediately with what your friends have accumulated while you were away. Pace yourself. Just for a while.
Bonus Tip C: Enjoy the freedom of a season with less stuff.
- Time: Everything takes longer in transition. You can’t do everything you want to right away. Take your time and focus your attention where it is needed. You’ll get there, but pace yourself.
Read more about that here: Rock, Paper, Scissors: Helping Kids Thrive in Transition
Tip #4: Do a Values Inventory
“What are the top ten most important things in your life and why?”
You are not alone if your answer to that question shifted while you lived abroad. Seeing your own culture from an outside perspective changes things. It doesn’t mean you’ve let go of your high values but you may have discovered that some pieces weren’t really as vital as you once felt they were.
I’m being vague on purpose. Maybe that’s not fair.
- How about your politics? What happened when you saw how other parts of the world feel about your country?
- What about your faith? How did worshipping in a different context (maybe even a different language) shake or strengthen the perspective you had always known?
I could go on . . .
- How did living in community impact how you discipline your kids?
- How did witnessing poverty rock your world?
- How did your experience change how you view education?
- How did falling in love with nationals destroy your stereotypes?
- How did studying a new language give you empathy?
- How did living abroad change your paradigm of the world?
It happens. You are really not alone.
However, this is the tough part . . . Your friends who stayed right where they were, probably didn’t experience the same shift. Why would they?
Do you see the potential for friction here? You are so wise.
Taking inventory of your highest values and how they have shifted will prepare you for interacting with people. Knowing what is really important will give you a good sense of which conversations are best ignored and which one merit speaking up.
Bonus Tip D: Fight Feelings of Enlightenment
Tip #5: Allow People a Frame of Reference
“Wow, that is a really cool story about China. That’s just like when I went to France in high school.”
Nope. It’s not.
People have a frame of reference for anything different than their norm based on the most similar part of their own experience. They will get as close as they can but sometimes . . . “nope.”
Repeat after me, “It’s ok.”
Their frame may be horribly off but so is yours . . . about something. Try talking to a nuclear physicist (unless you are one). “Wow, that’s a great story about nuclear fusion. That’s just like when I dropped the mentos in some diet coke.”
Nope. It’s not.
You can see these interactions as a chance to politely broaden a frame of reference or just get irritated. The first one is better for your blood pressure.
Bonus Tip E: Not everyone wants to have their frame broadened. Repeat after me, “It’s ok.”
Tip #6: It’s OK to Love Two Places
“Man, I don’t know how you lived over there. I bet you’re glad to be home.”
I think this (frequently shared) statement can be more internally conflicting and frankly hard to respond to than any other.
I am so glad to be home but I was so glad to be there as well. There were some hard parts about living there but there are some hard parts about living here too. There were a lot of days “over there” that I missed home but there are days here when I feel something remarkably similar.
Loving where you lived as an expat doesn’t mean you love your homeland even the slightest bit less. Don’t feel guilty when you feel homesick at home.
Tip #7: Smooth Does Not Equal Easy
I see a LOT of people in transition. I teach this stuff. I know what a rough transition looks like. Ours has not been that. In fact ours has been as smooth as they come.
We had phenomenal Safe Havens who set us up and took care of everything we could ever need. They found our apartment, stocked it with food and furniture, picked us up at the airport, celebrated us, let us hide, listened to our stories and shared their own. Since then we have made other great relationships. We have a great church, our kids are in great schools getting great grades and making great friends. Zero major challenges. Which is also great.
And yet. It has still been hard.
We’ve needed to learn a new city while we figure out how to be American again. We’ve been overwhelmed by the cereal aisle and disgusted by the evening news. Some days . . . lots of days . . . we feel completely out of place. Like foreigners in a very familiar land.
Smooth is a good deal. We’ll take it. If you get the chance, you should too. But know going in that smooth doesn’t equal easy.
Tip #8: Swim Upstream
There is a looming fear in so many returning expats (myself included) that we will somehow slip back into the people that we were before this wonderful experience. It’s a fear that we might just get caught up in the hype and the rat race of “normal” life to the point that we forget about how we have been changed.
- A fear that I will view my nations politics as more viable and important than any other nations.
- A fear that I will forget about what its like to worship with people from all over the world.
- A fear that I will revert to my stereotypes and my previous frame of reference.
- A fear that I’ll never learn Chinese again because I don’t need to.
- A fear that my kids will only see poverty on TV and never learn to empathize.
- A fear that we will forget how to need other people because we are so freakishly independent.
- A fear of becoming typical.
The harsh reality is. These fears are legit.
Left alone there is a high chance that all of these things will happen. My encouragement to you (and to myself) is to make decisions and then RESOLVE to make them happen.
Maintaining expat relationships . . . doesn’t just happen.
Traveling back . . . costs a lot of money.
Learning more language . . . not much motivation.
Needing people . . . harder than just doing it on my own.
Whatever it is that you want to hold onto will be a conscious and intentional decision followed up by a solid bit of determination. Swim upstream.
Tip #9: It’s a Better Adventure Than a Struggle
Do I really need to explain that one?
Bonus Tip F: Perspective changes everything.
Tip #10: Grace – Give it Freely and Keep Some for Yourself
- When someone says, “you lived in Japan? My neighbor is Korean.” Give her some grace.
- When someone says, “you lived in Germany? Heil Hitler!” Give him some grace.
- When someone says, “you lived in China? Oh my gosh, were you persecuted?” Grace.
- When someone says, “you lived in Africa? That is so cool, say something in African.” Grace.
- When no one says anything, and you really wish they would. Grace.
- When you snap, or cry, or crawl into a hole . . . it’s for you too . . . Give yourself some grace.
Landing is hard . . . sometimes because it was supposed to be easy. As you leave and after you land grace is key.
Bonus tip G: Grace Again (worth repeating)
If you are packing up or already home, I hope this helps.
If you are welcoming friends who are returning home . . . read #2
If you know someone who is packing up or transitioning now, please pass this on.
If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy. Add your tips. What worked for you?
One more for those you who always say goodbye and never leave – Staying Well: 10 Tips for Expats Who are Left Behind