Receiving Well: Eleven Tips for Helping Expats Come Home

Landed 1Ok this is awkward.

There’s a solid chance that the demographic which might best benefit from this post (and the brilliance in the comments that follow {hint}) will never see it.

If you are welcoming a beloved friend or family member back into your life, after an extended amount of time in a faraway land, I can’t imagine that you’re scouring the internet for ways to do it well.  Why would you?  What’s to figure out?

Ummm . . . hug them?

Jump up and down?

I don’t really need a blog to tell me that.

Fair enough.

AND — If you are coming to the end of your time as a foreigner you may be itching to send this ahead . . . but how would that look?

“Hey! Can’t wait to see you in just 14 more days!  Oh and please read these tips for welcoming me home . . . just don’t want you to mess that up . . . kay? . . . Love ya.”

So at the risk of writing a post that will never be read here are 10 Tips for welcoming your homecomers home.

You can read the rest of the Expat Exodus series here (that’s not a tip . . . I’m just sayin’) —

 

Tip #1:  You are Incredible

Not so much a tip as an observation but hang with me for just a moment.

People who live away from “home” for long periods of time miss people (there should be no new information here). It’s one of the hardest parts about being away.  Dozens, hundreds, thousands of times, while they were gone, they wished that they could share special moments with the people they love.  You were the one they thought about on their loneliest days and in their darkest hours.  You were who they missed

A quick snapshot into their brain . . . they didn’t miss the mean people or the annoying people nearly as much .  They missed the incredible people.  That’s you.

These people whom you are picking up from the airport or bringing a meal or even attending a party for are incredibly excited to be reunited with some of their favorite, incredible people.

Here’s the tip:  This is your chance to become even more incredible.  Returning home is a high stress, high joy, high intensity time that will be burned into these peoples memories for life.  Why not earn your spot in that story.  Just be yourself.  You’re already incredible.

 

Tip #2:  Homecomers are People

The profundity abounds.  I know.

Here’s the thing.  There are no cookie cutters here.  People handle transition differently.  The hardcore extraverts may be secretly longing for a surprise parade in the airport parking lot while the introverts vomit at the thought of seeing more than three people in their first week home.

There is no easy to follow checklist that applies equally to all homecomers.  Even the tips in this post (say it isn’t so) need to be run through the filter of “Who are these people and what makes them click?” and then “What have they been through that may be relevant here?”

Bonus tip 1:  You know them.  Use that well.

Bonus tip 2:  You don’t know them — at least not like you think you do.  Transition does weird things to people.  So does jet lag.  So does spending significant time in a different country.  Don’t assume too much.

 

Tip #3:  Celebrate Good Times (Come on)

Important note – If you skipped Tip #2, go back and read that now.

Remember this:  Everyone wants their homecoming to be celebrated — Not everyone wants a party.

Not every homecomer wants all of their Facebook friends to come together for a surprise party when they arrive.  Come to think of it – no one wants that.  That would be weird.

The big point here is that even if people don’t want to be celebrated . . . they don’t want to not be either.  It’s one of the greatest disappointments for people who come home . . . “I felt like no one noticed.”  Another is, “I felt completely overwhelmed by people.”  It’s a tough balance to strike but it’s worth the effort to custom design a homecoming that leaves them feeling celebrated and lets them breathe appropriately.

Bonus tip 3:  Love them well as soon as they land but let them get through jet lag before you plan group stuff.

 

4.  Be a Safe Haven

It is shocking how many people say that returning to their home country was more challenging than moving to a foreign one in the first place.  I know . . . it makes absolutely no sense but it happens . . . a lot.  It’s supposed to be a homecoming — a joyful reunion — the end of feeling like a foreigner.  But at least when you’re a bona fide foreigner no one expects you to be competent.  When you’re home no one understands why you’re not.

Here’s the good news — You don’t have to understand this to know that it is true.

Homecomers need a place to say ignorant things, ask ignorant questions and genuinely be ignorant without feeling completely incompetent.

Be that safe spot.

Read “Landing Well”  for more about Safe Havens

 

5.  Normal Stuff can be Really Overwhelming

Piggy backing on Tip #4 – You should know about the lurking danger of every day stuff.

Wal-Mart nearly killed me.  For the first time in 7 years my illiteracy buffer was lifted.  I could read every product (ironically made in China), every advertisement and every sleazy tabloid in the store.  It was English overload.  On my way out I saw the picture wall of missing children and compulsively read every single one.  Total breakdown.

I’m no stranger to Wal-Mart but this time . . . after 7 years away . . . was different.

Give your homecoming friends space to freak out about normal things.

Some other things that tend to cause temporary paralysis:

  • The Cereal Aisle
  • Church
  • Patriotic holidays
  • Talk Radio
  • The Evening News
  • Western Food (here we just call it food)

 

6.  Don’t Make Fun of their Other Language as an Ice Breaker

Learning a language can be one of the biggest challenges of life abroad.  Hours with tutors or sitting in classrooms.  Studying, memorizing, software, flash cards, books.  Knowing that you are saying it exactly right only to get a confused stare when you say it to your taxi driver.  Learning, failing, learning again, failing again, faking it and finally getting it right.  Longing to communicate in the heart language of the people who surround you.

Language has been more than a class to them.  It has been the sound of the backdrop of their existence and the necessity for making things happen.

I did this whole process in Chinese for seven years . . . so when I land in America and some well meaning jokester hits me with, “Ahsooo – Me speaka da Chinese . . . Ching chang willy willy bing bang bong” . . . yeah let’s just say it’s not as funny as it sounds in your head.

Whatever the language — don’t belittle it.

Read these to learn more about faking language:

 

Tip #7:  Don’t Reduce Culture to a Stereotype

Piggy backing on Tip #6

I mean this in the nicest possible way.  You are ignorant.

There’s really no nice way to say that is there?  The heart behind it though is to simply say you may not know everything there is to know about everything.  You’re not Wikipedia and you don’t need to be.

The question is not, “are you ignorant?”  We all are.

A better question might be, “Which way are you going to go with that?”

A.  Pretend to know something

or

B. Try to learn something?

World of difference and so relevant for loving on your homecomers.

“A” looks like this – “Welcome back from Australia . . . G’day mate!!  Did you go on a walkabout?” (followed by a punch in the arm and a hearty laugh)

“B” looks like this – “Welcome back, I’m not gonna’ lie I feel like the only things I know about Australia are what I learned on Crocodile Hunter.  Can’t wait to hear your stories.”

“A” assumes that you know something but you just exhausted the full extent of your Australian insight in two seconds.

“B” admits that you know squat but sets you up to broaden your frame of reference.

To the homecomer “A” is irritating, “B” is refreshing.

 

Tip #8:  Homecomers Love to Tell Their Stories.  Let them.

They just had the experience of a lifetime or maybe they crashed and burned.  Either way there are stories to tell and telling them is a valuable part of a healthy homecoming process.  It is SO common for people coming home to feel like no one cares about where they’ve been.

“Wow 28 years in Thailand . . . how was that?”

In other words, “Please sum up 28 years of your life up in a sentence or two, I need to get going.”

You will breathe life into the homecomers transition if you are the person (maybe the only one) who genuinely wants to listen.

  • Hear their stories.
  • Ask them to explain.
  • Ask them how they felt.
  • Ask them how they dealt with it.
  • Ask them what they learned.
  • Ask them how they changed.
  • Ask them what was wonderful.
  • Ask them what was terrible.

Show some interest and don’t roll your eyes when they mention Thailand . . . again.

 

Tip #9:  Some Things Not to Say

“I bet you’re glad to be back”

Surprisingly it can be hard for many homecomers to hear how “happy they must be” to be home.  Not always the case and even if it is the insinuation may feel like “here is good and there is bad.”  Expats and Repats (homecomers) can be ardent defenders of their host lands (even if they hated their experience there).

“Oh that’s like . . . “

There is a glossy look that people get when you tell them a story and they politely wait for you to finish so they can tell you a better one.  Don’t get me wrong, you’re stories are welcome.  However, don’t respond to every story with, “Oh Brazil, that’s just like when we went to Mexico.”

Nope.  It’s not.  Fight the temptation to one-up every story.

“Don’t THEY . . . “

“Don’t they eat dogs in China?  Aren’t they Communist? Don’t they bind women’s feet?  Don’t they know Kung Fu?”

All of them?

THEY is such an inclusive word and your homecomer has had a front row seat to a bigger picture. There is so much more to any question you can ask.  Use questions as a springboard to go deeper and let them share their expertise.  Don’t use questions to confirm that your stereotypes are true.

 

Tip #10  Go Easy on the Politics and Pop Culture

Life is trending right now.  It’s hard to keep up even if you’re right in the middle of it.

Homecomers have been doing life with a different filter for  “what’s important?”  They haven’t been bombarded by local (and by local I mean only what’s happening in your country) politics and they may have zero clue who got famous last month.

Even if they have kept up with the information, there is a difference between knowing information and living in the environment where it is important.

It’s ok if they’re behind.  It’s ok if they changed while they were away.  It’s ok if you did too.

Spend some time rediscovering them and helping them rediscover home . . . but take it slow.

 

Tip #11:  GRACE — Give it freely and keep some for yourself

  • When your homecomer crawls into a hole for a week . . . Give him some grace.
  • When your homecomer gets paralyzed and stares at the potato chips for an hour . . . Give her some grace.
  • When they don’t get your best “Ching Chang” jokes . . . Grace.
  • When they walk out of Sunday morning service . . . Grace.
  • When they say, “who’s that?” about the new President . . . Grace.
  • When they break down and cry because they miss home . . . and you thought they were home . . . Grace.
  • When something you say causes them to have an emotional breakdown . . . Grace
  •  When you get fed up and snap, “Life’s not all about you homecomer!!  Get a grip!!” . . . It’s for you too . . . Take some grace for yourself.

 

I will speak on behalf of all homecomers (without permission) and say this:  You’re the best part about coming home.  We need you.  Thanks for being incredible.

 

If you’re welcoming homecomers and have stumbled across this somehow  I hope it helps.

If you know someone who is about to go through this (and can do so safely) . . . Pass it on.

If you’ve been there and done that (from any angle) don’t be stingy.  Add your tips.  What worked for you?  What didn’t?

 

20 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this blog series! We returned last Friday from a year in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and each of these tips has been so welcome to my messy head at the moment. I’ll share these to all my receiving friends 🙂

    Reply
    • Welcome back Suvi. Thanks for sharing and for passing these on.

      Reply
  2. Oh yes, so much truth here. Esp. the “aren’t you glad to be back?” question. I’m incredibly happy to be closer to my family and friends, but there are many times I’m not glad to be back……

    Reply
    • Makes total sense to me Lisa — Hard to reconcile two seemingly opposite thought though sometimes huh? Thanks for sharing

      Reply
  3. Well written. Loved 4 and 5. I remember walking off the plane after living overseas for a few years and feeling that I just looked different, that it was obvious that I had forgotten how to even dress normally !

    Reply
    • Feel your pain Anonymous — One year in I still have at least three clueless moments a day.

      Reply
  4. We have dear friends who have recently returned to a part of America that hasn’t been “home” for 15 years. We’re not close by physically, but we share and support them in the little ways we can. I’ve read your repat posts with interest because…well, a lot of reasons (including that I sometimes nearly wet myself when I read your stuff!…tattoos and driver’s license immediately come to mind.) BUT, I’m breaking the comment-barrier to say, each of your last posts have been passed along to our community where a 38 yr old father of 3 young kids has been recently diagnosed with a difficult-to-treat cancer. Nearly every list has had great pointers for treating him, his precious wife, and the kids the way they want to be treated: love and dignity. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Dorothy. Wow — Thanks so much for breaking the comment barrier. I have been so encouraged by the people who have shared their stories here. So much great stuff from all over the world. This one is extra special.

      Reply
  5. We were “repats” just over a year ago after becoming intentionally lifelong expats who ended up being gone for only 10 months. Confusing? Yes. We had to come “home” to have our fourth child who was born with many severe heart defects. Our leaving India was deeply painful and confusing and in no way felt like a homecoming, but relocation of absolute necessity and refuge. The Lord carried us home to teach us a lesson we couldn’t have learned otherwise and saved our son’s life in the process. Win-win, as I see it. 🙂 I’m commenting on this post because, purely, it’s the best one I’ve read (and I’ve read A LOT of the trending “things to never say to a ‘fill in the blank'” posts.) It’s informative without being prickly, funny without being sarcastic, and helpful without assuming the reader is a moron… albeit ignorant. 😉 Thanks for writing a heartfelt post that addresses the shortcomings of both parties involved in a homecoming. Both parties often struggle to love the other in the way they need to be loved, but by the grace of God, He is able to use even the messiest of homecomings for our good and His glory! Thanks for the post!

    Reply
  6. Tip #9, subpoint A … the “I bet you’re glad to be back!” one. That one is so important. Even in situations where of course, obviously the person absolutely *must* be glad to be back and out of that horrible situation … nope, not necessarily. After 2 years in Egypt, I went back to the States to have a baby. Three months after the birth, I *finally* got to go back to Egypt … only to be evacuated with my baby, without my husband, four months later, in the early stages of the (first) Egyptian Revolution. Everyone assumed I was thrilled to be safely at home with my then-7-month-old. Logically, I probably should have been. But I wasn’t. Every waking moment saw me watching the news, talking to other evacuees or to my husband who was still there (mission critical, no evac for him unless the ambassador was leaving–Foreign Service family here), yelling at the TV because people had the audacity to go on with their regular lives instead of being as obsessed with Egypt as I was … I got so tired of “You must be so glad/relieved to be back/here/out of that mess!” that I started replying with “Not really, I’d rather be there” instead of the polite noncommittal noises I’d made at first. Yep, #9 is very important …

    Reply
  7. “When they break down and cry because they miss home . . . and you thought they were home . . . Grace.”

    One of the things I am finding hardest about seeing friends leave is seeing the constant string of “You’re coming home soon” messages on their Facebook wall.
    I get that people are excited to see my friends – but save some love for us friends that are left behind. There is a whole blog post on here about people who are left behind and how hard it is but it is hard for the receiver of old friends to realise that people change, friends change; new friends and attitudes and beliefs and emotions and realisations and perspectives are gained by being in an expat community (especially in China!) and it is hard.
    Living in a community like ours means that your friends become your family. There is no two ways about it – I have gone from having 3 parents, two brothers, one niece and one nephew…. to having 20 parents, about 50 brothers and sisters and countless offspring thereof. When your family leaves you, especially in a way that there is a good chance you may never see them again, it hurts.
    So give us a break, receivers!!!

    (with all the being said, show my brother, my sister, my parent or my nephew them the love they so richly deserve!)

    Reply
  8. Thanks for this! I’m very familiar with reverse culture shock myself, but the tables have turned for me lately. My husband is coming home in a few days after nearly a year in London and I’m glad for the tips on how to receive him. We spent most of the year battling the UK border agency only to have my visa refused twice so I’ve been stuck here which was never part of the plan. I’m SO ready for him to be home but I’m sure he has mixed feelings about leaving. We will both need some grace for each other 🙂

    Reply
  9. Sometimes homecomers can get really down and negative about their home country and culture. Give them time. If it persists, and when the time is right (which may be never, pray about it!), I have found it helps to encourage them to view the people stuck in their home culture the same way they would those in the culture they worked in. In other words, realize that they need to have God’s love and grace for people in their home culture just like they did when they went into the field (no matter how techno-dependent, materialistic and self-centered they may seem to you in comparison!). …yeah, I’m one of those who needs to work on this. 🙂

    Reply
  10. I am moving back to the states from Korea later this month. I’ve visited home the past two years I’ve been in Korea, but the difference is there was always an end to that time. All of the things people said that struck me as ignorant and unhelpful had a time limit on the grace I had to give before I could just go back. I have to admit, I’m nervous about how I will react to such things without my time limit.
    Weirdest question (that I used to be guilty of): “So, tell me about Korea.”
    Um… do you want to know about the history, current events, my school, my daily life, Seoul?”
    Another experience that was funny later but frustrating at the time, was driving around town running errands and having to listen to news radio because I didn’t know the words to any of the songs on the radio. Then I was upset because of all the unimportant information that passed as “news.”
    I am definitely going to practice grace and need it, too.
    Thanks for the information. I posted it to facebook for my friends and family.

    Reply
  11. Exactly right. I went home to nz after a few years in China, only to feel totally displaced. It seemed I should have been able to just slot back in, I adore the place and the people. But there was something missing. I felt ‘homesick’ although, technically I was now home. The lives of the special people just rocked on along while I couldn’t lessen this feeling of homelessness. 2 years of trying to reconnect I headed back overseas. I’ve been away for a year and am just on the verge of going ‘home’ for a break. Nervous? Hell yes!

    Reply
  12. One thing I want to say from the receiver’s end is that we need to be shown grace too, because sometimes, deep down in our hearts a little lie can pop up that says, “you’ve been replaced. You’re spot in their family, life, culture, etc. has been replaced by new family, life, culture, etc.” Hearing from a commenter above talk about what it’s like to be the one “left behind” kinda made me want to throw my computer across the room (I feel bad about having that reaction now). And maybe my experience is very unique, who knows, but I was basically a kid when my sister moved away to India (I think I was 21, maybe). Still in college, had no clue as to what the adult world was like. My sister wasn’t here when I graduated college, got my first job, moved into my first apartment, etc. Sure you may be losing a good friend for 6 months, but I haven’t touched, hugged, kissed my sister in over four years! Guess what? She going back to you in a few months and taking what will be my baby niece/nephew with her! I won’t get to see him/her grow up. I may never get to hold, feed, change diapers, cuddle that new baby. You’re losing a friend for a short time. I’m losing my flesh and blood for a long time. So please do be offended when I’m not super heart broken for you.

    I know that this is kinda a vent (and I apologize for that). But just know, this going and coming back and going and coming back is just as hard for us as it is for the expat and the ones “left behind.”

    But it’s like you said in tip #11: Grace.

    Reply
    • Hi Gena,
      I was the big sister who left my elmentary-school sister at home when I went away – first to college and then overseas. I had no idea what that would mean for her, in my young cluelessness… and am really sad for the hurt and loss she experienced and still experiences. I
      t’s true that the missing happens on both sides – even as we are missing the people we’ve left behind, they are missing us. We may need grace, but also have to give it!
      I’d like to learn from you. As one of those left behind (in the home country, not the host country), what things has your sister done well that has helped you?
      Thanks for sharing! I am sad for you.
      J

      Reply
  13. We are returning to the US after 8 years in the UK. We came to the UK as a newly-married bright-eyed 23 year old couple with huge hopes and dreams. We are returning to the US as a family of four with enormous debts, bad job markets and ridiculous healthcare costs. It is the right thing to do and it is the right time to return but it is really hard.

    While I am very excited to see friends and family and no longer miss out on milestones (or have them miss out on milestones in our lives) I am terrified to re-enter life in the US. We are different people then when we left and I don’t know how that fits in back ‘home’. We were talking about the move with our oldest daughter (she’s 5) and my husband said something along the lines of, “we’ll be moving home” and she said, “this is our home!”.We were both hit by the fact that they don’t know anything different and they have no idea what it is like to live in the US. I don’t know how to prepare them for it. I don’t know how to live within driving distance of our families. I don’t know how to dress (the clothing choices of a 30 year old mum in an university town in England is vastly different then the leafy suburbs of a big city in the southern US) or how to dress my kids. Life has moved on and I worry I’m not going to know how to live in that world anymore.

    Thank you for this post. It has helped me tremendously to read it and I’ve (brazenly!) passed it on to friends and family.

    Reply
  14. My son and family are on the other side of the world right now. I’m grateful for this info. His children are very young so, it actually has frightened me to know they are so far away. I prayed that they will be safe, however, knowing how much of this goes on actually helps me realize that it isn’t such a phenomenon as I thought it was. That truly does relax my fearfulness…which surprises me; but, I welcome it, heartily. Thank you. Knowledge is and always will be powerful. I thank you for this reality that you have shared today. They want me to visit them; and now I am less fearful of doing that.

    Reply
  15. Our kids were in Zambia for 2 years before they came home. After 12 months, they have returned for another 2 years (at least). So much of what you shared is true. I observed them hurting and struggling after they returned to the states, knowing that hardly anyone would understand if they even tried to explain what they were feeling. They ached for what they loved and missed in Zambia, yet they were glad to be with people they loved here. Moving internationally with 3 small children is just plain hard. We did all we could to cheer them on and be supportive. Thanks for sharing this. It’s helpful to those who love expats!

    Reply

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