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?

 

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