Cultural Adjustment, Part 3: There’s No Place Like Home

welcome-matIn the previous article in this Cultural Adjustment Series, we covered some of the most popular theories of cultural adjustment — the U-Curve and W-Curve models.

As I mentioned at the end of that article, one aspect of the expat or international student experience that is often left out of these models is the experience of moving back home after having lived abroad for a period of time.

We generally assume that moving back home should go smoothly — after all, it’s home! But this isn’t always the case.

Let’s take a closer look at the process of what is sometimes called repatriation or reintegration — a.k.a. going home. 

When Going ‘Home’ Requires an Adjustment

Not everyone who moves abroad chooses to move back to their country of origin, but for those who do, there’s a whole process of re-adjustment awaiting them on the other side. And this may surprise some people.

When you move to a foreign country, you expect there to be a period of adjustment. If you’re moving for work, your company also expects this, and they may provide support for you and your family in making the transition.

But when it comes to moving home, everyone usually expects it will be smooth sailing. And so people are often taken off-guard by how challenging it can be.

Whether you’ve been gone for 6 months or 10 years, the fact is that things — and people — have changed. Life has continued to move along without you.

And you’re different too. The experience of living abroad has changed you a bit. You look at your home country differently, appreciating more fully those things you previously took for granted, but also recognizing it’s limitations.

Here you are, back where you’re supposed to belong, and yet you may feel like you’re a bit of an outsider now here too. You may wonder if anywhere will ever feel completely like home again. You ask yourself questions like, “What does the word ‘home’ even mean anymore?”

Some former expats report an experience much like grieving upon returning to their home country. They may feel a significant loss — and yet it doesn’t feel acceptable to talk about it. It seems like no one would understand. So they feel isolated and alone.

It’s important for expats moving back home recognize and appreciate the fact that this process is, in many ways, just as much of an adjustment as moving abroad was. And it’s important for them to reach out to others — perhaps other former expats who have been through the process and can understand — for support and understanding. All the issues that may have come up in families or couple relationships, where different people may respond differently to the stresses of adjustment, apply here again. Communication, mutual support, and respect for one another’s unique adjustment processes is incredibly important.

However, after some time, you will adjust yet again, holding on to those new parts of yourself that you discovered during your time abroad, appreciating your differentness, and still finding a place for yourself in your new (perhaps old) home.

Moving Home Aside – What About Just Visiting Home?

Ok, but let’s take a step back for a moment. Even if you’re not yet thinking about moving back to your country of origin, you’ll probably be visiting.

For some expats, a visit back home can bring up mixed feelings. It might feel wonderful to see friends, have familiar foods, take a break from having to speak another language. But it might also make you miss these things even more. Or it might bring up feelings of nostalgia. Feelings that life is moving on without you. Your friends are happy to see you, but they still have lives, and they’re moving on. It might feel like you’re missing out.

Returning to your new country might feel harder after a visit home. You might feel as though you’d been making progress in your adjustment, and the visit just sets you back. It highlighted what you’ve missed. Or how much easier things were.

At the same time, you might notice while you’re home that you have a new perspective on things. While there may be things you miss, there may be others that you feel more critical about since you’ve been exposed to another way of doing things in your new country.

While you likely still don’t feel like you belong in your new home, you may be starting to have the sense that you don’t completely belong in this old, familiar place either. And that can feel unsettling.

Coming Up Next…

So far, we’ve been talking generally about the process of adjusting to a new culture. However, most of what we’ve been talking about has been focused on the experiences of adults. Tomorrow, we’ll consider some things to keep in mind specifically for kids and teens when moving abroad.

What About You? Share Your Experience!

Do any of these experiences resonate with you? How has your life abroad changed your perspective on the concept of “home”?

As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.


p.s. This article is part of the Cultural Adjustment Series. For additional articles in this series, refer here.

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