Describing what it’s like to live abroad, then plan a move back to the United States, and all the feelings and fears that accompany the move: it’s hard to put it into words.
If you haven’t gone through it, it’s confusing. It doesn’t really make sense. What could possibly be so difficult about moving home?
The thing is, for a lot of expats, it’s not really home. It’s “home”.
I suppose the best way to describe it is if you had the opportunity to go back to college, with all the knowledge you have several years later. You’ve been there before, but it’s different this time. It doesn’t feel the same. Sure, some things have changed, for better or for worse, but overall it’s the same experience.
Once you’ve been out of college for a while, going back would be a strange experience. Same with returning home after being abroad: you’re not the same person anymore. At least, I’m not.
It’s reverse culture shock. You become acclimated to this new culture and way of life, and then it’s over and gone. There are plenty of stories of expats returning home, having some trouble, but being okay. Then they go to the grocery store.
“After adjusting to a new culture for an extended period of time, your body is physically, emotionally and mentally required to make another switch when you return home. The result? What once seemed to so familiar now seems foreign, and you may be experiencing an unexpected learning curve.”
You’ve already lived in your home country before, so why is it so hard to move back? And what’s the deal with the grocery store?
For some reason, that’s just where reverse culture shock overwhelms you. All the choices. So many. Too many. It happened to me last August when I went to HEB with my mom. She was getting other groceries, and I jogged over to the drink aisle. I remember staring at the long shelf. I’d see one option I liked. Then another. Then I got frantic I’d choose the wrong one. Did I want root beer? But there were three kinds. Would I rather have Cherry Coke? Or cherry limeade? Maybe Vanilla Cherry Coke. Which root beer do I like better? And what’s that drink on the far end of the shelf?
There’s a similar scene in The Hurt Locker. It makes a lot more sense to me now. You’re overwhelmed by something that used to be completely normal and you want to run away. I managed to move to Taiwan and live here for two years, but a bunch of two liters make me want to curl into a ball on the floor?
I leave Taiwan in 43 days. I’m excited, but scared. I’m terrified (No. Don’t gloss over “terrified”. Read it. TERRIFIED.) of not having a job, not finding a job and, therefore, not having income. I don’t have Daddy Warbucks financing my life. If I don’t make the money, I don’t have the money.
I’m also worried I’ll be bored. “On the road, each day brought new faces, new places. Back home, you may feel you’ve plunged into ‘same old same old.’” I ran away from the “same old same old”. I can’t go back.
My past two trips back to the United States, I’ve exhibited nearly every sign of reverse culture shock. It’s not that I don’t love America. It’s just hard to come back “home”.
“Living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on [new] qualities, mannerisms, and opinions…You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.”
I have changed. From the way I talk to the way I view the United States and the way I view myself: I have changed. So has everyone else while I was gone.
“To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But … you cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.”
It’s going to be strange not speaking my broken Mandarin to the cashier, or breaking up my English so it’s easier for my coworker to understand me. It’s going to be strange driving a car instead of a scooter. Fixing my hair instead of putting it into a low helmet-ready ponytail. Growing out my fingernails, which have to stay short here because they get disgusting from exhaust. Understanding commercials. Walking on carpet. Not taking my shoes off at the door. Not having concrete walls. It’s going to be strange to be part of the majority again. Not seeing stray dogs everywhere. Not calculating the time difference when I call my family. Leaving voicemails. Using my debit card instead of cash. Drinking milk again. Eating American cake and pie. Seeing my friends still in Taiwan going about their normal lives when I’ve left. Seeing my friends and family in the US whose lives continued on even after I left, and realizing just how much I missed.
I’ll be a stranger in a strange land, because it’s true: I can’t go home again. It’ll be good to go “home”, though. I just need a chaperone for my trips to the grocery store.