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Abroad and Back: What No One Told You About Home

Updated on August 5, 2013
Cherry blossom season in Tokyo
Cherry blossom season in Tokyo

Going back after life abroad

Most people travel abroad for the excitement of experiencing new cultures and all that entails: a different style of living, of commuting, of eating, a view of landmarks we have only seen in magazines, and taking momentos home with us as trophies of our travels. For a tourist, even opening the hotel window in the morning and taking a deep breath in the view - whether it's the bustling city overview or a crummy parking lot - can become an exhilarating act. Our senses are overloaded with new sights, sounds and tastes, and all of this information is poured into our minds, igniting curiosities and desires for adventures.

Living abroad, on the other hand, molds and morphs this excitement into a normalized everyday. Though certainly the thrill of new challenges and doesn't cease, the giddy camera-ready tourist mindset gradually dissipates. Expatriates can attest to the familiar pattern: at first arrival, even the most mundane things are overwhelming and fascinating. Next, we start comparing our new world to the home we left behind, and from there, the image of how great home was inflates and the homesickness begins. After that, many people experience frustration with the culture they live in and resent the lifestyle. Even small things become annoyances. Finally, we make peace with the good and the bad, and adaptation occurs. The new country becomes normal, and its ups and downs are overall accepted and expected.

What we don't expect, though, is that expats fall into the same pattern once again upon returning to their home country.

I lived in Tokyo for several years. Coming from a small town in the rural Midwest, the thrill of living in a big city alone was exhilarating, let alone one of the world's most famous cities in a country I had long hoped to visit. In Japan, I learned to communicate in Japanese. I learned how to commute on busy Tokyo trains. I learned how to change my diet from bread-based to rice-based, and eat seafood almost daily. I learned new styles of etiquette, from verbal expressions to body language, and I learned how about history and pop culture, and the hot social issues that people were passionate about.

I had found my hometown boring - no history, no culture, and certainly no future for me! But living abroad sharpened my eyesight to things I had previously overlooked. My first visit back home, I stared wide-eyed out the car window at all of the open space. Every house had enormous yards, every street was wide, and buildings had so much grass between them. I could see the sky without skyscrapers obstructing my view! I was conscious of being surrounded by white people, all speaking English with the obvious lilt of my local accent that I had never believed we actually had. For the first time, I stood like an outsider, gazing and wondering what our history was, and where we came from, and who we were.

Then there were the things that bothered me, or things I noted with confusion. Social issues were different, and things that were no problem in Japan had become angry debates in America, and the opposite as well. The American approach to patriotism and religion was also stronger than I ever remembered it. America, especially small-town America, is also incredibly isolated from the rest of the world. I was furious when, after telling people I lived in Japan, I was met with "ew, raw fish!" and confusion with the very distinct China, even racist remarks somehow meant to be comedic. Even for sympathetic people, I was stumped at the realization that no one at home could relate to me. They didn't have my experiences, experiences that had been my life. In fact, most had never left the country. Some hadn't even left the state. I reached out to others who had experiences abroad and held onto their stories like lifelines, and even someone's weekend trip to Canada became food for my malnourished imagination.

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The so-called reverse culture shock of acclimating back into one's own culture can be hard and depressing, but it is important to keep our experiences in perspective. The grass is always greener on the other side of the ocean, so to speak, and it's easy to idealize a place when we're away from it. But through travel, we can enrich our understanding of the things we took for granted, both the good and the bad. In the end, we adapt to wherever it is we find ourselves, whether it's a foreign country or being back home. With a sense of adventure (and a bit of saved-up money), strangely enough, traveling to different countries teaches us not only about new places, but the place we return to.

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