No amount of reading can fully prepare you. But I’ll try. Forewarned is forearmed. Here are some things you should see coming when you come home.

Don’t Underestimate the Effect of Novelty

When you go to a new place, it’s NEW. By definition. You see the novel, the different, the beautiful. There is a charm even to the annoying.

Grocery shopping when you can’t read labels? You rise to the challenge. It’s all part of the adventure.

As a traveler or expat, your surroundings are novel. And often, so are you.

Our baby had rock star status in South Korea. Not because anyone knew her name. Young teen girls just picked her out of the crowd. “Agi!” “Baby!” they’d squeal. “Blue eyes!” That kid is in more selfies with complete strangers! 

We obliged. We chuckled. We occasionally grew tired of it. But, we did get extra attention. We were novel. Not just normal. 

Back home, not so much. After the initial rush of welcomes and coffee dates, you blend in. You don’t get stopped by people wondering where you’re from or why you’re here. 

Back home, you get less attention, which is fine. But you might feel a little less special. Less interesting. 

Don’t Romanticize Home

When the rose-colored glasses come off, you view your home through a new, unfamiliar lens. Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.

When you’ve been away for awhile, home becomes this shiny, bright beacon of familiarity. It’s the place where you are known. There are people there who share your history and have known you for a long time.

When you’re away, it’s tempting to view home through rose-colored glasses.

Once you’re on the ground, you see home through a different lens. It’s like in a hazy, dream-like scene in a movie. The edges of the frame are blurry. You’re in the scene but you’re an outside observer at the same. 

These are supposed to be your people in your place, but you don’t see them the same way that you used to.

Don’t Expect to Feel At Home

Traveling — it gives you home in thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.” — Ibn Battuta

This new lens you’re wearing emphasizes the obvious. You are not the same person who left this place months or years before. 

You may blend in, but you don’t fit in.

The place you left is not the place you return to because you are not the person who left.

The first time I moved back home, I was a single twenty-something who had been away for two years. I was used to being the outsider in the Caribbean. I didn’t expect to feel so out of place in my home and native land. I found myself wondering, “If I don’t belong here and I don’t belong there, where in the world do I belong?!”

You may feel more an outsider at home than you ever did living abroad. Photo by Anna Dziubinska.

Know you are not alone. 

Thankfully, the first time I moved back home, an older, wiser traveler handed me this book. I still felt crazy, but was reassured to learn I was not alone. 

Read about other travelers, expats, missionaries, and humanitarian workers. Better yet, go for lunch with someone who has lived abroad and returned.

Debrief

Ideally, begin before you get on the plane to come home. If you missed that window, reflect and journal about your time away and your current transition. 

What were some highlights? Who do you want to keep in touch with? And make sure you know the best way to keep in touch. What have you learned? What will you miss? 

Visit those special people and special places. Do your best to say goodbye well.
Plan

Look forward. 

What are you looking forward to? Make a list of the visits and activities you want to do in your first weeks back home. Do you want to plant a garden? Hike a favorite trail? Visit a park or beach? Reconnect with old friends over coffee? Eat at a favorite restaurant?

Help Kids to Transition

Don’t expect kids to figure all this out on their own. If you have kids, help them to process. Walk through debrief questions with them. 

What surprised them about their time away? What did they learn? What was fun? What was hard? What and who will they miss? What are they excited about? 

If they’re little, tell them what home is like and what is different. Our little guy went through a whole year of preschool thinking everyone gave their teachers besos (a kiss) when they left school for the day. That’s what they did in Argentina. He never noticed none of the other Canadian kids did that. (In this case, it was cute and the teachers loved it. If he were in grade four instead of being four, it would have been embarrassing.)

Take initiative to help them reconnect with friends nearby. Encourage them to correspond or FaceTime with friends far away. Plan play dates and activities. 

Expect Re-entry to Take Time

Expect that getting your bearings and feeling settled with take time and effort. This is a process, not an event. Some days, emotions will run high. Some days, you may feel discouraged and overwhelmed. 

Journal, talk to a safe person. Process your experiences. Debrief. 

Re-entry is a journey, not an event. You’ll get there. Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash.

Give Yourself Grace, a.k.a. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Be patient with yourself and others. This isn’t easy. It’s not just you.

Practice self-care. Go outdoors. Move your body. Read a book. Take some alone time, or time with friends. Do a hobby or join a sports league. 

Remember the awesome privilege of travel. 

“Wherever you go becomes part of you somehow.” — Anita Desai

Re-entry can be an uncomfortable and difficult process. And yet, during this time, you are uniquely able to question norms and values that you could never consciously observe before. This is a rare and precious gift. 

Most cultural values exist in our subconscious and we assume they are correct. Until we are confronted with a different way.

During re-entry, you have this amazing opportunity to choose, to some degree, how you will be changed, and which parts of your two cultures — home and away — you will carry with you going forward. 

Yes, you are forever changed in some way. And this is a rich and awesome privilege.

Have you experienced a rocky re-entry after travel? What did you find helpful? Share in the comments!

Colleen’s four kids learned to walk on three different continents. She knows transitions can be overwhelming and writes to help others enjoy the journey and engage in community. Wherever they call home. Visit Colleen at ColleenHiggs.com.
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Colleen’s four kids learned to walk on three different continents. She knows transitions can be overwhelming and writes to help others enjoy the journey and engage in community. Wherever they call home. Visit Colleen at ColleenHiggs.com.

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