Expat advice: A few tips on that first visit ‘home’

expat visit home

When I wrote about culture shock and how to settle into your new home, I mentioned not going back too quickly after your move. After the shock of the initial visit, I opted out of joining Cody when he went back to San Diego for business until I really felt settled.  We are hoping to do this whole expat thing for a couple more years, so it was important to me that I took my time and didn’t rush through this huge life change.

When it came to how I was feeling, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t look back on this experience and realize that I spent most of my time just ‘getting through’ to the next visit.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that first trip since next week I’ll be visiting the U.S. again. This morning I found an interesting article about the ‘double life’ of an expat that I think perfectly described some of the feelings I encountered on my first return trip to the U.S.:

I was shocked and confused to return to England and realize how out of touch I was with people, places and life in the place I had lived for 20 years. For the first few days my hands fumbled on unfamiliar light switches and shop assistants looked at me quizzically as I wished them a good day…Being able to slip from one life to another is a strange experience that many expats will relate to. By becoming an expat you start a new life, but fragments of the old one still linger in your native country, tempting you when you return.

I related to her point that expats have two selves, since living abroad and adapting to a new culture will inevitably change you. And yet, you retain parts of that same person you were while living at ‘home.’

Chances are that all of your friends and family are still in your native country and returning there from time to time is inevitable. Even though I wanted this change, there was still a difficult period where I had to work to make Bogotá feel like home.

Ever since I rushed my first visit back to the U.S., I still have a strange little moment where I hold my breath before traveling to make sure everything feels ok. From my experience, everything you can do to minimize the emotional low that follows an exciting trip happens at home, before you leave. Here are my biggest takeaways:

Don’t put your life on pause

Please, please, please live your life as normal up until the day you leave. For me anyway, this was one of the biggest mistakes I made before our trip to San Diego. I stopped going to Spanish class, I declined invitations to go to lunch with my classmates…I pretty much just watched the clock until our flight left. While there is nothing wrong with making a list of things you want to buy (hello peanut butter!) or planning visits to your favorite places, don’t let these things consume your mind. Remember that you are leaving your real life to visit your former home, not vice versa.

There is a second part to this advice: just as your life has changed and moved on, so has everyone else’s. However, knowing and experiencing this fact are two different things. I set myself up for a huge disappointment when I stopped living so I could fantasize about what it would be like to visit ‘home.’  I can’t describe the surreal feelings of returning to a place that I had lived for so long and see how different it was after only a few months—I was homesick for a place that no longer existed as I imagined it. The more you interrupt your life before your trip, the more difficult it will be to return and pick up again.

Prepare for visiting, not vacation

One of the hardest things to deal with is the sheer volume of people that want to see and spend time with us. Not to mention the fact that many times our visits to San Diego coincide with a week working in the corporate headquarters for Cody. The guilt and pressure we experienced when trying to decide how to schedule our first return visit was surprising! That being said, prioritize your visiting and do the best you can. I mean this in a gentle way, but don’t feel the need to bend over backward to accommodate everyone—the folks who really want to see you will be flexible and make it happen. And if there are a few people who are just too busy, well, that is more time for you to spend with loved ones. In fact, the few people who didn’t make any effort to connect was another surprise.

One more thing: when we moved we let people know that we would be returning primarily to San Diego on our visits to the U.S. This decision was made based on the fact that the majority of our friends and family live in San Diego, as well as the fact that Cody has to visit periodically for work. Deciding on a kind of “home base” to which we’d return before we moved relieved a ton of pressure and set an expectation. We don’t have endless resources and it doesn’t make sense to go to multiple places in the short spans we have in the U.S., so having one common place allows people to plan and come to us. I think it ends up being a better use of our time and I recommend you have the same conversation as you prepare to move.

Leave something to look forward to when you return.

I recently read about the idea of “Blue Monday,” which happens a week or two after New Year’s Day. Apparently. it’s the most depressing time of the year—the weather is bad, the visitors have gone home, the holidays are over and you have another eleven months before the season begins again. This is what I set myself up for after our first visit to San Diego! I was so focused on the trip that when we returned to Bogotá there was a strange void where all of that excitement had been.

So, before you leave you should arrange something that you’ll be looking forward to when you get back. Set up a date night at your favorite restaurant, schedule a massage, have an amazing Netflix queue or stack of books waiting…whatever it is, make your return appealing!

I think that success as an expat and your happiness in your new home rests on a balance. You can’t live your life by watching everyone at home on Facebook any more than you can deny that they existed. Once I made some friends here in Bogotá and got into a routine of keeping in touch with folks in the U.S. over Skype and planned visits, I found myself letting that breath out and relaxing a little. The more you work to keep a balance between your new and old lives, the easier time you’ll have moving between them.

4 thoughts on “Expat advice: A few tips on that first visit ‘home’

    1. I hope it’s fun and that all the surprises are pleasant :-) When you get back, I’d be anxious to hear if you have any advice or ideas to add!

  1. We’re back and I think most of your thoughts are spot on! I tried not to overbook us with visits and although we were running at times it wasn’t too bad. It was balanced with down time just relaxing with friends or family. The strange thing for us was driving by our house, which is being rented. It felt strange but I also realized how little I felt attached to the house!!! It was also clear as day the quantity/accessability of food and stuff and ‘bigness’ of anything American! A real eye opener….and not all good, I have to say, for the American peeps!! We could learn a thing or too.. :-) There were a few tears and sad faces coming back but not nearly what I expected! So that was good!

    1. Hi Trish, welcome ‘home’!

      I’m so glad things went well and that you kind of knew what to expect on your visit—you are definitely more ahead of the game than I was! I can completely understand what you mean about how big everything in the U.S., it’s surreal to have that shock of re-entry and to realize how much our perceptions have changed.

      I hope your transition back to regular life is just as smooth and thank you for keeping up with No Longer Native!

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