In a little over a week I’ll be boarding the plane to head back to South Africa. I miss so many things about my Johannesburg home… I miss my dogs, my friends, my gym routine, my ballet class… pretty much my life in general. But, I am starting to get that dreadful feeling in the back of my mind about leaving my Michigan home.
I don’t know what causes this phenomenon in expats. I suppose not everyone who lives abroad deals with this feeling of emotional limbo, but I know I’m not a solo act singing the “Holiday Return Blues”. For me, it starts about two weeks before returning. I start to realize I haven’t a moment to meet up with a friend or I didn’t get a chance to take my kids somewhere. I get this sinking feeling like the time I’ve spent at home has slipped between my fingers like the sand on the shores of Lake Michigan. At the same time, I know I have done so much… days at the beach, riding bikes, indulging in enormous ice cream cones and enjoying dreary rainy days shopping at Target.
When I touch down in the US, I feel like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. It’s weird. It’s like my mind automatically turns on its internal cruise control, and coasts carelessly throughout the length of my visit. I don’t have to “think” about things because I just “do” them. The self-confidence level in regards to the knowledge of my surroundings is so high that I don’t have to question myself. My innate abilities of being a local kick in, and I can accomplish things with ease and without anxiety. (Disclaimer: Please keep in mind I’m talking about my experience as a non-ATCK. Those who grew up abroad might have the complete opposite feeling about visiting “home”.)
I suppose I never realized how much harder my mind has to work when I’m living abroad. Nothing comes naturally to me when I’m going through the motions of my expat life. The language is typically different, the food is different, the bureaucracy is different, the driving etiquette is different — EVERYTHING is different!
Even though these challenges create opportunities for growth, they can also create an overwhelming sense of anxiety causing you to question everything you do. It’s not that you can’t complete these chores (if you were back home, you’d have had this done in a jiffy), it’s just that you don’t always know the easiest or best way to accomplish the task at hand, Instead of going in a straight line, you end up zig-zagging through an ordinary errand, and are sometimes left exhausted and often deflated.
When I’m in my host country, I think I subconsciously stress over things I wouldn’t give a second thought over at home. For instance, how am I going to exchange the broken cable box since the account is in my husband’s name and they won’t talk to me? At home, I would walk into the cable provider’s office and know someone would talk with me and not require a passport, blood oathand my husband’s stamp of approval to exchange a broken cable box (though I might want to bang my head against the wall while waiting to complete the process).
I can’t quite put my finger on the root cause of my expat holiday return blues, but perhaps the catalyst for me is caused by the anticipation of #expatlife’s little added stresses and the feeling of being “under the gun” to get all the things I plan to accomplish before I embark on another 10 months abroad.
So here’s my theory… You could be the most experienced expat in the world, but as a foreigner you probably won’t know all the details of living in your host country like a local. You might get there one day, and you probably won’t even notice when you’ve crossed the threshold to innately living in your host country. But, to me, it’s comforting to know that even though I might not always take the most direct path to get from point A to point B, I can still manage to get things done. It might not have been the way I did it back home, but that’s okay because I’m not home. And, at the same time… I occasionally I do really enjoy being able to get behind the wheel and cruise every once in a while. So, no matter where you are… try to enjoy the ride.