How to stay sane on trips "home"
If you have ever ventured outside the womb the town that you grew up in, be it nationally or internationally, and then took a trip "home," you'll know what I'm talking about. Here are some tips on how to deal with thoughts from "how did I ever survive here?" to "why don't they get me?"
Generally speaking, the phenomenon of reverse culture shock and the in repat circles widely lamented feelings of "wow, I don't think I fit in here anymore" can be ascribed to the human ability, nay, our inherent programming of getting accustomed to everything. In other words, if you have soup every day, your palate will lose the craving for a sandwich. Likewise, if your life happens within a geographically and socially limited arena (and by that I mean you hang out in the same place with the same people all the time), you don't know what you're missing. Or maybe you do, and then you watch NatGeo or the travelchannel, read books, and find that you're at least traveling in your mind. Great start! Next up: language classes and tango lessons at the local community center!
What I'm getting at is that once you break out of your comfort zone, the home you've always known and the community who still happily recounts the noodle incident from the pre-school picnic when you were five, you can't help but grow. You develop skills in communicating with people from different walks of life and countries, and you learn to adapt your behavior to what is culturally more acceptable in your new environment.
The level of reverse culture shock, i.e. when the place and people you called home all your life seem more alien to you than the country on the other side of the globe where you've just spent three years working, depends on several factors, such as the length of time you've been away, how open you are to new experiences, or how involved you've stayed with your old home-base. Some people, therefore, don't experience culture shock but more like a mild culture surprise.
Let's assume you've been away for a few years and are now coming back feeling like you don't quite belong anymore: relax, that's completely normal. As stated above, you've grown and your familiar frame of reference has grown. Where you never used to miss a Sushi restaurant, the local cuisine may now strike you as boring. The cinema connected with happy youngster back-row smooching memories may no longer be able to fill the place theater and ballet have now left vacant in your heart. So, how can you reconcile the old and new you?
With a "yes, and" attitude. Instead of focusing on what you don't have anymore, feast your eye on what has come back to be yours for the taking. Instead of giving up the international lifestyle, find ways to integrate what you have learned abroad into your everyday life back at home, e.g. by participating in expat forums or starting a group for interested people in your community where you can exchange stories and maybe even teach a little about the big wide world out there. If you're only home for a vacation, enjoy the people and make the most of your time talking and catching up with old friends and family.
The trick is not to be hurt because they don't appreciate your fascinating stories from the far side of the planet, or get annoyed at their seemingly unimportant daily struggles. Remember that your frame of reference was very similar not too long ago, and that during the time you've done and experienced all your adventures, their lives continued, too.
A good exercise is using the listening skills you had to employ when you first went abroad: now pay attention to your old gang and notice their body language. When you're talking about white sandy beaches you've been served (enter your drink of choice here) at, do they seem defensive? When you explain your latest professional successes in great detail, do their eyes glaze over?
For all your stories, choose your audience wisely, and never brag. People can't help but compare themselves, and I'm sure you can understand the cavemen who considered pulling the guy who left the cave back in. Why? Because if he goes out and finds more food or a better cave, then those who didn't go will look bad for staying behind. There are always going to be people who are happy in their comfort zones, until the unpleasant moment of having what they're missing rubbed in their faces. And who wants to keep talking to that guy?
Note I'm not saying to hide your light under a bushel. Simply use some finesse and empathy, remember your sense of humor, and enjoy building the life you want wherever you are. Next time you're wondering where you belong, why not try on the idea that you are, in fact, accustoming yourself to keeping on growing. Frank Zappa said the mind is like a parachute; it works best when wide open. I love that saying.
How about you? Til next time!
Image by James Wang, flickr, Creative Commons license