Monday, February 20, 2006

Returning Home

As we all know and have experienced, living in another country changes you forever. You will never be the same and will never see things the same way again. I once mentioned this to a friend after living in Ireland for a year. She responded, “oh come on, don’t be so depressing”. But whether it is a depressing reality or not, for those of us who have lived abroad, this is simply the way it is.

The first time I experienced what experts call “Reverse Culture Shock” was after returning from a Year Abroad Program in Ireland. My home town, which often gave me a sense of comfort, upon returning seemed stifling and bereft of warmth. I moved about my days feeling that something was missing but no idea what it could be. Eventually I came face to face with the reality that my home would never, ever again feel the same as it had before. I sealed my fate as soon as I boarded that plane the year before.

I don’t think there is really any way to describe this feeling to those who haven’t experienced it themselves. What is it exactly that causes us to feel this way? Why is it more pronounced when living in a different country than just living in a different city? Does the degree of difference between our home country and the target country determine the level of change we will feel when returning?

Many descriptions of Reverse Culture Shock describe it as part of a continuum whereby eventually we’ll feel at home again in the US and the vestiges of the “shock” will have slowly worn off. Although it is true that the initial feelings of strangeness have subsided, I still feel that something will never be the same even now, so many years later. What I constantly contend with now is a continual pull to go back… go back anywhere as long as it isn’t here. Yet when I am back there, I feel the pull to return back here. It is as if I am living in a kind of suspended reality, never really here or there.

The joy of having spent time in another country is that you slowly become a part of it and one of its people. Our attention to detail is heightened and we make a concerted effort to understand and fit in until we become one with our new location. What I have seen and felt and heard and smelled in each of the places I have lived has made me who I am, like a wine picking up its surrounding elements.

I would never want the clocks to be turned back to the person I was before I set foot on that first airplane. Instead, what I want more than anything is to have my favorite elements from each country right here with me now. I want to have an Irish pub around the corner here in Seattle, full of Irish laughter and music and incessant chatter. I crave the smell of peat burning in the air and the Irish lilt.

But I can’t stop there… I want to have my favorites from Germany and France with me here as well and of course the Australian joviality and Tasmanian kindness. I want to somehow piece them all together into a quilt of my making and to wear it day in and day out to bring me comfort.

Ultimately what I have lost in hometown comfort I have gained in international comfort. Where once boarding an airplane was an amazing feat and arriving in another country 10 hours later unthinkable, I now feel a sense of familiarity when we are snuggled down into our seats for our long flight. I have a pretty good idea of the sequence of events whereby we will get from here to there and cherish the chance to head to my “other home” of Germany for an extended visit. And once there for a while, I can’t wait to snuggle back into my bed in my home in the US.

This first appeared as an essay in our February newsletter:

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