I’ve been living abroad for just about 5 months now and the time quickly approached for my first visit back to the States. I eagerly anticipated my reunion with family and friends, but also felt oddly anxious about this pending vacation. Have I accomplished enough abroad in 5 months to warrant a visit home? Is my Spanish strong enough to carry on a conversation with my Gringo friends who studied Spanish in high school and want to test my newly acquired language skills? Am I tan? Have I lost any weight? Have I lost too much weight? What will happen to my anxiety-prone, super attached dog while I’m gone? How do I reconcile my new Nicaragüense lifestyle with my North American upbringing? What kind of culture shock should I expect to experience and am I bad person if I don’t experience any and my first stop off the plane is a Dunkin’ Donuts?
Now home, many of those fears have been assuaged. At my age, I have friends who accept me regardless of whether or not I can quote Rueben Dario and they automatically tell me that I sound great and know enough not to comment on my physical appearance – positive or negative. And my family lovingly tells me I’ve put on a few pounds J
It is also an incredible experience to view your own hometown as a foreigner. I’ve lived in Boston for the last 10 years, but this year, I spent my very first 4th of July at the Hatch Shell, on the Esplanade, among 150,000 other Patriots. I took photos as if I were a tourist, snapping pictures of the Citgo sign, the Hancock Building, and the Charles River. It was a pleasant surprise to turn things inside out.
However, there are some challenges that accompany a first trip home. My 19-month old niece had no memory of her favorite aunt Sarah, having last met me when she was just a little over a year-old. Upon our reintroduction, she ran sobbing past my wide-stretched arms and into those of my sister’s, when she thought my hug was an attempt at kidnapping her stuffed dog. Three days later, we have found a middle ground and she now Gracefully nods off in my arms for her mid-afternoon nap.
It is also a challenge to reintegrate into the world of consumerism. Though maybe not a conscious decision, part of the move to a third world country was the blissful escape from the consumption and “Keeping up with the Jones'” mentality we had become such a part of in North America. However, upon our return to the States, I found it all too easy to slip right back into regular trips to the mall and the “need to have” mindset. It required frequent self-checks to reevaluate what I truly needed versus what I just wanted.
It is also exciting and invigorating to see all of the people you’ve missed over the last 5 months, but it is also exhausting. There is an emotional obligation, not only to your family and friends, but also to yourself, to see everyone that you’ve missed while abroad. It’s fun to regale people with tales of getting the 4×4 stuck in the mud…twice in two days (and getting pulled out by oxen) and make them jealous with the idea of spending afternoons at the beach, cerveza in hand. However, by the 10th repetition of the story, it begins to sound oddly rehearsed.
And more importantly, there is the realization that back home, life went on without me. While we spew our tales of tropical paradise they are eagerly waiting for an opportunity to share their own stories of growth, which I have tactfully tried to avoid hearing, for fear that listening to them will only make me terribly homesick and ready to jump ship, turn in my airline ticket and stay put, in Boston. By our second week home, I broke into tears in front of my husband from sheer exhaustion and expressed the need for a vacation.
Then, there is the definition of home, altogether. I throw the word around loosely, but the truth is that, even half a year into my Nicaraguan sabbatical, I don’t quite know where home is anymore. To further complicate matters, after the obligatory “life is clearly treating you well there,” everyone follows by asking when we intend to move back home – to Boston. I’ve learned to take this as a compliment, suggesting that people miss us and want us home; however, it does re-open the proverbial can of worms. How long are we staying abroad? Is this a lifetime decision?
The reality is that life abroad is pretty incredible and that first trip back is revitalizing and essential. Nevertheless, it does come with its challenges, some great and some small.
-Plan some alone time (or time with your spouse, significant other, etc.), particularly if this trip is intended to also be a vacation. The first time home can be exhausting, filled with friendly reunions and family visits and you’ll need some time away.
-Remember that your friends and family had lives going on, too, while you were away. It’s important to ask about them and not hyper-focus on your life-style change. Most people will inquire after your big adventure, but be sure to reciprocate.
-It’s cliché, but do your best to live in the moment. I spent the better part of a week waking up in the morning and counting how many days I had left before returning to San Juan – not because I couldn’t wait to get back – but because I was already sad about leaving – and I had just arrived! Enjoy the time you have back in the States.
-Do be prepared for some culture shock.
-Before departing Nicaragua, take stock of what you currently have and make a list of the things you want to purchase while in the States. It’s exciting to return home to Suburbia/Mallandia/etc., but it’s also overwhelming having relied on 3-5 stores max for the greater part of a season. It’s best to return home with a plan of what you need to purchase, and get the shopping out of the way, so that you can spend the remainder of your vacation with family, friends, and relaxing,
-Bring limited items and an extra suitcase to the States so that you have room in your suitcase to return with things. These days, airlines are nickel and diming us for everything, so it’s preferable to pay for extra luggage in only one direction.
– Have fun!
Hi! I just found your blog and love this post. I’m a Canadian citizen, living in India. We’re on home leave right now too, which is why this post is so relevant to me. We leave tomorrow and I’m in quite a phase of anger right now. Right or wrong, it’s how I feel. Right or wrong, I blogged about it. Lots of expats are leaving their two cents worth. Feel free to do the same.
I’m looking forward to reading more,
Everything you say makes perfect sense to me…. especially as I live in Boston. 🙂 Through my many years of living abroad and studying abroad, as with you, I have found that one of the most important things you can do is to make the time you do have at home ‘quality’ time with those who are closest to you. I now, give myself one day to get all the shopping and errands out of the way and plan a mini-vacation with my family. For example, on my last visit just a few weeks ago, me, my parents, my sister and my 22 month old niece booked a week away at a cottage in ME. Just 1 and a half hours away, it was far enough for us to spend some lovely quality time together, and for my niece to remember who her auntie was! It also means you feel like you have some proper relaxation time. Living abroad is one of the most amazing experiences you can have, as well as the thing you learn abroad, I agree that the perspective it gives you on your own home town is incredible. I wish you every luck with your language learning and the rest of your sabbatical!