In this blog I have written several articles about expats’ difficulties and challenges for the initial adjustment abroad, and also about the difficulties of repatriation. However, what has been less discussed in my blog so far is the time ‘in-between’, namely when the expat is visiting home during the international assignment. Are there any potential difficulties and challenges related to a simple home visit?
If you browse through some of the blogs written by expats themselves (e.g. this one), it seems that there are many and that they are mainly related to feelings of being torn and divided between one’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ home. Naturally these feelings may also arise out of pure homesickness even without traveling back home for holidays and breaks. At the same time, visiting one’s ‘old’ home may worsen the situation by making it more acute and emotional. Just imagine that you had moved abroad a few months ago – you are most probably undergoing many changes in your work, social and personal lives, you struggle with homesickness, unfamiliar modes of life, and possibly a decreased self-confidence – and there, in the middle of this adjustment process, you decide to pay a visit back home. What is there to expect?
One expat community member that experienced a very similar situation describes herself as being shocked and confused. ‘The double life of an expat’, is how Emily Nemchick calls her experience, referring to having a double set of everything: two homes, two families, two sets of friends, and even two voices. As an expat myself living and working outside of my native country, I think that this is quite an accurate description of the situation. Moving abroad implies leaving dear people, things and places behind, while at the same time acquiring substitutes for all these in the new location. Inevitably one starts to balance this double expat life and tries to make it work in the new country by holding Skype conversations with people back home, cooking home-culture meals with host-culture products, switching constantly between native and foreign languages, and trying to build new friendships with locals, while planning holidays with your friends from back home. In the end, when all adjustments are made and a fragile balance between ‘new’ and ‘old’ is found, this double life becomes fairly manageable. However, going back home for a visit may put this at risk.
In a way, the more you visit home, the more you may feel torn and, hence, jeopardize the fragile balance created in the foreign country. As one expat writes, ‘sometimes I feel like I live in a bubble here (in the host country). It’s not until people come to visit or I go back home that I miss anything’. On the same note, another expat blog suggests not to go back home for a visit earlier than six months after the initial relocation abroad, as it may make you even more homesick and the adjustment abroad more difficult. Visiting back home gets one fully exposed to the familiar and loved people, places, food and things that have to be left behind every time the vacation is over.
Finally, the word ‘vacation’ – often the main reason for a home visit – may actually be misused here. As often noted, a home visit is NO vacation for an expat. What usually happens is that within a limited amount of time one has many obligations trying to meet all family and friends, and spend quality time with them. Purely in terms of time and energy this can be really stressful. Moreover, being back in one’s ‘old’ family and social circle is more likely to make you realize problems that would stay unnoticed when being abroad and maintaining old relationships over social networks and Skype. Specifically, as an expat you may find yourself changed, and usually, in spite of everyone’s expectations, less able to fit back into the place and role you used to be in. Plus, you will most likely realize that life back home has been moving on without you being on board. When the ‘old you’ tries to regain its place this further adds to feeling of being torn and caught up between the two worlds…