At some point or another in the life of every expat, there comes a moment when you must book a trip home. Maybe you have 3 weeks holiday and are dying to go back for some familiarity. Perhaps you have a family event to return for. Or you might be fully aware you have been away too long and should go “home.”
But what is “home” to someone with a nomadic lifestyle? I have previously discussed my thoughts on expatriation and the stress and conflicted ties to our homelands that arise from taking on this lifestyle. Yet, I don’t think I fully fleshed out a dirty part of the expat experience: the anxiety specific to visiting home.
I recently took part in an extensive discussion group that included expats from around the world. Common themes came up ranging from: how often expats return home versus others coming to see them, feeling guilty if we can’t see everyone yet being protective of the time we have, having lists of things we need to accomplish or buy during our brief period back in the homeland and how exhausting it is to to keep everyone happy while dealing with jet-lag, the cost of travel, etc. Throughout all of this, there was one common word that came up over and over. So much so I started to put a tick next to it every time someone used the word: Pressure.
What kind of pressure? To name a few (in no specific order from my discussion group):
-not make anyone feel left out when you visit
-spend equal time with family and friends
-to come back more
-to visit 698 people in one weekend because “if you have a spare moment, it would be nice…”
-to not complain that we spent a fortune on this trip to sit in your living room because you “don’t feel like going out”
-to book a week’s holiday and have no one take a single day off to hang out with you
-keep the peace
-go to church so everyone can say “hello”
-act more local and less foreign
-go back to living a life you don’t live anymore
-drive 2 hours to see people that expect you to come to them after you took a plane or 4 to get 99% of the way there
-to discuss your eventual and apparently evident return home
-to make your foreign-born child(ren) instantly settle into a culture they’ve never known because X parent is from there
-to satisfy everyone else’s “missing you” emotions and not take care of your own homesick emotions
Selfish? Maybe. Privileged? Yes. Real? VERY!
So what is it about expats that makes this pressure feel so real? We know we were the ones that chose to ‘galavant’ around the globe and no one else removed us from the lives of those back home. We are aware that meant being far away from birthdays, weddings, funerals, baby’s first steps, girl’s nights out, boys weekends away, etc. We know this. We painfully grieved it in our first year. Trust me. But somewhere along the line we start to internalise and feel a disconnect from our old lives and protective of our new life. It’s as if every time someone says “when are you coming home?” we add 6 more mental months to how long we will live away. Do we see this question as people assuming we must be dreadfully unhappy away from what makes THEM happy? I think so. We feel questioned. Cornered, if you will, by the life we chose to leave within the framework of the life we are currently living.
I know some expats that go home every single year, twice a year, and love it. I stepped away from the return for a few years and took a break from feeling pressure. Family visits are amazing and should feel that way. They should not feel expected and evident. Yes we chose to leave but we don’t have to choose to come back, either. There wasn’t a malicious reason why I took a break, in fact the reasoning was quite positive. My little family was growing and we wanted to spend more time together – just us. My husband travels a lot with his work and we started to feel very protective of his holiday days from work. Holidays and vacations are important for families – be it a staycation or exotic travel. You bond, reconnect, experience life together away from technology, homework, housework and other additives to the daily grind.
We made that a priority. It was the right choice.
But here I am. I am heading home on Saturday to take part in my cousin’s wedding. I have been excited about this since I got the save the date!! This means lots and lots of family time with those I miss dearly. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, nieces, nephew, brothers, SIL, parents, you name it! The packing pile on the dining room table has been growing daily and with it, my anxiety. I realise I don’t have time to catch-up with many people outside the family during this trip. For that, I am sorry but family comes first.
I don’t have a lot of answers for other expats trying to navigate the WHY DO I FEEL SO MUCH PRESSURE? questions they have in regards to visiting home. It should feel amazing to get on a plane and make a long journey back to our old selves. I have no doubt much of this pressure is internalised guilt that we can’t be in 900 places at one time. We are very good multitaskers and problem-solvers, us expats, and feeling like we are doing poorly at that can wind us up big time! Maybe we need to be kinder to ourselves.
I am a firm believer in being protective of your family, your health and alone-time but maybe, just maybe, those extra 2 hours it takes to visit an old friend aren’t a bad idea. The “back home people” are important. We have to take care of those relationships, even if that means being more open and saying “I’m not going to see you this time around but you are on my list for my next visit” and hope they get it. If not, your expat family is always there and willing to say “uh huh…totally understand!” 🙂
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