7 tips for recovering expats

If you have ever moved home after an extended period living or travelling overseas, it is possible you may be suffering from ex-expat syndrome. Symptoms: constant comparisons, grass-is-always-greener reflections, a case of the ‘what-ifs’ and the feeling you’re torn between two worlds. Let me reassure you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. As anyone who’s been following my online ramblings for a while might know, I used to live in Vietnam, and before that, Cambodia. I’ve been back in Sydney now for two and half years now (what? where has the time gone?!) but the settling in period was like a rocky road paved with nostalgia and a feeling of loss. If you can identify, here are some tips to help you make the transition from the frivolous fun of expat-land back to ‘reality’ (which doesn’t have to be boring):

1. Retain your expat friends
It’s not just the place you miss when you return home, it’s the people you met while living there. Friendships formed in expat-land can be some of the strongest you’ll make. You’re sharing a unique experience together, bonding over all the highs and lows that life in a new place can bring. It can be an intense ride, and after a short time it can feel like some people have been in your life for a lot longer than they have. If you’ve been an expat or long-term traveller it’s inevitable you’ll keep wandering the globe long after you move home, so short holidays can be a great opportunity to catch up with fellow globetrotters on their home turf, or you could meet up on neutral ground in a new location. And with social media it’s much easier to keep in touch with people these days, plus there’s also Skype to feel like they’re right there with you in your loungeroom, reminiscing about the maid who stole your jeans, or ‘that night’ that could rival The Hangover.

2. Incorporate small reminders
Sometimes it’s the most superficial things we miss about a place, and the smallest of things that can transport you back there. Smell has a powerful association with memory, so if there’s a particular scent that triggers happy thoughts of times gone by, seek it out. For me, the smell of lemongrass instantly transports me back to Cambodia. Jasmine reminds of various places in Asia, and one whiff of tiger balm and I’m having Thai massage-on-tap flashbacks. You could frame and hang art or prints you picked up in your former home for an ongoing reminder, listen to music that evokes a certain time and place, and it goes without saying that you should seek out the cuisine of your former homeland once home, whether whipped up in your own kitchen or on an exploration of your city’s eateries.

3. Know that the grass isn’t always greener
One of the most important ways of getting over your time as an expat, no matter how amazing the experience was overall, is to recall not only the good but the bad. You need to remind yourself of the not so glossy aspects so you don’t idealise your old home so much to the point that nowhere else can ever stack up. Case in point – when I moved from Phnom Penh to Saigon I was constantly comparing, and didn’t really embrace my new life in Vietnam until I had a bit of a reality check. A trip back to Phnom Penh painted a slightly different picture to the one I’d painted in my mind of a glittering, tropical paradise that Saigon could never hold a candle to (even though they’re neighbours, they felt worlds apart). I came to a more balanced realisation that both have their highlights as well as their shortfalls, but I was never going to accept my new home until I stopped glorifying the old. The same thing happened when I went back to Asia post-return to Sydney (see point 7).

4. Armchair travel
Escape to your country-crush/es of choice via some great reads. Whether it’s a non-fiction memoir or a piece of evocative travel fiction, use the power of the written word to project yourself to exotic far-off lands. Travel-related books are a great way to immerse yourself back into a place you once called home, loved visiting or wish to travel to in the future. One of my favourite reads is Emily Maguire’s Fishing for Tigers, a fictional book set in Hanoi’s expat scene, which does an amazing job of capturing the relationships between expats, locals, and those caught somewhere in the middle. Currently I’m delving into Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser, which examines travel from different points of view (expat vs. refugee). For more ideas, you could check out the travel book section on goodreads, or scour this list on World Hum.

5. Make new friends
Nothing cements your newfound life back at home like making new friends. It’s a given that you have changed somewhat since living overseas, whether it’s your values, interests or outlook on life, and sometimes it can be challenging reconnecting with long-term friends who have you pigeonholed as the old you (though it goes without saying that the best old friends should always be held onto). The friends you make after moving back home are likely to be on the same page as you are, right now. What has brought you together is your current situation, passions and life stage. They help bring your focus into the present, and keep you looking forward, not backward.

6. Get busy
Once you move home and settle in, throw yourself into new activities. Pursue newfound interests or reignite long forgotten passions. Embrace the things you want to do, and focus on things you were unable to do in expat-land, like something fitness or wellness-related that just wasn’t on offer there, or a study course you didn’t have access to. If you were living in a developing country, chances are the facilities needed to pursue your passions weren’t available to you, or of the standard you desired. Now that you’re living back home again, there is a world of opportunity to explore. Climate is another factor – you may have a newfound appreciation for beach culture if returning from Europe, or revel in access to ski fields and cool mountain air if back from somewhere perennially tropical.

7. Go back (yes, really!)
One of the most effective ways to get location-lust out of your system is to head back there for a huge dose of all that’s fun about the place, and a massive reality hit of what’s not so great about it. This method worked wonders for me a year into life back in Sydney, when I returned to Phnom Penh and a few other favourite Asian haunts for a short holiday. I got to re-connect with people and places close to my heart, but also realised that if I was live back there right at this moment, life would be fraught with complications I’d glossed over or forgotten about. Having a one year old and three year old with me on that trip exacerbated things like the unrelenting heat of the sun, the difficulty in going out and about in the middle of the day, the burden of strollers in crowded places, the logistical difficulties in schlepping said kids and stroller in and out of tuk-tuks all day, the food poisoning, the dehydration, the hospital visits (don’t ask)… it all made me realise that the Asia I’d been pining for was the Asia I experienced as a kid-free late 20-something, and that the latter part of my time there (once I had a baby on board) wasn’t quite the same. I felt markedly different about my new identity at home once we returned from that trip. It helped me appreciate more about what I have here in Sydney and how much more stable and sane a life it is, for us, at this moment.

So how long does it take to ‘get over’ a time and a place and move on? Everyone is different, but for me it seemed to take ages. The first year was definitely the worst in terms of how conflicted I felt, but after that first foray back to Asia 12 months in, things became exponentially more settled, especially after some major milestones and lifestyle changes. While I will never forget my time as an expat, I now feel I’m over the worst of my ex-expat syndrome (which is not to say I don’t still have wanderlust issues!). If you’re returning home, or have been home a while but just can’t shake the constant comparisons and ‘if only’ daydreams, I hope some of my tips have struck a chord!

Have you found it hard to adjust to a new life somewhere? And what about returning ‘home’ – any thoughts or tips on making the transition easier?

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2 Responses

  1. Anna July 20, 2013 / 9:55 am

    Excellent advice! Sometimes it really does take a concerted effort to “be where you are”. Back when I felt like I was trying to live in three countries at once, I eventually found it necessary to loosen my hold – just a little – on the two where I’m not physically located, in order to allow myself to fall in love with where I am. It worked, as I now can’t bring myself to leave here, so this matter of moving “home” is still in my future! 🙂

  2. devoured July 26, 2013 / 1:24 pm

    Hi Anna – I know what you mean about loosening your hold on a place, you kind of need to so you don’t spend all your time wishing you were somewhere else instead of living in the present. Good luck with the move ‘home’ if you do – though the idea of what is ‘home’ is an issue in itself don’t you think!

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