Every now and then I get a pang.
It hit me in the supermarket the other day. I’d battled to get a parking spot and was contemplating a sad looking eggplant after an uninspiring walk down the fruit aisle. Suddenly I remembered the vast, wild array of fruit and vegetables at my local wet market, a short walk from my old Beijing apartment and longed to be back there.
Then I remembered my Australian supermarket’s cheese selection and told myself to pull it together.
But that’s the thing about having been an expat: sometimes, if you like a place enough, a little piece of you gets stuck there. It’s like there is a tiny corner of my heart I left forgotten in the back of a Beijing cab, like so much lost luggage.
It’s been almost three years since my partner and I moved home to Australia from China. I don’t regret the return. Home is home, and the clean air and proximity to family more than makes up for some of the big city excitement the Chinese capital offers. But re-entry can be hard. Occasionally I get messages from friends still in Beijing. They may be from the UK, Canada the US or Europe. But they all have the same question for me: “What’s real life like? Am I going to regret it if I move home?”
If you like a place enough, a little piece of you gets stuck there.
Because giving up the perks of expat life can be difficult to get your head around. For all the frustrations of living in a foreign country, especially if you are tackling language and cultural barriers, it’s a lot of fun. There is a sense of being on a long holiday. A trip to the shops can be exciting in Beijing. A schlep around Coles? Eh, not so much.
So for my friends considering returning home – wherever that may be – here is my advice for reentry.
1. Get a job
Try to have a job offer before you return. If you don’t, make sure you are prepared for a long wait before you find yourself a gig. Hiring processes can be complicated, and increasingly, companies want you to jump through a series of hoops – interviews, medicals, compatibility tests – before taking someone on. When I started my last job it took six months to go from first interview to contract, that would have been a long time if I had decided to move home before securing employment. Get the job search moving a few months before you plan to return.
Your best friends, the help-me-hide-this-dead-body-you-remember-me-went-I-had-that-veeeery-unfortunate-haircut-in-high-school kind of friends, will still be there. But you have to remember their lives have changed. That Wednesday catch up you used to religiously have? They do a pub quiz with their new work buddies now. Sorry mate. They will carve out space in their lives for you again, just give them time. The harder part is realising that a lot of those more casual friends, the acquaintances and work friends, are harder to reconnect with. You might find your social diary a little empty. But good news – your expat life will hold you in good stead here. You are now a friend making expert! You just have to use some of those skills you picked up overseas and apply them at home.
3. Take a fresh look at your city
One of the reasons my partner and I wanted to move home was to buy a house. The city we live in is largely suburban and we always assumed we would live in the suburbs, close to the area we grew up in. But after a few months we realised as much as the ‘burbs have their appeal, after big city life they seemed a little…quiet. We ended up buying a smaller place closer the city. We may not have a big backyard, but we are walking distance to a decent plate of calamari and a cafe strip. If you return home and go straight back to all your old habits and haunts you may find yourself a little glum at how little has changed. Shake it up. If you have been away for a long period of time you may find the city you left isn’t the one you’re returning to. Going home doesn’t have to mean you are doomed to go back to the life you left.
4. Embrace the future
You lived overseas, you had a great time, it changed your outlook on life and you feel you might never be the same again. But it’s over now.
Don’t wallow in memories of your expat life. It’s one thing to hang that amazing piece of art you picked up while overseas over your mantelpiece, it’s another to turn your home into a Japanese-themed amusement arcade or a Middle Eastern souk.
The thing is, you can never go home again. Even if you did pack up and move back, the nature of expat communities means many of the friends you had overseas have likely moved on. And things are never quite as you remember. Ask yourself seriously if you really miss the country you left, or are you looking at it with rose coloured glasses.
As Dorothy said, there is no place like home. So enjoy it.
Are you currently an expat considering moving back home? Perhaps you’ve already done the move? What are your concerns? Can you share any tidbits to make the transition easier for others?