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The Foreigner’s Long Road Away from Home

The longer I stay away from the US, the stranger and more complex it becomes for me. I return to the same streets, the same house, the same city that I lived in for most of my life, and though in many ways it’s completely ordinary, something has changed. While it may not seem so different, both my city and I have changed during our time apart and we have to negotiate a new relationship.

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I’ve been living outside of the United States for almost 11 years now. I come back to visit every 6 months or so. In a way, it’s like putting on an old pair of jeans that, familiar though they are, no longer fit. It makes me sad when I try to put them on, remembering how they once felt, but noticing they no longer feel that way on me.

It’s a strange sensation to wrestle with – missing the uniqueness of being a foreigner and the feeling that your place of origin has somehow moved on without you. Though I’ve tried to express the sentiment to loved ones, they don’t seem to get it. In fact, they feel slighted by it, as if my feelings imply that Mexico is somehow better than the United States.

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There are a lot of reasons why travelers struggle with repatriation and even extended visits – it’s more than a lackluster idea that one place is “better”. While we spend a great deal of time and energy preparing to go somewhere unfamiliar, we don’t prepare to return home. It seems illogical. We feel we already know what “home” is and how it operates. Like a fish in the sea, we assume we’ll slide right back into the familiar life we had before – but that’s rarely the case.

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Home is different by comparison. It’s been changing and so has the individual. Upon return, the faster pace of life may feel tedious and mundane, like being just another person disappearing into a daily routine. We can feel the dramatically different life we’ve been living, like we’re carrying it around with us, unable to step from one suit into another.

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Bloggers and podcast hosts, like WSJ’s Debra Bruno and the Bittersweet Life’s Katy Sewell and Tiffany Parks (who’ve tackled this topic), suggest that expats are viewed as a lucky few by their friends, as if they’ve experienced something generally inaccessible to others and friends would prefer not hear about it – especially complaining because their having a hard time reintegrating. It can feel lonely with no one to express these feelings to, knowing that friends are annoyed by comparisons and discount the sadness that accompanies being back. While I enjoy the ease and convenience of the American life, it feels sterile, lacking culture and presence.

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In moving away, we build new lives with new friends and rhythms, knowing that we’re different and that it’s permitted. It allows more freedom to try things and the sense of community is strong with those who have taken the same plunge. The foreign community can feel tightly interconnected, as if you’re on a Gilligan’s island of sorts, helping each other navigate the mysterious landscape of a foreign place. Friends invest more time in each other, take time to volunteer and get involved in projects together.

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In a place like San Miguel, the architecture and street scenes of a daily life are magnificent. Like most colonial or European cities, it’s constant romance. Buildings meant to impress with power and beauty, buildings that tell a story – everyday is populated with these. They enhance the quality of our lives.

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Back home, the communities seem disbanded, constantly in go mode, and too busy to enjoy their lives. Productivity seems an overwhelming task with money the most important end result. Chain stores and strip malls are a nagging reminder that our country is built on notions of profit and productivity, and these ugly, homogenous stores were created for the simple task of making money.

Living in another environment opens your eyes, but someone who has lived abroad shouldn’t be discredited for having greater perspective, even if it causes dissatisfaction. Rather, people should embrace the criticisms, and use them to gain a new perspective about their own culture and make it better.

Have a story you’d like to share about living abroad? A questions to ask? Write in to our comments and share!

  • Carla St John
    Posted at 09:07h, 08 April Reply

    Great post. My son graduated college, went to Japan in 2001 and has never returned to the USA (except for brief visits). Thanks for the insights. As Americans, we are brought up to believe US is Best (and it is in so many ways) but that doesn’t mean that other places aren’t wonderful, exciting and enriching. We should consider ourselves the lucky ones to even have the option to be “expats” when it is so difficult for others to move around freely in the world.

  • Mittie.Roger
    Posted at 14:34h, 26 April Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Carla! It’s great that both you and your son followed that path. I love the US, but I also love that we’ve broadened our perspectives and seen outside of it!

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