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Expat Observations on Coming “Home”

Boston as an expat home

It’s a strange thing: heading to a place you’ve called home but where you no longer live. What do you call it? A former home? A childhood home? Home?

It can be a challenge regardless of how far away you move, but for an expat it can be utterly overwhelming.

The senses are blasted by so many different stimuli. New smells mix with new sights and sounds to overwhelm any expat who’s been gone for an extended period of time. While some things may feel familiar enough, once you’ve lived away from your native country for a while everything that once seemed normal and mundane instead feels so very different.

I have resided outside of the U.S. for several years and at different times in my life. With each additional visit back to the States, I find myself observing things from an increasingly outsider’s perspective. Even the birds sound like they’re singing in a foreign language.

Every time I return to the U.S. feels simultaneously like coming home and feeling estranged. I visit old friends and spend time with family; I go to stores and restaurants that haven’t changed in years; I drive down roads I once knew like the back of my hand – only to find myself lost and dazed at the madness of traffic and construction work. Without fail, the first time I drive on the highway causes a panic attack as I feel like I’m entering warp speed and the other cars look like an asteroid belt to somehow duck and dodge my way through without being scathed. Why must everything be so huge here? This car is too wide and these roads are too vast and that truck is going to crush me!

Of course, I understand that the driving here is better than the driving I’ve seen in many other parts of the world in terms of order and safety. But now, that chaos of “elsewhere” feels so much more familiar than these massive lanes lined with paint.

Simple things like the lack of humidity making my skin feel like the iguanas I left behind, or that odious question perpetually asked here: “What do you do?”

At its basic meaning that question could have so many answers: I do make a pot of coffee and drink it all day long; I do a lot of chatting with family and friends and strangers; I do some walking and star gazing and people watching. These are all things I do, but it’s not what that question means.

That question means, “What do you do as a job so I can put you into a box that I better understand?” Those boxes are filled with teachers, politicians, electricians, and stay-at-home parents. But why is a job so important as to be the first question asked? I find myself falling into this trap every time I come back and I hate it. I hate that I parrot that senseless question and get caught in that cycle of conversation.

Where I come from now we ask, “What did you do today?” and “Are you enjoying yourself?” Because asking what a person does for work says everything in the U.S., but it says so very little to people who choose to define themselves by relationships and happiness rather than finances and longterm retirement plans. Saying, “I had a great time with some friends after work” says so much more to me about your personality than if you told me you do marketing. Saying, “I read a really interesting article this morning!” tells me more about your interests than if you told me you do sales.

It is always a shock to my system to have multiple conversations in one day in which people lament their hatred for work in general, or for their specific jobs, or for their commutes, or for their daily routines. It is always difficult to grasp how so many people can detest the majority of each week of their lives, yet that seems normal to them. While of course I cannot claim that every single moment of every single day is perfect for me, I can say that I love what I do for work and I love where I spend my time each day and I love how I live my life.

And I’m not simply saying those things in my current job and in my current home. I said that living in DC working full time in an office as well. While the fluorescent lights and miserable winters finally drove me out, I never allowed myself to get to a point where I simply detested my daily life and lived solely to get to a weekend. Every time I return to the U.S., it amazes me how many people do that. It actually drains my own happiness to hear time and time again that people are unhappy on a daily basis because of something they have complete control over.

When I’m in the U.S., I find myself feeling heavier and less energetic. Conversations often turn to something negative in the news (those two escaped prisoners were both shot, the weather is supposed to be crappy, the Sox are terrible this year…the list goes on). Fears and worries are so often discussed. Complaints and commiseration are the norm.

I find myself saying hello to people I pass by only to receive strange glances or awkward, muffled replies. I find myself making eye contact with people on a train, only to see them panic slightly and return to staring at their phones. I find myself looking up and marveling at the sunshine and the beautiful architecture around me, only to have someone walk straight into me because her head was so far down she couldn’t even sense my presence until it smacked her back into reality. And then she scowled and scurried away as I – for some reason – apologized.

Perhaps these are only my expat observations and others feel perfectly comfortable upon returning to their native countries. But I find myself observing everything as an outsider, yet I feel like I’m supposed to feel like I still belong here. I’m still part of this culture and environment, but it’s such an awkward and uncomfortable fit.

It is such a strange feeling: coming back to a place that used to be everything you knew, but that now feels so entirely foreign.

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