• July 2016
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Displacement in Your Own Homeland

A strange thing happens when you spend long periods of times away from your home country. One of my first conversations with an American woman who had spent many years abroad was about this very strange thing. I had been living in Rwanda for about 3 months and commenting on how surprised I was that it didn’t feel as strange and awkward as I had thought it would.

“The first time you go home, it will.” She offered. “You don’t realize how much you have changed, how much you have missed in the lives of loved ones until that first trip home.”

My first trip home was last year. I had not been back to the United States for 12 months. And it overwhelmed and frustrated me more so than it did welcome me back into its open arms. Aside from the country itself, talking to people I had known for my entire life also felt awkward and forced. Like I was trying not to make the conversation all about me, but they wanted to ask me questions about living abroad even though they did not know what to ask.

I made it through last year’s visit home without the strangeness completely discoloring my reunion with my three favorite things: family, friends and fried foods.

I thought the strangeness would lessen this time around. It actually has gotten noticeably worse.

New York City has become strange for me.

My New York City feels out of place. Not totally ill fitting, but like the waistline of my favorite dress falling a little bit lower than it should and thus actually highlighting my babyless bump rather than hiding it.

It is hard to explain what feels out of place. The best comparison I have for it is when I actually lived here and would go home to visit New Orleans every Christmas. I enjoyed being back home, but as the years passed and I got off the plane at the Louis Armstrong Airport, it felt like I was a visitor although I had spent more years in this place than I had in the place I had chosen to live. The fact that twice now I have gotten off the plane in the LaGuardia Airport and felt this very same way has created a sense of displacement and confusion that makes me reconsider coming back to the states annually.

“I might have to do it every two years,” I commented on a thread in an online travel group. The original poster had returned with her children from the UAE to visit family. She, too, felt out of place. Her children felt guilty that they didn’t interact with their cousins the same way they had before. “The long ass flight alone, the jetlag and now….this,” my comment continued. “It feels like too much all at once.”

For four weeks in New Orleans, I felt out of sorts. Confused. But, that was not as unsettling to me as this same confusion and feeling of “not just right” that has engulfed me in the two days I have been back in my beloved New York City. For the two years I was in Rwanda, folk occasionally asked me if I missed America. I remember responding, “No, not really. But, I missed New York City the moment I got in the cab and was driving to the airport to leave it.” And this is why the displacement here has been more upsetting to me.

How can I feel out of place here in this city?

The same woman who warned me about this strange feeling, also advised me to be conscious of how I moved around my international life to make the displacement when I visited home worthwhile. She was planning on moving back to the states permanently because she realized her 7 years traveling around the world was turning into the life she was trying to escape in the states.

“It was just unconscious choices with no real thought. There’s an opening for an English teacher in Turkey, so I guess I’ll just apply and see what happens. Oh, why not just move to  Argentina?” For many of us who choose the difficulties of life abroad, the benefit of the choice is the knowledge that we didn’t just settle for the road often traveled. We decided to make a conscious choice to follow our hearts and try a life that is not part of the “American adulthood contract.” If you talk to some American Ex Pats who sold houses and dropped out of PHD programs six months shy of completion, they describe “just sleeping walking through life. Not being active in creating my own happiness.”

This friend realized that her country hopping was becoming as unplugged and unfulfilled as her country staying. “Make sure you are doing this with intention. Have goals and plans and actual thought out REASONS for jobs you take and where you take them.” She confirmed what I had learned when I was offered this job in Rwanda so quickly. An American teacher with an advanced degree and certifications truly can work pretty much anywhere and demand the higher end of the pay scale without much effort. That luxury can cause a person to make life and career decisions like a toddler in a candy store filled with only his favorite chocolates during the buy-one-get-five-free sale.

I was fortunate to receive such sage advice early on in this journey. And I have remained true to the sentiment of that wisdom. I accepted my next job based on where I want to be professionally and financially in the next five years just as much as I did my need to be in a major, metropolitan city again as well as explore another region of this big, beautifully ugly earth. If I am going to sit through shows with my favorite performer in venues that were like second homes in a city that I would have married if the laws weren’t so damn restrictive and fight back the urge to yell at all of this to stop being so different, so strange, then there needs to be a pay-off for me. A big one.

7 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post. I feel lost in the US. I’ve been back for three years almost and I still long to leave. I don’t feel settled and I don’t know if I ever will. I was told I would adjust eventually but I don’t see it happening.

    • Wow, 3 years to not have fully repatriated does seem like a long time. Whatever you do, make sure you are truly making a strategic decision. I wonder if your displacement after 3 years being home will really go away simply by your going away. Good luck to you at any rate.

  2. Reverse cultural shock is common and yet often not talked about, I’ve often wondered why not. Whether you choose to travel extensively or live in other countries, you can always return home but YOU are never the same and so home is never the same.

    • A lot of companies are now investing in repatriation programs for their employees who return to the states. I think it is just occurring to many that there is just as much stress and difficulty fitting back in as there was when they left. I can see how many would have been remiss because…you’re going home! YAAAAAY! Why would I need to help you go home again?

  3. Very nice piece! Perhaps I too should think of getting those certifications!!!

    • Glad you like it. And yes, you would definitely benefit a lot from living abroad. The world would, too.

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