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Five Challenges of Visiting Home as an Expat

One of the hardest aspects of expat life is being away from loved ones back home. So, when the time comes to take that train, plane, bus, car, or even boat to visit the friends and family you left behind, expectations will definitely be high. But taking that trip back home is not always plain sailing especially if you haven’t been back in a few months. Check out these five challenges that every expat has faced when visiting home.

Making Time to See Everyone

You’ve been planning your tip home for weeks now, but you still haven’t quite figured out how you’ll fit everyone in. After all, you are in very high demand. There are your high school friends, your university pals, your former colleagues, your parents, grandparents, varying aunts, uncles, and a fair few cousins. You have a week to catch up with everyone, how do you do it? This equation is a challenge even Einstein would have struggled with.

You’ve had calls and messages from people saying how excited they are to see you. It’s like being a B-list celebrity, and its oh so exhausting. Of course, you want to see all of them, that is the main reason you’re home, but the prospect of going on a tour to visit each person individually is certainly a daunting one. It’s even more stressful if you have kids and you also have to factor in any friends they might want to see, while trying to make sure you also have some downtime, because after all this is also your holiday.

The best advice I can give is try and combine events and meet-ups. Get people together, host a party or a dinner. It will give you the chance to catch up with everyone in one go, no need to travel around when everyone can come to you. It’s also important to prioritize! As harsh as this might sound, you need to be sure that you get the chance to catch up with the people that really matter to you, the people that mean the most.  

Finding that Balance

The next challenge of visiting home is the frustrating task of summing up the events of the past few months on a coffee date or around the dinner table. So much has happened and yet it’s hard to explain everything without going into too much detail and isolating your loved ones. You want to tell your best friend or your sister every single detail of your life abroad, all the things you couldn’t over Skype or through texting, but its not always easy. Part of the challenge is realizing that in most cases your family and friends back home haven’t met a lot of your friends or colleagues abroad. So, telling stories about how hilarious Suzan from accounting is and how charming Mark from next door is may not always translate. You end up with a lot of ‘’you had to be there’’ moments.

Of course, there is also the issue of realizing that while you might find every aspect of your life abroad fascinating, your home friends might have a limit. Don’t be that person who forgets to ask about their friends’ lives. Yes, maybe you have been travelling the world, meeting new people, and sharing new cultures, but your friends also have stories and experiences they want to share. Keep yourself in check and take note of when you might be talking too much and not listening enough — if you see eyes starting to glaze over, it may be time to change the subject.

Realizing That Things Change

Of course, part of the joy of visiting home is getting to experience all the home comforts and treats that you have been missing out on while abroad.

I recently went back to the UK, excited to see my friends and family, of course, but also looking forward to going to my favorite burger restaurant. But when I arrived, ready to order, I discovered my favorite burger was no longer on the menu. I know, I know, in the grand scale of things this seems like a very minor inconvenience, after all, a burger is just a burger. It may seem like I am being a diva or drama queen, but in that moment, I realized things really do change, and life back home doesn’t just stand still because you’re away. Today it’s a burger, tomorrow it’s your best friend getting married, your niece taking her first steps, or maybe your parents moving to a new house, who knows!

While change can be a good thing, it can be unsettling if you’re not expecting it. Realizing that life is moving on without you, and that your friends and family are making memories that you won’t always be part of is a scary thought. It can even be enough to make some reconsider their life abroad. It’s important to remember that your friends and family feel the same way about you —when you are gone, they wish they could be part of all the amazing memories that you are making. Accepting that you won’t always be there for the big moments, just as your friends and family can’t be with you always, is an important part of expat life, and once you come to terms with this, it becomes easier to start making new memories.

Reverse Culture Shock

Another difficult factor when you return home as an expat is reverse culture shock. You have spent your time abroad getting used to a new culture, different surroundings, and probably a foreign language. Returning home, even if it is just for a visit, can leave you doubting yourself and feeling out of place — suddenly your own culture starts to seem foreign to you. People may act and behave in ways that didn’t always seem strange to you, but after being away for so long you wonder how you ever fit in so seamlessly.

Reverse culture shock can be the result of both positive and negative experiences. From getting used to the different ways people greet each other, to the differing attitudes of society, the food, and even to the efficiency, or inefficiency, of public transportation. The more dissimilar the culture of your host country is to that of your home country, the greater the reverse culture shock is likely to be. The best thing you can do in this situation is think positively and remember that it is you that has changed since living abroad, not the culture you left behind. In this sense it’s important to remain open — different doesn’t mean wrong and in many ways its interesting to see how cultures can vary.

Saying Goodbye

But perhaps the hardest challenge of visiting home is the day you have to say goodbye to your loved ones and return to your expat life. Its realizing that you might have to wait a couple more months to see your friends and family again and understanding that you are once again saying goodbye to your home country. Of course, for many there is a mixture of excitement and sadness, especially for those who are really enjoying their life abroad. However, those who find living in a foreign country particularly challenging, leaving the comfort of home behind yet again is certainly a test of strength and determination.

When faced with this challenge remind yourself that you have two homes now, the one you left behind, and the one where you have started this new life abroad. Although both are equally as important,  it’s time to focus on the here and now. Living abroad is an exhilarating new adventure that you should try to embrace. Your friends and family, wherever they are in the world, will be there to support you along the way.



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Peter Okello

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