Out of place.
These are all common experiences of expats who “go back home.” In other words, they return to live in the country listed on their passport. Regardless of citizenship, an expat’s identity and sense of home become far more complicated than a single country on a passport.
I grew up as a missionary kid in Ukraine, along with four younger siblings. We ranged from twelve years old to three months when we moved there. My youngest siblings are truly third culture kids, meaning they lived their early formative years in a culture other than their “passport country’s.”
I spent less of my early childhood outside the U.S., but when I moved back to the States for college, I still felt like an outsider. That feeling never completely left me, even though I stayed for seven years.
I now live in Ukraine again, but I recently watched my younger sister make the scary return to our passport country. It revived memories of my own challenging move, so I decided to share with you a little of what it’s like for a returning expat.
This is written from the perspective of an American expat returning to the States. Some differences would occur for those going “home” to another nation.
Out of place
When I moved back to the States, I assumed I would feel at home. After all, this was my native language and culture, right?
Instead, I realized that I couldn’t even talk “normally” with friends. I often stopped mid-sentence because I couldn’t think of an English word. I muttered under my breath in Russian, feeling stupid.
Simple tasks like grocery shopping raised my stress level to the point of mental breakdown. How in the world do they sell THIS MANY types of bread?!
Never mind the more complicated tasks like finding a job or a place to live. No work history? No credit history? Have you been living under a rock?
No, but if you can point me to one, I think I’ll crawl under it and die.
Some expats have lived in high-cost nations and find relief in American prices.
But coming from Ukraine, I was sure that my first American shopping trip would drain my entire savings. Every financial encounter left me with a feeling of despair: how will I ever survive here?
It took me years to learn how to live financially in the States. Most of that time, Americans probably thought I was a miser. But I was constantly wrestling with guilt over how much more I was spending than any Ukrainian I knew.
Even though I survived for a while on Ramen noodles and the Taco Bell dollar menu.
You need a car.
You can’t navigate most American cities without a car. Many expats got along in their host country with public transportation, and third culture kids have probably never owned a car. Many don’t even have a driver’s license.
When I first returned Stateside, I was at the mercy of anyone willing to drive me and isolated if no one was available. A stark contrast for someone who was free to roam a major city at the age of twelve, thanks to buses and the metro and a safer environment for kids.
What’s a deductible?
American life comes with the cost of monthly premiums.
My family never had health insurance when I grew up in Ukraine, and I’d never owned a car or had car insurance. I felt like an idiot when someone tried to walk me through my insurance options in the States. Deductible. Premium. HSA. Liability. Coinsurance.
When did we stop speaking English? I briefly debated lapsing into Russian, just so my friend would have an idea how lost I felt in that moment. I was certain the conversation could be no less productive.
And then there was the cost. Once again: how am I ever going to survive here?
A different mentality
Expats don’t think exactly like people in any one country.
I was born in Indiana, and Midwestern Americans value politeness and making a good first impression. Ukrainians value directness and believe you should speak your mind (though I’ll admit the level of directness varies from one part of Ukraine to another).
I took offense often during my early months in Ukraine. People told me I was too skinny or that my Russian was really bad. When I returned to the U.S., I was constantly confused, never sure what people really meant by their words.
Today my mentality comes from a strange combination of cultures: American, Ukrainian, and a number of others I’ve encountered over the years. Many expats struggle to find themselves thinking like those around them, no matter where they go.
Americans have more.
Once again, this is a general statement and not true related to every expat’s experience. Even in Ukraine, the economy has changed over the years, and I encounter more people who live very comfortable lives today.
But I remember first settling back in the States and being shocked at how much more stuff Americans had than people in other countries. I knew plenty of Ukrainian families who squeezed three generations into tiny apartments and never ate out because there wasn’t enough money.
I remember breaking down into tears one night after dinner at an American family’s house. They were wonderful, generous people who had worked hard and made a wealthy living. I did not fault them for their wealth. But I was struggling to make sense of a world where some people have so much and others have so little.
Expats returning “home” often find themselves wrestling over their ideals and worldview.
What about you?
I’ve given just a few examples of why expats struggle when they return to their passport country. There are many more, and the experiences vary depending on both the host and passport country of each person.
If you’ve lived outside your native land and returned, what was it like for you? Do you have any particularly funny or noteworthy memories?
Let’s laugh and learn together.