Which is Harder: Moving Abroad or Coming Home?

is it hard to come home from living overseas
Darby Street in Newcastle. Do feel rather at home here!

Moving overseas is exciting and heartbreaking all at once. At times it will seem like the greatest adventure you’ve ever been on… but it won’t come without its hardships.

Yet, what about coming home? Arriving at all that is familiar, yet finding it turned upon its head?

Nothing beats the feeling of coming home, but sometimes all that follows can be equally as hard to cope with… if not worse.

Related: 13 Reasons Why You Should Never Become an Expat

Defining the Concept of Home

I’ve always found home to be a rather abstract idea. Is it one singular place? Can multiple cities or countries ever feel like home? Is it the people who make home what it is? There are many confusing questions that can be explored in this particular quest for knowledge.

Home as a “place” was never well-defined for me as a child, as my family moved around a lot.

There is one question that always comes up amongst expats and travellers and asking it for me at least, can often trigger an existential crisis of sorts.

is it hard to come home from living overseas
Um… Sydney, I think?

“Where Are You From?”

What springs to mind when you are posed with this question? Your place of origin? The city or town that you live in now? Some other place, region or even country where you spent a large proportion of your time?

My immediate answer is generally “Sydney” – Australia’s largest city. I lived there for 14 years and it’s the place that most helped me become the person I am today.

I spent many happy years of my childhood there and moved back as a young adult. I think your early twenties are the period of time that really shape you – they’re the years when you start to discover the person who you’re going to be (although you may not make your peace with this fact until your mid to late twenties or beyond!). There’s a lot that I regret from my time spent living in Sydney, but I still wouldn’t change a single thing.

Yet, Sydney is not home, not anymore at least. The Sydney of my youth no longer exists – two million people have poured into the city since we first left in 2000 and even after spending the last four years living elsewhere, I find it to be unrecognisable.

Sydney will always be my hometown, my place of origin and its skyline will never fail to make my heart beat faster. I truly think it’s the most beautiful city in the world and you can have a great life living there.

It’s not the life for me at least. I knew this when I left the city to move to Qatar. I knew this when I returned to Australia from London. And after moving to Melbourne, I know I made the right decision in not returning to Sydney.

is it hard to come home from living overseas
Finding a home in Southeast London helped a lot.

Finding Home Abroad

It takes around 6 months to a year to settle into a new place. Although many expats struggle at first with finding their feet, they eventually get into the swing of things and manage to carve out a life for themselves in their new city.

I was lucky to move to Qatar with a job and somewhere to live, so all I had to do was make friends. This happened soon enough and I was actually pretty bummed to leave.

The first year in London however, was hard. I didn’t find work until I was a couple of months in, which brought with it a stack of emotional turmoil. I jumped from house to house. My family, friends and dogs were half a world away and I missed them constantly. London is a well-established path for Australian expats at least, but that didn’t make the move there any easier. It was worse in a way, as I felt I was constantly failing at something that should have been easy.

Living in London was an interesting experience, as it first brought up the concept of home being a person (or people), rather than a place. I didn’t feel at home until I fell in love and moved into my dream flat. I’d also made some good friends by that point and finally felt like I had a family again – between my urban family, boyfriend and houseplants, I was sorted.

Yet, I never felt truly at peace in London. It’s undeniably one of the greatest cities in the world, but I knew deep in my heart that it wasn’t the place for me.

So, when we lost our flat I took it as a sign. It was time to go home – wherever or whatever that may be.

is it hard to come home from living overseas
Lost in contemplation at the Horniman Museum in London.

A Loss of Identity

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as an expat, is to come home and try to pick up your life as you left it. I’ve read so many accounts of reverse culture shock over the years, where people have expressed their disappointment over places changing, people changing and feeling perplexed with the entire situation.

The thing is – time doesn’t stand still. You left and people got on with their lives, without you in it.

Thanks to all the moving I did in my youth, I was quick to discover that most people that you like and want to spend time with, can be whittled down into three different categories.

Those who will be your friend, no matter where you both are at the time

Otherwise known as “forever friends”, these people will be your best pals for life. They are far and few between but are worth their weight in gold. They are the ones who will text, email and Skype constantly while you’re abroad. Despite the distance between you both, they’ll know every single detail of your day and life and vice versa.

Proximity friends, who fade in and out of your life

Some relationships need constant interaction in order to exist. You may not know everything that goes on in each other’s lives and sometimes you’ll feel slightly irritated with their inability to keep in touch, but you remain mates none the less.

I think of these as “suspended friendships” – you may not hear from them daily, but when you do catch up, it’s as if no time has passed. You still have all your old shared jokes and memories to fall back on.

The people who are in your life temporarily

There are some friendships that are so… there in the moment and can actually be all-consuming and intense. You’ll find it’s a particular scenario which has thrown you together – you work in the same office, you paired up in a language class, you met whilst travelling and realised you were on the same route and went on to spend 100% of your time together.

These friendships can be the most disappointing of all, as they just don’t last. That person is there in your life for a good time, not a long time. Once that common bond has extinguished, the friendship has run its course and it bites the dust. This can be hard to come to terms with, but there’ll always be new people walking into your life, to fill that void.

The problem is, it’s often hard to know which category people fall into until you quit your job, leave your city, move abroad. Some that you had thought of as forever friends will turn out to be proximity friends and the way you discover this can often be alarming. For example, a big life event may happen for them that you later find out about on social media. Yet, that person from your clay sculpting class may end up messaging you every few days to find out how you’re doing and when you next see them, you realise they’re the greatest friend you’ve ever had.

And what about when you come home? You’ll send out a big mass text of: “HEY DUDES I’M HOME, COME FOR DRINKS, I WANT TO SEE YOUR FACES” and at times, will get a series of tumbleweeds in return.

I’ve been there. It hurts like hell. Yet, that’s life. And it just makes me more grateful for those who responded with “YEEEEEESSS I’LL BE THERE WITH BELLS ON” and actually kept to their promise. A life without friends is a lonely life indeed.

Doing the Same Old Thing Again and Again

The come down from expat life can be brutal. No matter what anyone says, people move abroad to escape their life in some way – they want an adventure, they want to better their career, they crave new experiences, they want to find love.

And your life has most probably been a bit of a roller-coaster for that length of time that you’ve been away. Not necessarily a fun one – it could be more like the ride in Final Destination 3, which is upsetting to say the least (but really amusing to watch, if you’ve got the stomach for it!).

So, to come back to the same, same – to normality – can be really difficult. This can be living in the same city, going back to your old job, resuming your life as you left it.

Just enough will have changed to make you feel uneasy – not to mention the changes you yourself have gone through. Living abroad is a big thing and can often force you to grow up quickly. Regardless, time has elapsed and you’ll want to hope that some sort of emotional growth has taken place over the years that you’ve been away.

is it hard to come home from living overseas
Hands down favourite suburb of Melbourne.

Keeping the Adventure Going

I moved to Melbourne because I wanted a new adventure and in some ways it was the best thing I ever did. In going back to the concept of home, I feel this more so in Melbourne than I have ever in the past.

This is despite the fact that my family are a thousand kilometres away, I knew a total of three people and I have a distinct dislike for the game of AFL (Aussie Rules), which everyone in this city seems to be obsessed with. I adore living in Melbourne, regardless.

And let me tell you, it has been a shitty year in so many ways, so this is a big deal. I often think that if I were anywhere other than Melbourne, I’d start most of my days crying in the corner, feeling a lack of motivation to do just about anything.

Yet, I walk around with a smile on my face and a song in my heart, because I know I have found my city. I may not live here forever – even as I write this, I can feel the itch in my feet starting to burn. But I’m happy to stay here awhile and even if I do leave again, I feel I will inevitably end up back in Melbourne. I think I have finally found my home.

There are many other factors that can turn a move home into a truly upsetting experience. One scenario that I haven’t touched on is being forced to leave a place you love due to a visa-related issue – that’s not my story to tell.

Life however, is what you make of it. And how boring would our time on this earth be, if things were always easy? Those periods that are hard and tough are such great learning opportunities and really do equip you to better appreciate the good times, when they roll round.

No matter what you do or where you are, there’ll be hardships littered across your road of life. It’s how you deal with them that makes all the difference.

Have you spent time abroad, come home and found it difficult to cope? Let me know about your experience in the comments!

If you liked this you may also like:

The Downsides of Moving to Your Dream City
11 Tips to Avoid Being Lonely in Your New City
Goodbye to Number 53: The House That Was a Home

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Moving abroad is hard, there's no denying that. Yet, is it possibly harder to come home and resume your life as it once was? / Expat Life / #Expat /

Moving abroad is hard, there's no denying that. Yet, is it possibly harder to come home and resume your life as it once was?
Moving abroad is hard, there's no denying that. Yet, is it possibly harder to come home and resume your life as it once was?
Moving abroad is hard, there's no denying that. Yet, is it possibly harder to come home and resume your life as it once was?

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  1. Great and heartfelt post. I have lived abroad since 2010 and spent several years of my life living abroad as a kid. I don’t really know where home is. I tell people it is in Virginia, where I spent most of my teenage years… but I also tell people it is Pittsburgh, PA, a place I never lived but had extended family as they were always stable and stayed in one place. I left and moved to Norway in 2010 and then to Germany in 2014. Norway felt like home, but I was over it. I have loathed Germany since moving here (funny enough- I lived in this same city as a child)… and something in me wants to go back to Oslo. I am starting to wonder if Oslo was it, after all. Anyway, I can totally identify with this and feeling like you really don’t belong anywhere and then sometimes, you may just find that one city (Melbourne for you, Oslo for me) where you belong best or feel most at ‘home’. Good luck 🙂

    1. Hi Megan! Thanks for commenting. That’s interesting, the concept of home feeling like a place you yourself haven’t lived before – definitely a case of it being people making a place what it is. Funny that Oslo did end up striking a chord with you – maybe a future visit will bring some sort of clarity to the matter? Good luck to you too!

    2. First of all, I’m glad that I accidentally bumped into your article, I found myself relating your story because this time now is exactly the time that I’ve to face to my reality. Well it is not that I have to, but it is out of question for me to just come back to Malaysia (originally from there) after being away for almost 4 years and since now I have completed my study in Turkey and my visa is over I need to move on somewhere, and so far Malaysia is my only option. In 2013, I started my Masters degree in Ankara/Turkey where at that time when I told my family and friends about my decision to further my study in here for them was so abrupt and I left most of them speechless. None of my family members or friends had ever thought of Turkey to go for study, let alone to undertake the journey of being away from Home. To be honest, I came to Turkey with an idea that I was going to build my own Home in here and I thought that it doesn’t matter where I choose to live, I will find myself Home. Now it has been 4 years, I’m still doubting that I’ve found place to call Home, neither my own country nor Turkey. I’m still feeling unfulfilled and I seem not to see myself settling down in here. Although I’ve met with a lot of acquaintances and friends that became close and so dear to me, I myself feeling that there is this emptiness where only I can figure out (sooner or later). So yeah, I don’t know where exactly this feeling will take me but I believe that as long as you’re not afraid of being by yourself, you’re always Home and it doesn’t matter where it is.

      1. Hi Zulaikha, having to leave somewhere because of visa issues isn’t something I’ve experienced personally, but my heart absolutely goes out to everyone who finds themselves in this position. It’s pretty upsetting to move to a country that you think will end up feeling like home and find that to not be the case after all. After writing this post, reading the comments people have left and doing some reflecting, I’ve too come to the conclusion that home is a feeling, as in the end it comes down to you and your own perceptions. Your last sentence is so poignant – it is a feeling you can carry alongside yourself in your heart, if you allow yourself to. I wish you all the best.

  2. Such a beautiful post and the way you have articulated about the different types of friends is so real. Discovering that people are “proximity friends” is always such a let down. I haven’t moved abroad but I did spend 6 months overseas (exchange + two months of travel) and there was that shock of going back to a mundane and normal life.

    I find it interesting that home is not a fixed thing and it really does change with your life, if that makes sense.

    Nat // Dignifiable

    1. It makes total sense! I feel the same way – I would have always assumed it was Sydney as I’ve lived there the longest, but it just doesn’t feel like home any more. And yeah, proximity friends are the worst, unless you’re both on the same page with the friendship, of course (although that’s hardly ever the case, sadly!).

  3. Home is a complicated topic, but for me, the answer to your title question… it’s way harder to move abroad. Coming “home” is easy! I love visiting the US now and slip right back into the American way of life. 😉

    1. I am glad to hear that! I did find it easier to go back to being “Australian” when I’d been away for awhile, but admittedly coming home has been a lot easier than I thought it would be. Even with its drama!

  4. I love this post LC, and can relate to so many aspects! As I’m sure you’re already aware, coming home was so much more difficult than moving abroad for me. I’ve lived in the same place pretty much my entire life, so I’d never really questioned the definition of home – until I lived in Edinburgh.

    I’m so happy you’ve found such a strong sense of ‘home’ in Melbourne. I’m hoping to find the same (preferably in a city where I’m allowed to stay more than two years this time), and the fact that you managed to find it after moving back to Oz from the UK makes me feel a bit more positive. Your last two paragraphs are especially poignant for me right now – thank you for the sage advice.

    And thanks for linking to my post 🙂 Honoured to be included here.

    1. Thank you Ashley! I know it’s been a rough trot for you – I do hope it’s getting easier as time goes by. And yeah, I hope you find a city with a nice open-ended time frame as well. I was very worried that I’d be disappointed with Melbourne as I’ve wanted to live here for almost a decade now and my expectations were pretty high. I guess if it’s the place for you, it doesn’t end up mattering either way.

      No worries, thanks for writing it. 🙂

  5. I love this post so much!!
    I’ve always thought of “home” as a feeling rather than a place. When I think back to my childhood, eating Chinese food (fake of course — British style) in front of the TV while watching X Factor or Pop Idol on a Saturday night with my family, is what I most associate with feeling at “home”. That time in my life was, I think, when I felt most comfortable with exactly where I was and how things were going.
    Now I’ve grown up, if I go back to my stepdad’s place (despite that being where the aforementioned Saturday nights happened) I don’t really feel as home as I did. It feels like home but it also feels a little bit foreign.
    When I was in India last year, I felt at home. Which is totally bizarre seeing as I was living between my friend’s spare room and two different hotels, but it was home. Then I came home to my actual home and, for a brief time, THAT felt like home too.
    The different types of friends you mentioned?! I could easily divide everyone in my life beneath those three headings.
    Happy that you’re happy in Melbourne! And if you stick around for the foreseeable future (like, a year), can I come visit?!

    1. I do like the concept of home as a feeling. You reminded me of Nanna’s house with your comment – I spent half my childhood there and it always felt like home, but the days after she died, it went back to feeling like any old house.
      Got to appreciate how fluid the whole concept of home is, at least. Particularly when you feel it in the most likely of places.
      I know right, re the friends thing. Have devoted so much time and energy inevitably thinking about that sort of thing. o_0
      And of course! I’m now going to hold you to it! I’m still hoping we can meet up when I’m in London in Oct, but Melbourne is also as good a place as any.

  6. Home… such an interesting concept, especially in this global world with large-scale migration and such a change in population movements. Great post, you’ve got such a knack with words and I love how you tackle topics that go way deeper.

    Every time I land in Berlin I have a deep sense of “ahhh, I’m home” even though my city has changed beyond recognition from the place I grew up in. And now also Melbourne… every time I come back, I feel like I’ve stepped back on home turf. Maybe one day I’ll feel like that about the Sunshine Coast or maybe not.

    And I totally get that ‘where are you from?’ question!! I’ve lived in Australia for so long now that when I go “overseas”, ie leave Australia since I’m already technically overseas, I get confused by what I should answer. Last year in Canada, I was simply Australian for six weeks. Made everything a lot easier… 😀

    1. Aw shucks, thanks Kati. I mean, I think it’s possible to have two homes as well?! I certainly feel very at home in both Melbs and Newcastle, just for different reasons.

      Oh yeah, that whole dual nationalities thing is a different kettle of fish! My Mum is English, so I have dual and I’ve never felt completely “Australian” – but then I didn’t really feel that English when I lived in the UK. You basically end up straddling both countries and constantly questioning your own identity, which is real fun. Putting on different nationalities is fun though – I like to pretend to be British sometimes when I’m out painting the town red. 🙂

      1. Yes, it’s interesting how your identity shifts depending on the context. It’s the reality for so many migrants (“third culture” etc.) around the world, and not something we think about unless we experience it ourselves, right? 🙂

        Haha, shifting identity can be very handy too! 😀 😀

        You really seemed to have a hit a nerve with this post, judging by the tons of comments!!! 🙂

        1. Exactly! I saw one comment online where someone said “Coming home is harder as you’re more interesting when you’re overseas”. I actually think there’s a lot of truth in that statement, sadly!

          I do have to say I love when that happens… it’s nice that so many people can relate.

  7. Thanks for sharing all this. I’m struggling with coming home after a year and trying figure out what to do/where to go next. This makes me think about a lot!

  8. What an interesting post, thank you. We have redefined home over the last 18 months as in our late 40’s we packed up our jobs, packed everything we owned into storage and sold up in exchange for a life on the road. We bought a camper and decided on just a year of travel to satiate our curious spirits. 18 months later we’re still going with no ‘going back’. Home is not UK, home is where we park up for the night, because we have our home with us. I had a fear of leaving my ‘roots’ behind although I’ve come to learn that my roots are wherever my heart lands. I can earth myself anywhere – my identity is not my house or community – my identity is who I choose to be, from the inside without a sense of labels. The going back thing is yet to challenge us and I’m sure it will one day as relatives age and a call for care is needed. Although for now, we live in the moment and put our energy into our experiences. Home will continue to redefine itself and we will navigate its journey as and when it needs our attention. Thought-provoking, thank you. Kx

    1. I like the idea of having a home on wheels! My parents are thinking of doing the same (the caravan has already been purchased). A life permanently on the road can be a pretty exciting one after all. Agreed that sometimes it’s best not to think about anything else apart from the moment that is happening – it’s the only moment that matters, after all.

  9. Great post!! As a third culture kid who has been living abroad, I can totally relate to you. Except that, I don’t really know how coming home feels. Home does feel like an abstract thing. I define it as a place where my parents live. I don’t miss going “home” if my parents are not there. And I think, I won’t stop moving to different places. I’m planning to move for the 7th time to another country/continent. I just love those uncertainties, surprises, and the feeling of being in a new place.

    1. They are feeling that are hard to beat! I talk of where my parents live as “home” too, but then it’s not really at the same time, so am all confused, haha. Good luck with your next move!

  10. Great post LC! I moved around a lot as a teenager but have stayed put ever since. Now that we are traveling for twelve months it will be interesting to see what it is like when we return to the same house/job/cars etc that we left.

  11. I feel you! I lived in 4 different countries growing up and I still struggle with the concept of home. Maybe we just have to accept that we are nomads and try to let go. Although we might feel lost at times, we have a freedom that others who have never travelled the same way, will never experience. Great post!

  12. Wow wow wow this is so timely for me as I’m imminently moving home to the States later this year. Nervous about reverse culture shock as I feel it even when I come home for one week visits. This has so many good tips, I think I will struggle quite a bit so I am saving this for when I return <3

    1. It’s not easy! I think accepting that things would be different and not fighting it helped, although that seems like useless advice now! Good luck.

  13. I came to Paris in ’92 to work at the newly opened DisneyLand Paris. At the end of the year I had to leave and return to the US due to visa issues, but it broke my heart. I left behind a lot of unfinished business. Twenty-two years later I came back and have been here for 3 years now. With a EU citizenship, visa issues no longer exist, and I have no plans to return to the US. Home isn’t always the place you were born.

    1. No, it isn’t! That’s why I lean more towards it being the people, or even a feeling these days. So glad you managed to return to Paris – that’s a nice ending to your tale together.

  14. What a fab read – I’m from London but have lived in 4 countries since I was 18 (now 25!). I love the exhilaration of moving abroad, the challenge if making a life for yourself… I feel more at home abroad that I do in London… for me coming home is always the hardest. I love London but I feel like an outcast there, like I just don’t belong and I’m faking it. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I know what you mean about London! I never felt like I fit in there, although to be fair it’s not where I’m from. It must be so much harder when it’s your hometown. 🙁

  15. This is such an eye opening article. We’re debating a move abroad or possibly just living abroad for 6 months of the year. So this was incredibly thought provoking in terms of the difficulty with coming home. I really never gave much thought to how hard it would be to come back.

  16. I have moved home 4 times and I do know how difficult it is to return. The worst for me was when I had to move from my grandma’s house after she died because my father decided to sell it. Years I couldn’t pass by or even go to that neighbourhood, knowing that the house where I grew up is gone. Then, I moved countries and I will probably never go back.

    1. Oh gosh, that’s hard Joanna. I think sometimes it is better to leave moments like that crystalised in time. That’s the way I feel about a couple of my childhood homes – the new owners changed them so much that I can’t go anywhere near them without completely breaking down.

  17. I can completely relate to everything you have written here! I have lived as an expat for 7 years and moved within my home country at least 5 times, so I know exactly how this feels. It is as exciting as it is heartbreaking.

  18. I feel this on so many levels. First and foremost I’ve come to accept that people in my life have moved on back home. I also agree that home is where you make of it, and this could be in a different country or place.

    1. I think peacefully accepting that it’s the way things are is a really positive step forward for anyone. Love that Cheryl Strayed quote “Acceptance is a small, quiet room.” Thanks for your comment, Yafieda!

  19. Great great post 🙂
    I am Violeta, Spanish living in London for the last 6years so yeah i know how it feels… London is as cool as tough to be happy and feel at home there.Travelling as much as I can I have left my job and went to SE Asia hoping to find what to do next in life.I hope to find my city as you have as I feel it is time to move on and away 🙂

  20. Hello! I just came back to my “home town” Amsterdam after spending a life time (17 years) in Portugal. My kids grew up there. I had my 2nd career there. And now back in my “home town”. I know I will never fit in perfectly anymore, but then again who does? There are so many foreigners living here! I already know it will never feel the same anymore. Yes its hard to built up a new life, but that’s hard anywhere. Building up a new life is just difficult. Especially if you are not 25 anymore! But at least the double….I never called myself an expat, I never felt like an expat. I am just a person living somewhere, like anybody else. This is 2017! we are world citizens. I hope I will never get stuck somewhere anyway…I am dividing my life between Portugal and Holland now, and even trying to make living with it! (wish me luck) but yes there are hard sides to this kind of life. Nothing is easy. Easy is boring. Saying that just had a shitty morning with a lot of tears and thinking what am I doing here! hahaha! If I had to do it al over again, I would probably do something similar. 🙂

    1. Hi DB, thanks for your comment! 17 years is epic! I am wishing you great luck with settling back in, but totally agree with your sentiment of nothing being easy and if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing! It’s good that you can look back with no regrets, as what’s the point of lamenting what has already happened? Hopefully those shitty mornings lessen for you over time.

  21. So in love with this post, these honest reflections are what I love to write about as well. Really hits home for me. I’ll never forget that strange feeling of returning home after my very first 6-month stretch of living abroad. You feel foreign and everything somehow seems to be simultaneously the same yet different. The experience is always worth it, but it’s so taxing on your emotions, especially the first time. Glad that you’ve found your home in Melbourne, it’s makes such a difference having a place to return to that feels like an old friend.

    1. Hi Miranda! Oh thank you. It’s been heartwarming to hear others resonate so acutely with this feeling. And taxing on your emotions – you’re right! I still feel like I’m “settling in” and often wonder how much more my nerves can take, haha. But finding a place where you feel like you belong does help a lot.

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