Which is Harder: Moving Abroad or Coming Home?
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.
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. We started out in Sydney, the place of origin for my brothers, my father and myself and moved three hours inland to the Upper Hunter Valley when I was 11. They’re years that I look back on fondly, but were still fraught with difficulties for the entire family.
Four years later, we picked up and moved to the Maitland-Newcastle region, a decision that I was entirely against at the time. Being 15 years old, having to transfer schools and make new friends seemed akin to the world ending and even thirteen years later I’m not much more of a fan of Maitland (although the Gaol is pretty cool).
Years later when school was done and dusted, I moved a half hour down the road into the city of Newcastle. It’s where the majority of my immediate family (and beloved dogs) live these days and when I talk about “going home”, it’s the place that I’m referring to.
Yet strictly speaking, Newcastle is not my home. Apart from the past summer where I spent four months sponging off my poor, long-suffering parents whilst settling back into Australian life (having just moved back from the UK), I’ve not really lived in the city properly since I was 21 years old and that was only for two years anyway.
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.
“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. It’s what’s listed under “place of birth” on my birth certificate and passports. I am 28 years old and I’ve lived there for 14 years – half my life 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 Newcastle from London. And after having spent six months living in Melbourne, I know I made the right decision in not returning to Sydney.
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.
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.
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!
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