Returning home after living abroad: should I stay or should I go (back to my country)?

Gergeti, Georgia (photo credit: Karolina Kulach)

This article is for long-term expats who may find it hard to return to their home countries. In the coronavirus times and on the brink of Brexit, the urge to return can be stronger than ever: many expats want to be closer to their families in these uncertain times.

However, returning home may not be straightforward. First, relocating abroad can have an enormous impact on one’s sense of identity. Second, exposure to different cultures, lifestyles and viewpoints may wreak havoc on a person’s life as they knew it. Third, adapting to the new (old) reality can be distressing.

Many people who come home after living abroad want to leave again. This is often due to the lack of support needed to overcome reverse culture shock. The inability to readapt can make former expats move abroad again or hit the road to travel indefinitely. The price can be high: the feeling of displacement.

This was my experience. After my first year abroad, I came back home to leave again. Then I came back home once more to leave once more. Repeat. I was living out of a suitcase for over 7 years.

In this post I’ll tell you what helped me to look for (and find) answers and finally settle down. So should you stay or is it time to go?

Returning expats & reverse culture shock

Living overseas for an extended period transforms a person’s life and views, and long absences can play havoc with one’s sense of identity.

When I lived in the UK and visited Poland, my home country, I had an impression that I was the odd one out among my peers. I had a very exciting life in London, lived in shared housing and was open for new adventures and travels.

My peers in Poland, in turn, were expecting Baby №3 and had incurred massive debts to buy flats or something that would give them more certainty in life. I’m not saying that it wasn’t good or meaningful, quite the contrary, but so different from where I was.

Being pregnant, catholic or mortgage-positive seemed to be the standard way of living in my country and I didn’t want any of it at the time.

Some of my Polish friends were happy and settled. Their life appeared cosy and meaningful, which made me jealous at times. At some point I got fed up with overpaying for rent, living in hostel-style environments and flatmates changing every two months. All this made me wonder whether I made the right life choices. I felt I was lagging behind and I wasn’t sure if I would ever catch up.

However, there were also those among my peers who got divorced in their twenties. Now they were trying to figure out how to break free from their spouses, mortgage hell or the priest’s curse.

So I had a few reasons to celebrate my freedom. I wasn’t enslaved by the responsibilities of adult life and, with no strings attached, the world was my oyster. Liberating.

The problem was that the same world was too big for me. Choice paralysis was in operation.

Expat feelings: visiting the cemetery in Brockley, London

At times more lonely or challenging for an expat, there may come a temptation to leave everything behind and go back to what feels familiar and comfortable.

One summer day I was visiting Brockley in South London. On that day I discovered an old and unsightly cemetery. The place contrasted with the well-groomed cemeteries I used to visit in Poland: places of contemplation and (re)connection with the late ones.

In my hometown things and people were familiar. You’d know your neighbours, you’d know where their family members’ graves were located and you’d pop round to spend a silent moment with the deceased.

The graveyard in Brockley looked like a forgotten and sad place to me. Not that I think that cemeteries should be happy, idyllic spots, full of splendour and sublime sensations. However, compared to the places of contemplation & (re)connection I had in mind, this one seemed to be a deserted and unwanted place that you should stay away from while alive.

Interestingly, the Brockley cemetery made me think about my life in London. On the one hand, I was struck by a sense of abandonment lingering over the cemetery. On the other hand, I was thinking about London as an overpopulated and anonymous urban jungle.

London (photo credit: Karolina Kulach)

Being a single expat in her late twenties, I started to play the “what-if game” and ask questions:

  • What if I unexpectedly died in London: how many people would notice and how soon?
  • What if I die in London when I’m older? Who will organise my burial or cremation? Will there be anyone to visit my grave and spend a silent moment “with me”?
  • What if my death is preceded by a long-term illness: will I have an emergency contact or anyone to support me physically and emotionally?
  • What will my life be like when I cease to be young, fit, healthy and independent?
  • Where do I want my body to be buried in the first place: in Poland or abroad?
  • Do I want to stay in a foreign country for the rest of my life?
  • Who am I?

Rarely do such questions pop in my head but on that day I couldn’t help but wonder. These questions and fears projected into the future made me experience some sort of identity crisis.

I saw my life going two-ways: either I go back to my country and hope for more certainty and less anonymity, or I carry on living my life abroad and hope for a miracle.

Either way, something had to change, something had to happen. I had to make it happen. I wanted to reestablish my sense of identity and make my life less confusing, less displaced.

Keep your expat personality in order

A cross-cultural identity requires adaptability: I find it amazing how adaptive human beings can become when they move abroad. However, fears related to the essence of the “future me” are not uncommon.

At some point I started wondering about how my personality changed after living in Germany and the UK for 7 years. For instance, in Germany I was shy at times since I felt less confident speaking German. Further, to me, all German native speakers seemed smarter, more knowledgeable and better-informed, which resulted in me being a bit naive.

In Britain, on the other hand, a new modified me was born. I felt comfortable with adjusting my behaviour to make it more “British style”. I was happy to fine-tune my style of communication and thinking.

Luckily, I didn’t undergo any major identity transformation but some of the people I met did. For example, Tom from Slovakia, who described himself as an extroverted, gregarious party animal back in his country, seemed to be very shy in the UK due to language barrier. This led to his frustration and low self-esteem. Eventually, the identities that were cancelling each other out drew him out of Britain.

Suppressing your real self may be devastating, especially when you face the language or cultural barrier.

Staying close to your true self can be difficult but to me it’s the only option.

If you feel your life abroad has become a theatre stage with you playing the roles you hate or don’t feel comfortable with, stop for a moment to think where it can potentially take you.

Living abroad, displacement & how it may all come to an end

After a few years of living abroad I began to feel homesick. I really missed the people who were the only constant in my life: my family. I was afraid that stability was not on the cards for me.

I felt both stuck and willing to get UNSTUCK by frantically asking questions:

  • Which place/country to choose?
  • Which career path to follow?
  • Should I invest in my own flat or in travelling?
  • Should I change careers?
  • If I decide to go back home, will I be able to pick up where I left off?

I had vague answers to the question of which country I considered my own at the time. I suffered from a split identity, physical and cultural displacement as well as conflicting values.

Poland was more distant than ever before: physically & culturally. I loved the UK but it wasn’t my home country. Sometimes I missed sharing the common cultural background and childhood experiences with people who’d find them familiar.

What helped me shift my perspective and bring more answers than questions was writing my book “The power of displacement”. I began coming to terms with the realities of a life on the move and I felt inspired to guide others to do the same.

More importantly, though, I decided to put an end to endless wondering “What if…”, “Should I stay or should I go?”.

Shadwell, London (photo credit: Karolina Kulach)

I decided to give myself and my home country a chance. Originally it was a test: just for 3 months… then I planned to go back to the UK. But it never happened.

Today after a few years, life is different.

So I eventually moved back home, changed careers and bought a flat. At the same time I’ve been travelling widely. It’s very different to my London life that was more random and less certain. Today my life is much more intentional.

What’s your story?
Have you faced the inner dilemma of who you’ve become after living abroad
Have you defined your idea of home?

Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section & good luck!

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Karolina Kulach

Non-fiction writer & content manager. Author of “The power of displacement”. Keen reality and people observer. Loves writing catchy, rhyming poems.