Re-Entering Earth’s Atmosphere

In a recent article posted by #Judy Rickatson (@wifeinasuitcase), she commented on a discussion in Families in Global Transition (#FIGT), entitled “Reverse culture shock: returning home with foreign feelings” I read words that could have been me speaking.

Hagiya Sofia Mosque- Culture Shock Comes In All Forms

Culture Shock Comes In All forms

Whenever people ask me what it was like being overseas for ten straight years, living without a large company with expat benefits, I always say that wasn’t the hardest part. The most difficult transition was the re-patriation, or what I only half-jokingly call the “Re-Entry in Earth’s Atmosphere”.

I felt like I had amnesia for the first 2-3 years back, until I had run through the cycle of current events and holidays with people I was meeting. Once I got into the rhythm of life in DC I began speaking the same government acronym-ese and could share about the latest round of funding and budget issues like anyone else.

But when people would slip into social conversation, I got lost all over again. Work was my cover, and when it was stripped away, I felt exposed and out of touch.

For several years I tried to put it behind me and become a normal American again, one who had not had those amazing experiences, because I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging or boasting to those who had not traveled or lived abroad, or who had not had the opportunity to do really amazing work with developing markets, meeting fascinating people.

Additionally, throw into this mix that I had been gone from 1995-2005. The fall of the Soviet Union didn’t begin and end in a day, there were years of coups and turmoil, then more years of rebuilding. People here didn’t follow all that. It was the go-go 90s here, grow and go. Until it wasn’t anymore.

“Where were you on September 11th?” That’s the ultimate badge of being an American, that shared experience of sorrow that binds everyone tighter.

I don’t have that. I don’t belong. I didn’t do my part of sharing that burden. I wouldn’t understand. I’m not one of “us”.

Never mind that I was in a Muslim country on 9/11. Never mind that I was helping locate American brothers and sisters in all that chaos. I don’t understand what happened here and Americans here don’t understand what we went through either. Separated by an uncommon language.

But then something truly amazing happened. I almost don’t remember how.

I had decided to write this blog, mostly just to preserve memories for my daughter Caryn, to help her know what I had seen and learned. And mostly for me, a party of one. I could read these things back and remember what it was like to live free in an unfree land versus being constrained in a land of freedom. Odd, that thought.

In trying to sort out what I should or could do with this, I came across the blog from #Judy Rickatson, who was quoting something from #Box 53b, @Naomi_Hattaway and @Anne_Elizabeth #parttimetraveler and a project they had begun under the #worldcolors tag.

The more I read, the more I felt at home. Their experiences echoed my own; their problems played out in the same ways mine had. I finally understood the phrase “find your tribe”.

In a way sharing, or even not sharing but just reading in many cases, has been like therapy- the amnesia curative treatment. I don’t want to forget, I just needed to unpack the experiences and find common ground.

Despite some of the unfortunate things that happened in those 10 years, I really grew up and felt that I became a whole person, making decisions and charting a path to a good life. I do want to keep that, I do want to celebrate that. And if people here don’t get that, it’s ok now.

I created this little vignette this week, Oh, Baku- Finding Myself on the Edge of the Caspian Sea after discovering a fun tool called Animoto. (Click the title to open in a new tab.)

I gathered up the photos you’ve seen in other posts just as a test. But I looked at it and I actually loved it. It reflects me. And the joy I see in those photographs that hasn’t been seen in a long while.

I realized I haven’t taken many photographs here other than flowers and scenery. I mentioned this eye opener to Naomi the other day, realizing I also hadn’t laughed much in recent years.

So now, what I have decided to do, since I feel like I’m a foreigner here most of the time anyway, is act like one.

If I was an ex-pat here, what would I do? I would go to the museums and take tours like a tourist. I would discover things to share and photograph. I would dive in and learn about this new culture I’m in.

In short, I would be the ex-pat I learned how to be and discover my self anew. To me, being an ex-pat isn’t limited to being abroad as much as it is about adapting to a new culture, wherever you may find it.

Ok then. Lesson Learned… uh, make that in process of learning!

12 thoughts on “Re-Entering Earth’s Atmosphere

  1. As an American expat repatriating after 4 years in the Netherlands, I’m appreciating your posts.I think you’re right in approaching your ‘home’ culture as if it were new because in many ways, it is. You’ve changed, as have the people and culture you left behind. In addition to Judy and Naomi’s blogs, I’d add Maria at http://www.iwasanexpatwife.com as a good source of repatriation posts (she’s also writing a book about repatriation). I’ve worked for a couple decades in/around the international arena, am married to an adult TCK, and also lived years ago in Mexico, but I don’t for one minute assume repatriation will be quick or easy. But forewarned is forearmed, so hopefully I’m prepared for some of the bumps along the way.

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  2. Linda- Thank you so much,and likewise to you. I’m glad these pieces we each are posting are having the desired effect- that of allowing experiences to be beneficial and thought provoking. Interesting you mentioned Maria (@iwasanexpatwife). I had just come across her the other day – loved the “bitstrips” (www.bitstrips.com ), very clever.

    I couldn’t agree with you more on the resources. I find value in each writer and contributor’s individual perspective on their experiences, and as some have transitioned again, their informed look back on what they did that worked or what they could have done/ plan to do next time. The body of stories and anecdotes helps tremendously. It’s wonderful to have all the voices, because we never know whose experience is going to be the key for any given expat. I have discovered so much in the last few months, and I know it would not have happened without these resources.

    I wish you the best in your new transition and am already looking forward to your next chapter, your next Turning Point! Good luck to you and your family.
    -Jonelle

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  6. Thanks so much for writing this essay. This echoes many of my thoughts and feelings about life as an expat. One of the reasons I write is to create a record of this experience so I won’t forget the daily experiences. Perhaps I can create a trail of crumbs for someone else to follow. Maybe my kids will want to read about our journey

    I dread the reverse culture shock of re-entry, I’ve had rocky re-entries after relatively short trips of a month or two.

    “remember what it was like to live free in an unfree land versus being constrained in a land of freedom. Odd, that thought.”

    This is not such an odd thought at all. I understand there are many ways one can be “constrained in a land of freedom”. Yes.

    All the best. Keep writing. I’ve clicked “follow”.

    Alice

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