Whether we are returning home to repatriate or for summer vacation, we are bound to rub up against some rough spots with family and friends. The folks back home have not shared our experiences, and have a limited capacity to “get” what our lives have been like abroad. They may feign interest because they care, but they can’t really understand our experience.
Living in a foreign country enlarges us. Our worldview will never be the way it was before we left. We have seen too much and have had too many varied experiences to remain culture-bound. Even though we probably didn’t realize that our views were culture-bound before.
We, as well as our children if we have them, have had good friends from many countries around the world. We have shared cultural differences and have developed friendships in spite of these differences. You could say our tolerance for difference has expanded, as well as our curiosity and interest in how people from different cultures relate to each other and the world.
Our loved ones at home see that we’ve changed and may feel threatened by these changes. They want us back the way we were before we left. But is this really possible if we are to remain true to ourselves?
We might have seen, for example, first-hand, some of the problems created by the political interventions of the government of our home country. As an American expat, I am particularly sensitive to this issue. We may no longer be able to defend the political positions of our government. The political opinions of our families and friends most likely have not changed, which can lead to heated arguments and differences. In extreme cases, we may even be viewed as traitors.
Our experiences abroad have given a depth and subtlety to our understanding of the world. It is sometimes extremely difficult to communicate this to others who have not had the benefit of our experiences.
If you have lived in a third world country as I have, (India) please don’t ever try to explain the difficulties of having staff to friends at home. A driver, a cook and a housekeeper and you’re complaining? Please. They will never understand that having someone who is not a family member in your home can at times be intrusive, or the feelings of dependency created by not being able to hop in your car and go to the supermarket.
So what to do? We can only play catch-up and gossip for so long. So here are a few tips that offer longer-range solutions.
Tip # 1: Agree to Disagree
If you are home for a vacation, it is easier to agree to disagree and avoid sensitive topics. Focus on the kids (easy to do with grandparents), and deflect potentially hot topics. Acknowledge the views of your loved ones, and say no more. There is nothing to be gained from it, and chances are that friends and family won’t really be listening to your views anyway.
Tip # 2: Say Less, Do More
Instead of sitting around and talking ad infinitum, get out and do things with the people you care about.
Find and focus on the interests you share, whether it’s music, nature, exercise, movies or good food. Start to rebuild your relationships based on what you have in common rather than the differences.
Tip #3: If Repatriating, Continue an Activity You Enjoyed Abroad
In addition to what is mentioned above, I would add that if you are repatriating, it’s important to try and continue some of the activities you were involved in abroad, to whatever extent possible. If you were a volunteer teaching English to children for example, find a program that you can get behind that helps disadvantaged kids, which there are plenty of even in the wealthiest countries.
Or go back to school in a field that interests you, perhaps as a result of your experience abroad. You’d be amazed at how many new fields there are now that didn’t exist 10 years ago!
Tip # 4: Find Something You Feel Passionate about and Do It!
Again, this is especially important, but by no means limited to expats who are repatriating. Find something you feel passionate about and get involved, whatever it may be. Just be sure that the activity involves other people, as there is nothing like sharing a passion to create bonds and build new friendships. Friendships which are based on who you are now, which is, and hopefully always will be, continually evolving.
And remember that what is behind the tension (spoken or unspoken) with family members is their fear of loosing you. Be reassuring. Let them know you love and care about them, even if you have changed in some ways they can’t understand.
Bring your newly found tolerance of differences to family and friends. They are the ones who need it now.
Dhyan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.