Even though going back home is supposed to be a return to familiarity, sometimes it just doesn’t pan out that way. Instead, little things (or perhaps even really big things) make you feel like a foreigner in your own country.
Whenever I go back home, there’s a huge part of me that feels a sense of relief. It’s like I’m revisiting a part of me that has lain dormant, awaiting my return.
But alongside relief, moments of sheer confusion and frustration also come up. Because something feels off. It feels like I don’t belong anymore. Or little moments make me realize that I’m out of touch with how things are done in my home country.
In this post, I share three reasons why and how it’s possible to feel relief from all the familiarity and simultaneously also feel like a complete foreigner in your own country.
1. YOU FEEL LIKE A FOREIGNER BECAUSE YOU’RE OUT OF TOUCH WITH THINGS BACK HOME, BUT ALSO NOT INTEGRATED ENOUGH IN YOUR NEW HOME COUNTRY
The longer you live abroad as an expat, the less involved in and up-to-date you’re able to be with things that go on back home.
There’s only so much you can divide your attention between two countries. It’s cognitively a very taxing task to do on a daily basis. Trying to live a normal life in a new country alongside maintaining some sort of connection with your past home is simply asking for a lot.
However, despite the fact that we all naturally lose some of the connection with our past homes, it doesn’t mean that our degree of integration in a new country is somehow greater. There will still be many-many-many things that we may still be figuring out in our new home country.
Maybe you’re still wrapping your head around the language, or figuring out why people do what they do, or navigating a bureaucratic maze.
In other words, after a while there comes a point where you’re not involved enough in either country – and that can make you feel like a foreigner in your own country, a place that was supposed to be so familiar to you.
So, inevitably, you’re going miss all the developments and find yourself having to play catch up whenever you go back home.
For instance, you don’t know how the public transportation system works because it’s been upgraded, you don’t know what’s trendy, you can’t understand the latest jokes, or you don’t have a clue why everyone’s raving about this one new celebrity.
No matter where you are, you suddenly realize that you don’t know 100% how things work anywhere. You’re just a wide-eyed tourist everywhere.
2. YOU’VE REALIZED (MORE OF) YOUR DREAMS IN YOUR NEW HOME COUNTRY
Whether you were exposed to a greater range of opportunities in a new country or you saw moving to a new place as a way of chasing after your dreams, we’re going to have a strong connection to the places that help realize our goals and dreams.
Any place that gets us closer to what we truly need and want in life is going to have a special place in our hearts.
For instance, I have an irrational relationship like that with Switzerland. It was one of the first places I moved to on my own. Even without knowing too much about the country beforehand, it opened my world to so many new ways of being, things to enjoy in life and dreams to follow – all of which I couldn’t even imagine existed before.
Switzerland opened my eyes to the fact that I appreciate big family dinners (which I didn’t have growing up) or that I love hiking (which I couldn’t do in my very flat home country). I learned so much about what I liked and didn’t like, and all of it was made possible by the fact that I had to build a life with new tools and new opportunities in a new place.
In this sense I was lucky that the Swiss life that I saw fit who I was (and still am), because there have also been less fortunate matches in other countries I’ve moved to (I’m looking at you, Australia).
Even if you never feel like you’ll belong in the country that you’ve chosen to live in now, if it’s a place that has brought amazing opportunities to you – especially things that would have never been possible back home – you’re going to feel some sort of attachment to that country. And potentially a much stronger attachment than your home country.
In such a case, going back home is only going to point a flashlight on what was missing there all along.
And so you feel like a foreigner in your own country because it is missing important things that you’ve been able to enjoy or make into reality in your life somewhere else.
3. YOU’RE A DIFFERENT VERSION OF THE SAME PERSON IN TWO PLACES (OR MORE)
You can never wipe the slate clean of everything which came before your move abroad, or of everything that came after you moved.
There are bits and pieces of your upbringing, your schooling, traditions, personality traits and values, job opportunities and love life that you bring with you wherever you go. Wherever you go – there is you.
What living abroad does is that you get to live out those same things in a new place, and be forced to discover new ways of being you in a new context and under different circumstances.
So, feeling like a foreigner in your own country can also come about because over time you become two people at once, split between two places (or potentially more places). Depending on where you are, you hit pause on one or the other person.
My partner, whom I met in Denmark (where I still live today), has often remarked that I’m a completely different person when I’m around my relatives in Estonia. She’s more monotonous in the way she speaks. She’s not super keen on public displays of affection. But somehow she’s also more relaxed about not having every day planned out.
But the minute we’re alone (even while visiting Estonia), I immediately snap back into who I have become over the years of living abroad. The person I am while living abroad is unapologetically silly and dorky. I can talk A LOT. And I’m all about hitting those goals in life, one step at a time, because I simply have way more opportunities here to realize my dreams.
After living abroad for a while, you realize that you’re made up of a hundred different fragments, some of which simply have no use in your new life or in your old life.
But recognizing that, for instance through the lens of an outside observer, can be as jarring as being told that your childhood room has been turned into your dad’s man cave.
Over to you – what are the things, big or small, that make you feel like a foreigner in your own country?