Last update on December 19, 2018

We write about coping with detachment from home in the United States – a stage expats experience in reverse culture shock.

I’ve often talked about my feelings of internal conflict as a result of my choices. The life of an expat is inherently ridden with conflicting emotions — a passion for the foreign, exotic, unfamiliar and a wistful longing for home or what used to be perceived as home.

In September, I was transitioning between jobs and hadn’t seen my family in nine months. I was experiencing extreme homesickness, anxiety and an overwhelming feeling of lostness.

Yet after visiting for ten days I was in an even worse state. The ‘home’ that I was yearning for was frighteningly the same. This isn’t that surprising, and in some ways it’s actually reassuring, but it lacked forward motion. The most change I noticed was that another strip mall was erected with a Babies “R” Us, and a supermarket had replaced farm land.

But the most troubling realisation from this trip was the lack of change in some of the people I once felt close to. They haven’t left their comfort zones and were ostensibly naive to the realities and struggles of the rest of the world.

Their evenings revolve around TV shows, as mine once did, and going out for a drink is limited to four or five bars frequented by people from my high school who never made it ten miles from where they grew up.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this life. In fact, much of the United States is made up of individuals who never leave their hometown let alone leave the country and who are quite content to stay put. But each time I come home I feel more and more removed from this life – a life that used to cause me considerable restlessness – and out of place.

I wouldn’t say I lead a fast-paced or adventurous life. I have my routines and habits just like anyone else, but the apparent lack of forward movement and friends who appear static provoke a sense of dread and anxiety. It’s like I no longer belong.

I was thrilled to return home for the holidays, practically jumping out of my skin to see family and immerse myself into the holiday spirit since it didn’t feel much like Christmas to me in Paris.

But as I feared, I felt even more detached from my ‘former life’. Having my husband with me made this observation even more clear. He said, “It seems like some of your friends haven’t changed a bit…it’s like time stands still here.”

If they haven’t changed, then what has?

It isn’t you, it’s me

This is the natural progression of life. Some leave home eager to discover opportunities that may present themselves in other towns, cities or countries; and some never do.

Regardless of where you fall in this dynamic, you’re the one changing. For many of you, this post will remind you of the time in your lives where you had the disappointing realisation that lifestyle choices can pull you apart from even your dearest and oldest friends, and that your once comforting sense of ‘home’ has forever changed.

I am the one changing, I am the one whose values are changing, and I am the one who is permanently changed (for the better) as a result of a decision to pursue a different life. Is Paris home? Yes. But is it the kind of home that feels like milk and cookies and spaghetti night? No.

A new conflict

During the moments of intense homesickness I convey a pressing interest in moving back to the States once I obtain French nationality, but after visiting home and being flooded by uncertainty I’m not so sure.

Now my husband is expressing an interest in moving to the States in a couple of years, saying he knows he’ll get tired of Paris.

What now? I’m not ready to give up my dream of applying my bilingualism and living in a country whose values, for now, match my own. Nor am I ready to settle for Anywhere, USA, to be closer to family. Even that is an uncertainty. With my husband working in aeronautical engineering, our moving options can be counted on one hand.

I don’t know how I will feel in six months or even a year from now, but at this moment I am disheartened by the striking realisation that ‘going home’ has made a clear vision of a permanent home all the more difficult. Given that I am the changing factor in this scenario, only time will tell.

Closing wisdom

“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realise what’s changed is you.” The Curious Case of Benjamin Button