REPATRIATION: Will I ever feel that I belong somewhere?
I love the concept of “Cultureland”. It expresses the essence of the international experience that we expats share, no matter where we are in the world. Today we check in with re-pat Eva Antza, whose exploration of cultural intelligence has helped her make sense of her experience living in another culture. This is Eva’s story of going “home” and the surprising confusion she felt on her return.
Here I am again, writing about my favourite thing in the world: culture! Oh dear, Culture, I am feeling so weird and I wanted to ask you, while knowing in my heart that I won’t get an answer: why are you so powerful?
Two years ago I wrote about you. I was so happy at the time! I had discovered your power, your influence, and I was mesmerised by your ability to make the world so beautiful. But now I find myself in the middle of reverse culture shock!
You see, I have returned to my home country, Greece, after living in Norway for seven years. It took me some time to fully adapt to the Norwegian lifestyle. It wasn’t too difficult though, as the introverted side of me had finally found a home; I could fully express this part of me without fear of judgement. (Sure, the extrovert in me had some issues adapting, but it went okay).
I made friends from all over the world and loved people who didn’t share the same values as me – our mutual respect for each other’s way of being was enough to create relationships that mattered. I developed cultural understanding and acceptance of people who are different from me.
And then I decided to go back to where my life started. Having become more conscious and more self-aware, I thought it would be better for me to be in sunnier weather, away from long winters, close to people I grew up with. Yet, I had forgotten one very important aspect of expatriation: I was not the same person any more.
Reverse culture shock
I was pretty sure that I was well prepared for the change. “It’s going to be fine,” I kept telling myself. “You know all about transition; you’ll be fine.” Oh my! I’ve seen that no matter how many things we know, life in action can be very different. Who would have thought that the country I grew up in could be so foreign to me? That I would feel like an alien in my own country?
I thought that if I were fully conscious of my choices, I would always be able to deal with the madness of the world, and avoid the pain. I didn’t realise that even conscious choices have emotional consequences that will be felt (not just cognitively understood).
Dear Culture, I am writing to you because I need to express the way I feel. Maybe a part of me hopes that someone, somewhere will read this and understand what I am going through. I know it’s called reverse culture shock but there is a huge difference between knowing something and feeling it. This period feels very lonely. I can’t identify with anything “Greek” any more. My habits are different, my hobbies are different, even the words I like to use are different. People think that I exaggerate when I explain this and that it’s not normal to not remember how it was before I left.
Going away is hard, but “coming back home” is even harder. Why?
The truth is that I don’t remember because I experienced Greece as a Greek, completely unaware of my cultural bias. But I don’t feel “just Greek” any longer. I have adopted so many different traits of Scandinavia that it feels like I am half Norwegian, half Greek.
Seven years was long enough to learn, change and grow in different ways. It was enough to see the world and love it for what it is and not for what I think it is. Seven years was enough to stop projecting my cultural bias and learn that it’s okay for people to be different, that there is no danger in diversity, and that the key to world peace lies in the acceptance of this diversity.
However, I don’t know how knowing all these things can help me now. For the moment, the sense of not belonging makes me very sad.
My question to you, Culture, is: “Will I ever feel that I belong anywhere?” Or will I be forever burdened with the feeling that I never fully belong?”
How would you respond to Eva? Leave a comment below!
First published here.
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Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
As you mention, generally speaking distancing ourselves from our original culture can lead to several paths, emotionally wise. On the one hand, as as Eva Antza mentions, for some adopting traits of the host culture and their experience abroad can make them feel like they don’t “belong” to their original culture anymore.
However, as you mention, being away from your original culture can lead you towards reconnecting more with that side of you, and therefore enhancing your sense of belonging.
Once again thanks for sharing your wonderful story and becoming a role model for other expats.
I had the opposite experience when I came back to my country.
Your experience is certainly one way in which the expat experience can go. When some aspects of your personal character (you name introversion) can be expressed better in a culture different form your own. Some people end up loving their new country more than their own original country because there they can be themselves in new ways. In my case, even if I love the country where I live, and appreciate some habits and values that fit my character, I keep missing other aspects of my original culture. When I went back to Italy (just for one year, might not be final) I felt much more Italian than before! I realized that the “bad aspects” of my own culture are the other side of the coin, of the “good aspects”. For instance, being critical about everything can be very annoying, but it also gives you freedom in your relations with people and rules. It is a value that my culture has, and if I share this value I have to accept the good and bad sides of it. In the Netherlands I enjoy the fact that people are much milder and quite in their judgments about their own country and institutions. But I feel like I can’t really say what I think, cause if you are too critical, you are considered ingrate or exaggerated. So when I went back I felt that I could accept the bad sides of some of our values and ideals, because I was really happy to be able to express again and live according to those values which I really missed. So that’s it, I felt more Italian than I used to be!