Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Five things you should know about returning home after living abroad.

Home should be a familiar place, one where you understand the people, the culture and how you fit in that framework.  However, moving back home after living abroad might be more of an adjustment than you would think.

1. You might feel like you can't understand your native language.

After living in a country where your native language isn't routinely spoken, speaking it again could feel strange, almost like you're speaking a second language.  In Zurich, I spoke German with most everyone except my American husband.  I had become used to receiving very direct answers to my fairly direct questions.  My German is conversational, but I don't do 'beating around the bush', and the Swiss that I regularly dealt with were fairly direct as well.  I worked at a market hall in Zurich that had had a florist stand.  Customers would occasionally come to my work asking where the florist shop was and my boss would simply say somewhat curtly 'it closed' and turn away.  In my part of German Switzerland, the question-and-answer exchange seemed fairly cut and dried.

Dealing with service personnel in California has often meant that I've needed to ask at least a couple follow-up questions to make sure I am understanding them correctly and receiving the clearest possible answer.

I was at a kitchen store a few weeks ago and asked if they offered knife sharpening services.  The employee mentioned a shop in town that I should visit and then she handed me a flyer for a farmers' market in a neighboring city before going back to work.  Confused, I asked if the store was near the farmers' market.  'Oh, no, the guy from the shop is at the farmers' market (on Sundays) and you can bring your knives to him there.'  It seemed like she felt I should have just known where to go.  I wondered why she hadn't told me to visit the farmers' market in the first place.

Hollowed out glass bauble with 'airplane' inside.
Yesterday, while inspecting a gift shop display table with my back to the counter, the shop owner, some twenty feet away, bellowed, 'Let me know if you have any questions!'  There were on display decorative, solid, glass spheres meant for, I guess, assembling in a bowl.  -attractive, but not my bag.  I prefaced my question with 'I see you have these glass baubles'.  I picked one up and asked if she ever came across other glass baubles meant for hanging. 'You know the ones I mean, with a loop at the top?' and made a motion with my hand.  Her response: 'Oh, those are too heavy to hang.'  This is one of many 'No shit, Sherlock' moments I've had since returning to California.  'Yes, I can see that.'  She then told me of a florist just two doors down, that sold 'airplanes', or so I heard.  She kept talking about these 'airplanes' and I finally had to say, 'I'm sorry.  I didn't catch that. Airplanes?'  Turns out the word in question was 'air-plants' and I had no idea what those were. 


2. Cultural aspects of your home country that previously may not have bothered you, might really get on your nerves now.

Here in California, it seems that supermarket checkers, by way of greeting, ask: 'Hi, how are you doing today?' or 'How was your weekend?'  When asked this I tend to think, I don't know you, have never seen you before and you're asking about my weekend?  I just want to buy groceries and not have a conversation about my leisure-time activities or how I'm feeling.  I'm not impolite.  I smile, give appropriate eye contact and say 'please' and 'thank you'.  I just don't want to have overly intimate chats at the check stand.  Perhaps, five years ago, before moving abroad, I had blithely engaged in this sort of behavior, but I don't want to now.

On one of my first trips to the market after moving home, I was in the check-out line behind a couple who'd been asked by the checker how their weekend was going.  They began to chat at length about their Saturday afternoon trip to the beach.  They mentioned how they'd brought the dog, and what a wonderful picnic they had had.  The checker seemed really enthused, and kept saying things like: 'Cool!'  'Awesome!' and  'That sounds great!'  I thought that they all knew each other.  Maybe they were long-standing friends, even.  Then I heard the couple say that they had just relocated here from out-of-state and that this was the first time that they had ever been to this particular market.  Of course, this very same checker then asked me how my weekend was.  I kept it brief. 

3. Just because you aren't asked about your experience living in a foreign country, doesn't mean that no one is interested.

Friends and family might not know what to ask or simply aren't burning with questions and that's all right.  If someone does ask, it might be a very broad question like: 'So, how was {insert country name here}?'  Your abroad experience is rich and multifaceted and can't really be summed up by saying 'fine' although that's how I responded when my Aunt asked how Switzerland was.  If I find an anecdote from my time abroad relevant to the subject at hand, then I'll bring it up.  If not, I don't.

4. Feeling like you don't know how to 'do life' in the place that you grew up doesn't make you a freak.

It takes time to re-adjust to the rhythm of life in the home country.  You've been away for a while and things have probably changed a bit in your absence.  You might not feel like you know what's going on when everyone else does.  Feeling like you have to have a handle on things right away isn't realistic.

I was at an SF coffee shop a few weeks after coming home where it seemed that everyone in line in front of me was paying using a small, grey computer screen/keyboard at the counter.  I saw no cash being exchanged and panicked.  Had we gone cashless?  That might sound a bit crazy, but I thought of my recent experience at a number of cafes and markets in Amsterdam that now only accept card payments.  In one Dutch market, I had to step out of line because I couldn't pay (with cash) for my groceries.  The checker had felt sorry for me and was prepared to pay for my groceries with his bank card had I been able to give him exact money for the bill.  I couldn't and left the store grocery-less.  Perhaps this particular cafe in San Francisco had gone the way of the Dutch?  I dreaded not being able to pay for my fare as I both didn't yet have a debit card and had no idea what was happening with the grey keyboards.  'Do you not accept cash?' I asked the cashier.  I was relieved when the cashier told me that, of course, cash was accepted.  She looked a me a bit funny and said rather slowly, 'No, we take cash'.  I then felt compelled to explain the situation in Amsterdam.

5. Just because people don't have time to visit with you right away, doesn't mean that they don't care.

Some friends and family will make time to see you as soon you're back in the country and some won't.  A dear family member of mine kept telling me when I still lived in Zurich how she was absolutely going to make more to see me once I'd moved back home.  I was touched by the sentiment as I love spending time with her, but hadn't held my breath.  We live about sixty miles from each other in a state that has a poor public transportation system.  I don't have a car and she's quite busy with work and child-rearing, so in the last three months of my being home we've seen each other once (at a group function).  

I had a 'groundhog day' experience with a friend and his partner when I first moved home.  I'd receive regular texts from them at the weekend expressing interest in meeting up for drinks the following week.  I'd always respond in the affirmative, suggesting a date and time and get no response.  The very same query would come again at the weekend, I'd respond and then silence.  This exchange went on for four weeks.  The trick is to not take anything personally.  And, finally, I did reconnect with this couple and it was grand.

Mostly, I'm glad to be home, but it doesn't always feel like home.  After a six year absence, it seems that I have a lot to (re)learn before I'm totally comfortable with living in California again. 

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