Foreigners love to talk about their cultural adjustment. If you’re lucky enough to have your international move supported by an organisation – a global business, NGO or embassy, perhaps – you will be bombarded with material, both before and after deployment, designed to help you ride the emotional waves of change. There’s a whole professional world of expertise devoted to making us pampered ‘expats’ feel more comfortable in a new place – understanding culture shock and emotional adjustment, learning how to enjoy the thrill of a sensory and intellectual overload while not letting it crush you with its phenomenal weight.
A favourite tool is the old U-shaped graph of cultural adjustment: the upturn of the honeymoon, followed by a sharp dip into frustration and crisis, resolved with recovery and finally evening out into a contented adjustment. Almost all the other foreigners you meet will be struggling with the same rollercoaster – rising, falling and repeating – and it’s easy to find a friendly local pseudo-therapist, or a sympathetic shoulder, attached to an arm carrying a beer.
But hidden at the other end of that graph, just off the page, is another U shape: it’s often just as hard to go home. ‘Nobody tells you about this part’, opines the Wall Street Journal, but they do. Reverse culture shock, the W-shaped curve, or the repatriation blues – whatever you call it, the internet is full of articles by bewildered, heart-achey expats writing about the joy, pain and isolation of returning home to a world that is familiar and loved, but somehow changed, alien.
Often, it’s the people who are still abroad that these repatriates turn to. As our friends in Dhaka disappeared back to Australia, Canada or the UK, the good-to-be-back radio silence and welcome-home facebook party pics slowly gave way to confused emails and skype chats, about how it’s suddenly impossible to buy clothes, because all you can think about is the people who made them. About how you can’t eat properly at expensive dinners, and how the nightly news about aid cuts and refugee boats leaves you reeling. About how your job feels trivial. About how you miss your friends, and the guy who sold you cauliflowers. About how you can’t sleep properly without the background beeping of traffic. About how you want to keep the connection alive, to the mad place that you had come to love. And in the midst of all this, how none of your friends and family have any idea of what you’re talking about, and how they wish you would just go back to normal, and stop eating with your hands.
I’m always surprised by how strongly supermarkets feature in these conversations. I would never have thought they are so defining an aspect of our comfort, or sense of belonging. But just as learning to shop is a major adjustment when you arrive in a new country, being confronted with the shops of your home country on your return is strangely shocking. The sheer abundance of food, imported from all over the world and available at any time of year, regardless of seasonality, is, weirdly, a stressor. When I heard friends talk about this I knew exactly what they meant – when I was home for a brief visit in January last year, I dropped into a Woolies with Mum and Dad on the way home from the airport. It was the really big kind – in a large regional shopping centre, where the floor space is cheap and the shopping trips equip a family for two weeks to avoid another drive into town. I was overwhelmed with the aeroplane hangar-sized space, packed with sumptuous, beautiful produce – cheese, avocados, juice, herbs – and the sheer number of breakfast cereals. As I wandered up and down the endless aisles with my empty trolley, hands hovering over the colourful boxes and fat loaves of bread, I felt anxiety creep up my spine. It was hard to know what to do: ignore the towering inequality that it all represented, shoving it deep down in my gut; lose my mind and buy everything in sight, hoping to guzzle and hoard it; or turn slowly around, walk back through the automatic metal gate, sit quietly on a bench next to the Donut King and try to hold back the tears.
Magazines and websites predict this pain and confusion, and publish helpful how-tos and tips on this process. They explain the initial shock that mutates into mourning and nostalgia; prepare you for the inevitable blandness of the everyday, the apathy of friends and family, the pangs of grief, the withdrawal into yourself; and offer hope that you will be fine, you will readjust to the place you call home.
But I’m discovering there is a gap in the conversation about culture shock and repatriation: just as often as not, you aren’t going home. We prepare ourselves for this upending and reestablishment, carefully reading about reverse-culture shock, only to find that we’re not moving back, but on. As international creatures, many of us find ourselves bouncing across the globe in search of a new job, taking on yet another new life. If you’re moving from a very different to a very similar culture, this might look like repatriation, fooling you into thinking you’re on home ground – like a chameleon wearing the skin of your family dog. But it’s not – the challenges of loss and leaving, and readjustment and recognition, are bound up in the unexpected whirlwind of a new layer of novelty. It’s a different world, one where the confusion of leaving a stressful, wild and mad place is replaced by arriving, not at home – where the volume of cheese is confronting but your parents are there to greet you – but in an entirely new, stressful, wild and mad place. It’s when leaving Oz in the Wizard’s hot air balloon lands you not in Kansas, but right back at the start of a completely new yellow brick road.
And it’s this that I’m facing now: the bewildering reappearance of dancing munchkins. In planning to be in the English-speaking world, I was preparing for the pain of coming ‘home’. What I hadn’t bargained on was the pain of not coming home.
With all the glamour of this globetrotting comes the weight of constantly being in flux – the cycle of alienation that comes with having an international career, or a partner with one. No matter what disguise it might be wearing, moving to a new place means we need to become part of it, contribute to it, show that we can adapt to it, and integrate into its ways and its rhythms. And every time we do this, we adapt a little differently than we did before. I might be better at making friends quickly, or be more prepared to make food from vegetables I’ve never seen before, but I’ve also toughened my skin, and set my jaw, ready for the rollercoaster to peak, and the drop to begin. Four months after our arrival in Dublin, I stare at the rollercoaster of the U-shaped curve and search for where I could be. I suspect I may have wandered off into a different part of the funfair entirely, and am spinning, my feet not touching the floor.
And while I spin, the home that we left behind two years ago recedes further into the distance. The friendships wear thinner, undernourished on a diet of skype and starved of daily silliness and normalcy; the places change, as old trees are bulldozed and new highways built. But I realise that the life I am memorialising no longer exists for anyone – friends and family have changed jobs, moved house, changed city, travelled, had kids. We are all travelling, all adjusting, all leaving something profound and precious and fragile behind. With every day, the wind shifts and blows us all onto a different course, and the people, the places that we long for and remember cease to exist. Every one of us is leaving something behind, and we can’t go back: I might not feel like this is repatriation, but really, there is no such thing.