The returning alien syndrome

Much has been written about the plight of expats and internationals integrating into new cultures. However, returning to your roots can be just as disconcerting, not to mention alienating. And for the accompanying partner it can be a real shock to see their intercultural, exotic partner suddenly fold right back into their cultural conditioning.

Once you leave your country of origin, supposing you had one in the first place, you become like a plant with aerial roots. You cling to cracks and crevices, wind your roots around existing cultural branches and stems, and grow as best you can from the air around you. Some of us thrive in this way, blooming like colourful orchids in our new homes. Others need a little more support to truly embrace their ‘otherness’ while also extending themselves to fit with the culture that they are temporarily inhabiting. In the end, what we all learn is that to be truly home anywhere, you need to be home in yourself. Your heart is your home. And yet, as soon as we unpack our bags in the country where we grew up we seem to forget many of the lessons we learned.

Returning to my roots

Five years ago, I too returned home, back to the swampy wetlands of my youth. After thirty years abroad I found myself back in the Netherlands, living on a houseboat between Hilversum and Amsterdam. I rejoiced in the feeling that I was back in a place where no one could deny me the right to be, and I chatted my heart out to strangers on buses, having been socially starved in my last posting. However, it wasn’t long before I also met the very demons that I had quite probably run away from all those years ago.

When I was little, I was the funny, sweet, but quite irresponsible second child that couldn’t really be trusted. While abroad I hadn’t just gained life experience, suffered through a number of trials and tribulations, I had also used those experiences to grow into a mature and wise, capable being. And even if I didn’t always feel wise and capable myself, I had diplomas on the wall that proved that other people had, through the years, thought me wise and capable enough to do my work as a psychotherapist. Yet back home I soon noticed how I reverted back to type, undermining the very maturity I had once gone abroad to seek.

As soon as curious aunts asked me if I would get a license here in Holland, I mumbled something about incompatible systems. And rather than talk enthusiastically, professionally and lovingly about my work, I would mute myself or change the subject to the houseboat. Because everyone loved the idea of the oddball Lysanne living on a houseboat. Or so I thought. Falling into the trap of teaching others not to take me seriously because I didn’t, or a least my very much triggered young Dutch self didn’t.

Dealing with old demons

Most expats experience a certain disregard for what you are learning or doing abroad but you can usually shake this off the moment you step on the plane. But for a returning expat it is inescapable. I needed to face the challenge of holding my own and not becoming the ‘little sister’. It didn’t help that the Dutch mental health system was too complicated even for me to understand, let alone showing respect for foreign academic qualifications. Even though I was very much ‘one of us’ I was not ‘one of them’.

And soon the old messages came hard and fast: “why do you always do things differently”, “why can’t you fit in?”, or “do you think your foreign experience makes you more special?” And no, these weren’t the things family, friends and potential colleagues were saying to me, they came from my own headspace, thinking the thoughts that I thought others were thinking about me! And yes, in one case it was said out loud, by a haughty lady at the BIG-register office who snapped; “whatever made you think you are as well trained as a Dutch psychologist?” Now I laugh, but at the time it was all fuel for this inner fire, stoked up by old demons, lying in wait in the Dutch ditches.

If you are a returning expat reading this, or trying to help someone reintegrate into their old life, then I can assure you, there will be demons lurking under the surface. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As a therapist I have learned to love these lurking demons, because the closer they are to the surface of your conscious self, the easier they are to identify and be seen for the frightened inner children that they are trying to protect. My inner child is the very brave and overenthusiastic little girl who tried to show the world she was just as interesting and just as clever as her 4-year older brother. In the process, proving their point that I was immature, reckless and a bit of an airhead. My demon of ‘know your place’ existed to protect her from making a fool of herself. She wouldn’t have needed to exist, if someone had seen my struggle to be treated equally, and helped me to stop pretending to be what I wasn’t and be all of the glorious self that I was. But, and here’s the turnaround, even though the adult wasn’t there then, the inner adult is in me here, now.

And lastly, slipping back into an old life script is not only disconcerting for yourself, it can be the beginning of a real crisis in a relationship that started out when both of you were aliens abroad together. You met and fell in love with a real maverick, an adventurous, fun loving person, only to find them becoming the child they once were, seeking the cultural approval they once needed. So for all returning expats and their partners, I give you four steps to reintegrate and make friends with your ‘homefront’ demons.

  1. Stop pretending to be who you’re not: You went abroad to learn valuable lessons about the world and about yourself. You might even have become the cultural teacher rather than the student. Remember who you became, what gifts you bring, and stand tall. Ask someone, your partner or a good friend, what they see as your ‘foreign self’ and your ‘home self’. You’ll be surprised.
  2. Embrace the frightened child: Listen to the wound beneath the whispers. What was the role you were asked to play when you lived in your home country? Who was it you could become abroad that you felt you couldn’t be at home? And how were you protecting yourself from feeling this pain? Understand, accept and embrace, and then find a nice inner playground for this child-self to play in while telling the demon-whispers, ‘thank you for sharing, but I’ll take it from here.’
  3. Integrate the two: With the old wounds and coping mechanisms understood and embraced, bring the ‘standing tall’ energy into your contacts with the home front, and know that you are privileged to savour the best from away and from home, and can let the things that don’t serve you, slip through your fingers like loose sand. You’re different. Your foreign experience will always make you different. Not better, not worse, just different.
  4. Your true tribe: Your most comfortable tribe may always be other global nomads such as yourself. You’re still part of the tribe. Just because you now live in a country you once called home, no one took away your entry ticket. In fact, once you can dance through both worlds with ease, you’ve well and truly earned your belonging.