When people talk about living abroad, they mention all the fabulous things about it: the sights, weather, food, people, adventures… They regale you with interesting stories about run-ins with taxi drivers and language barriers. The negative things they talk about are always dimmed by the amazing things being told, and those hearing the stories and seeing the pictures are left with a pleasant vision of life abroad, now wanting the experiences themselves. But what no one talks about is what happens when you return.
When you live in country for an extended period of time, it stays with you forever, and you lose a sense of home. The first time I lived abroad it was through the traditional method of doing a semester abroad in Costa Rica through my university. That right there left its mark. However, when I came home I was “normal”. There were no lasting effects except the strong desire to return and have more adventures. The next time was different though. After finishing my degree, I left again one year later to do an internship for an environmental organization. This time, when I came home, I was not ready to return. I had come home for medical reasons and it was not a smooth transition back to U.S. life. Since I was more enmeshed in the culture and country than I had been before, I now had a slight accent. I went through culture shock in my own country. It took a while, but I got through it and began to feel normal after a couple of months. The only thing that took a while was my accent, which I simply learned to hide when I was in public or around my family.
Several years and one baby later I went abroad again. In August 2012 I went to study at the University of Leicester, UK to get a postgraduate degree via a year-long program of study. This time I would not be alone; I was bringing my 7-year-old daughter with me. I knew there would be challenges being a single mom, living off savings and financial aid, all in a foreign country, but I was ready for it. It was one of the best years of my life, and my daughter left England reluctantly, having made some great friends, some of whom she still has a relationship with. Not being able to find a job in my own country though, I took a job as an English Literature teacher in Costa Rica. We returned from England in June 2013 and left for Costa Rica two weeks later. Two years and many adventures later (which I will write about some other time), we came home. That is when the bull**** began.
Unlike my first time living abroad, or hell, even my second time, returning this time was different. The problem is that trying to explain to people what living abroad is like, or adjusting to home afterwards, is like trying to describe childbirth; until you do it, you will NEVER completely understand. For survival and living (happily) purposes, the easiest way to adjust to a country is to acculturate or assimilate to that culture and country. The end result is the sacrifice of certain aspects of your own culture, the introduction of the other, and the enmeshment of them all. That is what happened to my daughter and I. In order to survive, we had to adopt certain cultural norms of the countries we were living in. They became a part of us, and we brought them back with us. In general, this is not a problem. In fact, it can be a very beautiful thing. The difficulty is that the people we returned home to did not share that experience, so they found the new version of us difficult to understand or sympathize with. To them, we looked the same as when we left; there was no reason for them to assume that the inside was so very different. And we got treated as such. We got treated as if we had spent a week on vacation, and any behaviors we displayed that showed otherwise were met with derision.
The most obvious was the linguistic change. Ally and I returned with what I call “jacked-up English”. Having gone directly from England to Costa Rica, we had first acquired a British lilt with British phrases, and then adopted a Costa Rican lilt and phrases. Combine this with our natural American English and you have a mishmash of linguistic messiness. The only people who understood us 100% of the time were each other; when we spoke how it came naturally to us, few understood. Sometimes British English was easier for us. At times Spanish was the easiest. American English was always thrown in along the way. We were accused, primarily by family, of faking our accents and language. Friends were mostly confused. Many of the African Americans in our circles, family and friends, began to negate our Blackness. Since we no longer spoke like them then we could no longer be completely accepted as one of them. Unfortunately, language was not the only reason given for this. We later learned how to hide our language differences; it still comes out, but we have learned how to hide it for the most part. Now, we are only our natural selves in the privacy of our own home.
There were other changes in us as well. The way we view our culture, subculture, the world, language, our peers, and just…everything, had changed. Some things changed a lot, some only a little. Our belief systems naturally changed as well. Just like the linguistic change, sometimes it was accepted, sometimes it was not. No amount of explaining made people understand, let alone agree. I give credit to a few people in my life for their open-mindedness and understanding. My best friend, Ally’s godmother, was very understanding and accepting. As was a lovely Lebanese friend of mine. My nephew was amazing about it all. He never judged us, and while he didn’t understand, he was more than accepting and was simply glad to have us home and able to spend time with Ally, who he has had a close bond with since her birth.
In terms of Ally and I and how we live our lives day to day, I will just say that we have come to terms with our reality. I am a very strong believer in being who you are, being unapologetic about it, and not hiding it. However, I have had to accept that not everything can be displayed; there is a time and a place for certain things, and sometimes, for your own sanity, you have to exercise discretion. Mind you, as an adult I always knew this and practiced it, but I was under the delusion that this situation would be an exception. For me and Ally, it is the whole language aspect. While we definitely give a big “F*** you!” to those who deny us our Blackness (as if it was them that gave it to us to begin with or theirs to take away), to avoid conflicts and questions, we reserve certain thoughts, words, and expressions for the privacy of our own home.
We also accept that we will never feel at home anywhere. There are days that I long for my life in Costa Rica. Then there are days when I miss England so badly that I feel my soul will split in half from sadness. At other times I am very glad to be living in my own country, with my own people. I know that it would be the same if I was living in one of the other countries, because it did happen. I would have thought that after five years of being home I would feel differently, settled and at peace. While I do feel at peace, I most certainly do not feel settled. I feel like Home, wherever that is, is not where I am now. Ally, now 15, feels the same. She feels that her home is in England and plans to move there on a permanent basis as soon as she can. The vast majority of the time I feel the same way, that England is my real home. However, having gone back and forth to Costa Rica so many times, and each time feeling and thinking differently about it, I know that it is possible that Ally might feel differently if she were to move there again. As for me, I am still finding my way, in search of Home.
For those considering moving abroad, please do not take everything I’m saying as a way to discourage you. In fact, I still encourage it. I have lived an amazing life and had some incredible experiences, the likes of which most people will never have in their lifetime. I do not regret a damn thing that I’ve done. I say all of this only to prepare you, so that you know what you are getting into and how to deal with it. I am convinced that had I known this ahead of time the transition would have been easier. But that does not take away from my experiences. It was all worth it. Hindsight is 20/20, but my vision after does not mar my vision from before; it was all fabulous.