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Photo: Lawmurray

For one expat woman, coming home proves more difficult than moving abroad.

A little more than a year ago, my husband and I lit some candles in our Lahore apartment and spread out a world map. This was not some quirky romantic game; the candles were simply to keep the room lit during the power cut we were expecting in the next five minutes.

I took out a month’s worth of obsessive research: files detailing cost of living in different countries, reviews of international schools, salary profiles and statistics on languages and people groups.

With the 120-degree weather in the Pakistani Punjab and the frequent electricity cuts, we were ready to move on. It’s difficult to be an effective teacher when your alter ego is a sleepless zombie woman constantly drenched in a pool of sweat and passed out on the marble floor.

“How about Jakarta? There’s a great school there and tons of opportunities to travel.”

“Too humid. Let’s go somewhere without mosquitoes…somewhere cold. My vote is for Norway,” he countered.

Photo: Rex Roof

“Norway? Too cold for me, not enough sunlight and high cost of living…how about Saudi? Some sweet packages for teachers there.”

“As long as there’s electricity and AC, I’m down with that. I mean it’s desert heat there – dry heat.”

“Yeah, but you’d have to drive me everywhere. That might make us both crazy.”

Working off a list of job opportunities we were pursuing, we each took colored pieces of paper and marked our top ten destinations on the map. We both chose a small city in Takijistan as our number one choice, and dots of red and yellow marked other destinations across Central Asia and the Middle East .

Six months later, we arrived in new temporary home: Fall River, Massachusetts.

This destination had not been on our list.

After attending a job fair in Bangkok and learning more about the international teaching scene, we realized that to move forward with our careers we needed to further our education. This meant putting our top ten on hold and leaving behind the expat lifestyle for the frugal existence of U.S. college students.

Although I was fully behind this decision, I still had trouble coming to grips with it. Coming back to the states after three years in Pakistan threw me into a tailspin of identity crisis. To friends in the U.S. or people I met abroad, I was “Heather in Pakistan.” To Pakistanis I was the American, the linguist, the teacher, the university lecturer.

Americans often thought I was insane for living in Pakistan; Pakistanis were equally perplexed. My identity was wrapped up in my otherness, in being different.

I’ve realized that who I am doesn’t need to be tied up with place.

I missed designing shalwar kameez with the tailor, dodging donkey carts and ogling over the amount of oil my landlady would put in a single dish. For about six months after I came back to the US, my blog lay fallow and dormant, as if it needed to regenerate after three years of continual use.

So often people form identities on place and occupation. Two of the first phrases learned when studying a foreign language are, “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”

As an expat, the answers to these two questions are often unfixed. Outward identity is malleable, although those with long careers abroad can define themselves in a way that captures this flux: international teachers, journalists, missionaries, foreign diplomats, humanitarian aid workers.

Moving back to the U.S., I lost both place and occupation. My blog stayed empty because I didn’t know what to write about. I held on to about 800 business cards with my Pakistani phone number and “Heather Michelle Carreiro: Linguist & Teacher Trainer” on them, even though I didn’t have use for them anymore.

After one semester of grad school, I’ve started using those old business cards for reminder notes and bookmarks. I’ve moved on from lamenting the loss of my Pakistani identity; I’ve realized that who I am doesn’t need to be tied up with place.

I want to explore my new hometown as if I’m an expat – find the best coffee shops, photograph local festivals and be in the know about art and music venues. While Tajikistan is no longer on my immediate travel hit list, I’ve come up with a dozen destinations to visit in New England.

Now that I have some distance (and 24-hour electricity), I can creatively reflect on my time abroad. I can share about Pakistan with others whose only picture of the country consists of turbaned Taliban militants weighed down with artillery, bouncing over washed out roads in pick-up trucks. I can serve as a sort of cultural ambassador, helping bridge the gap between perception and reality.

Yes, my experiences abroad are part of who I am, but so is eating cow’s tongue with my in-laws in Fall River. I’m okay now with planning trips that don’t involve crossing oceans, mountain ranges and international borders.

I’m okay now with introducing myself as a student and a writer, although I confess I find solace that in a few years it will be time to change my address, phone number and business cards once again. I find contentment in the avoidance of putting down roots, having a bag packed and ready to go in my apartment, and always carrying a flashlight in case the power goes out.

Read more about What Happens When We’re Not Traveling from Matador community member Robyn Crispe.

Expat Life


 

About The Author

Heather Carreiro

Heather is a secondary English teacher, travel writer and editor who has lived in Morocco and Pakistan. She enjoys jamming on the bass, haggling over saris in dusty markets and cross-country jumping on horseback. Currently she's a grad student attempting to wrap her tongue around Middle English, analyze South Asian literature and eat enough to make her Portuguese mother-in-law happy. Learn more on her blog at ExpatHeather.com.

  • David

    Really awesome article! It’s a huge epiphany to discover that who you are doesn’t have to be tied up with any particular place. And I think, as you’ve suggested, travelling (and returning home) can open up a window of self-discovery. Nice job! :)

  • http://thoughtfulnomad.wordpress.com Kristen

    I really like the viewpoint you took in this post. Most of the time you read about how to cope with living abroad and being away from home. In my experiences with travel, it’s always been a lot harder to come home than to leave. It’s unusual how you can move away from your home country for such a short time, and upon returning, what was “normal” for our entire lives ends up becoming completely foreign to us. I really enjoyed reading this!

  • http://www.wanderingdona.com Dona

    Once again Heather you did a great job putting words to what so many long term travelers experience. Returning home is often so much harder than leaving and I know for me, I spent weeks just laying on the couch zoned out to infomercials because I had no idea what to do with myself or really what my purpose was. I think its a fantastic idea to view yourself as a traveler in your hometown or region to keep ideas and perspective fresh.

    • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

      Infomercials? Wow you suffered a fairly extreme case Dona!

  • http://www.rebeccakinsella.wordpress.com Rebecca

    Heather, i think a lot of people will identify with the points you raise here. I LOVE your attitude & approach to exploring your new home town!

    “So often people form identities on place and occupation.” – so true, in travel & dating!

  • http://ljgolden.com Linda

    Great piece, Heather.

    I agree, there’s a lot to miss about life abroad (mangoes), but wow, 24/7 electricity and hot showers are great.

    • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

      I really do still carry a flashlight and matches in my purse…but yes it IS wonderful to have high-speed Internet, Trader Joe’s, sandwich meat and weather under 100 degrees.

      • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

        Do you find you get too comfortable stateside, like being uncomfortably comfortable is travel in a nutshell?

  • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

    Spot on. I’m going through the same withdrawal pains right now in Texas. If only they made Nicorette for travelers… maybe randomly insert pieces of a foreign culture into cities across the US?

    • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

      I actually solved this problem by moving in with my Portuguese in-laws. Eating at Indian restaurants once in a while helps. Just got a new dentist who turns out to be from Lahore. He was singing in Urdu while drilling my teeth…all these little things help me cope!

  • http://www.beatravelbee.com Joya

    Hi Heather, thanks for writing this article. It has been really hard for me to live back home in the states after working abroad in London. I can’t seem to let go of my time there but I am trying to envelop myself in where I am now by exploring new parts of the city and events, festivals, and cafes as you are doing. I am trying to realize that I don’t have to travel across an ocean to feel complete and content but it’s taking time for me.

  • Heidi

    I can so totally relate!!!! I am going thru much of the same, getting my master’s but also teaching full-time after two years in Asia. Miss it to death but like you, I know this is temporary! :)

  • http://annemerritt.blogspot.com Anne M

    Wow, a huge change! Going from expat life to homeland life, and also from the role of teacher to student. Is the latter transition tough as well?

    I agree with the other comments; you put such eloquence and positivity to this all-too-common issue. I’m hoping you post those obsessive reasearch files on living in different countries. Sounds like invaluable information!

  • http://missmoveabroad.com Erin Van Rheenen

    Thanks for the reminder that coming home can be as jarring as moving abroad. I like what writer Gina Hyams, who returned to Oakland, CA, after four years in the Mexican state of Michoacan, said about it: “Perhaps we’ve become permanent expatriates–neither fish nor fowl, forever lost no matter our location. But the fluidity also means that we’re now like mermaids and centaurs–magic creatures who always know there’s another way.”

    • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

      Sweet quote Erin. Thanks for sharing. “Forever lost no matter our location” – I definitely feel like I’ve retained “otherness” even in coming home.

  • http://www.copix.co.uk Christine B.Osborne

    Read yr post with dread as well as interest. I hope I can learn how to hang my hat on a peg in the old home country as you have done.

    I am an expat of dare I say, nearly 40 years living outside Australia and working in many different developing countries, Pakistan being just one of them. But one I dearly loved and which I have written about in a book and many articles.

    I have never considered one should be held hostage to one`s birthplace, but believe me, the longer you stay away — you know the rest—-the harder it is to go back. But then attaining a certain age, as I have, the pull is there. In my own case, its the pull of a life that I know will not be so interesting as London, or Lahore or Addis Ababa, but where for not too much effort or expense, one can escape the madding crowds and stresses of an urban life.

    Thanks for yr thoughts. They will help me get my head around many negative and pre conceived ideas about the return of the expat.

    htto://christinebosborne.blogspot.com

  • Aubree M

    Thank you for this article. Since returning from a 2-year stint living in Seville, Spain, I have been trying to come to grips with leaving my exotic and envy-worthy life and returning to a “normal” american existence. I have been lucky enough to find a job that feeds my need to talk about all things international (i work in a study abroad office) but i still struggle with the constant pangs to travel. i’m glad to know i’m not alone :)

  • http://innoword.com Sarah

    Hi Heather,

    I just wanted to say that I’ve been enjoying your articles here on Matador.

    Keep on writing! :)

  • Rebecca

    It was great reading this! I returned from a year in India almost five months ago and have been having a hell of a time adjusting. Slowly coming to appreciate life in American and living by the words, wherever I hang my hat, there’s my home!

    • Heather Carreiro

      Thanks Rebecca! I actually wrote a follow up from this piece for Expat Women, as the editor Andrea thought that many people could relate to the experience. In that one, I go over some practical things I tried to help me appreciate living in my home country – How to Overcome Expat Withdrawal - I have found that setting goals to try new things and taking time to ‘explore’ my new hometown has really helped. Can’t believe it’s been more than a year now that I’ve been back!

  • June Kovac

    Hi Heather,loved your article,I haven’t lived abroad for any longer than 1 month,but when I return,it always seems so fresh and exciting to me,just like when I go to another new place. EaCH time you travel and absorb that energy,it enables you to grow and morph into unknown territory,it changes your vibes! All the best in your new life and future travels! June k

  • http://www.cachandochile.com Margaret

    Wow does this hit home! I’ve lived in Chile for 19 years and the thought of going back to the States crosses my mind from time to time… but I can’t help but wonder not only what I would DO there, but who I would BE there… There really is a strange comfort in otherness when outside one’s birth country that seems to warp into an uncomfortable otherness upon returning.

  • a guest.

    How can someone marvel at their own self absorption/obsession without a trace of irony? You don’t feel special anymore because you no longer command attention by sticking out like a sore thumb at some dusty third world market or on some creaking train? How can someone reminisce so fondly about all of the terrible dangers,inconveniences, and backwards attributes of backwards locations in which she spent a sliver of time? Are the 24/7 electricity at your fingertips and ample drinking water (all you want!) a burden to you now?  If you really have enough time to worry about your expat vs. non-expat identity, then you simply have too much time and too much inwardly directed focus. 

    And if you went to a job fair in Bangkok (a high profile, competitive staffing venue designed to connect experienced, qualified teachers with international schools) without rock solid teaching credentials, international (not language) school experience or an advanced degree, then you were a blue-sky fool.

    • Cupid0501

      what’s with the resentment and anger? you obviously have not experienced life as an ex-pat and returned home unexpectedly. And who are you to judge? I am relieved someone was able to put into words, what I could not express in my own. Thank you heather, you saved me thousands in therapy bills! 

  • DMC

    The travel bug is a pain in the bum when it comes time to go back to the old, familiar, routines and ‘normal’ life. Which is hard to express to people who have not been bitten -or are to comfortable to step away from what they know.

    The reason she went back to states is to learn to teach abroad, after finding out what she need to do, at the fair. Did you read the article. Tool!

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