Monday, June 27, 2011

Letter from Amy + Favorites: Primarily Color

Primarily Color
Burano, Italy, 2010

In addition to posting some favorite images as I move from Italy to the US, I'm also posting some letters from friends. These friends are former ex-pats, who have lived abroad and moved home. I've asked them to write a "letter" to me, telling me about their experience returning home to give me an idea of what I'm headed for. I thought you might also like to hear the experience of returning ex-pats. Who knows, it just might help you relate if you ever have family or friends returning from living abroad.

This first letter is from Amy Peyton, a friend in Oregon. I first met her a few years ago through a mutual friend, as she returned from her most recent experience living abroad. I look forward to seeing her again, very soon!

Home:  The World (but fairly happy for the time being in Forest Grove, Oregon)

Expat-dom: 4 years in Japan, 1 year in Romania, 1 year in France, 6 months each in Korea/Australia, 4 months in South Africa

Country Count: 44 (Top 3: Croatia, Slovenia, Japan)

Hey KatJ.  I’m not a blogger, but I’m a fairly talented rambler, so here goes.

Ugh, coming home.  Coming home from overseas bites.  It reminds me of the “Sludge Test” in high school when the H.S. chemistry teacher would give you this black, oily, hairy blob and then (through a series of tests you’ve studied all term), you would come up with all 17 ingredients (motor oil, bubble bath, sand, etc.) .  “Reverse culture shock” has all these hidden emotions that eventually burble up to the surface….

When I’ve come home from long sojourns overseas, I feel ___.  No, it’s not frustration.  It’s not hatred (although I have felt that a fair bit in the past).  It’s not exactly shame (but I have felt that, too).  It’s like someone made you swallow a bubble and that bubble is pumped up inside of you, right up under your skin.  And the littlest things just make you want to explode sometimes from the inside out: consumerism, materialism, indulgence, grandiosity (the SIZES of everything), superficiality, political ignorance, geographical stupidity (Australia versus Austria, among others), etc. etc.  When you mix all of this with homesickness, wistfulness, and desire to be “anywhere but here,” it’s pretty heady stuff.  At least it was for me.

One breakdown I had in particular was when I returned to the States from Japan.  My friend dropped me off at Safeway to grab some shampoo while he waited outside in the car.  After 20 or so minutes, I emerged, with nothing in hand, except tears and (probably) snot from a fairly colossal meltdown in the shampoo aisle.  SO many kinds, sizes, flavors, colors…do I have oily hair?Normal?Dry?Blended?Colored treated?Curly?Straight?Flyaway?Small bottle?Big bottle?With attached conditioning pack?Without attached conditioning pack?Hairmasque?Dandruffcontrol?  In my neighborhood store in Fukuoka, Japan, there were maybe 6-7 choices, none of which I could read anyway, so who cared?  In Romania, I bought whatever was *there*.   So, in this situation, the balloon was pumped up and all it took was a choice between PertorSuaveorHeadandShouldersorAussieorTresSemmeorPaulMitchellorInsfusiumorPantene orNexxusorVidalSassoonorWhiteRainorSt.IvesorVo5 to set it off.

It’s also a challenge to be one of the only people you know who travel.  People asked me all the time:  “So how was it?  Did you have fun?”  And my mouth would slightly hang open, and I would be thinking: “Ummm, yeah. I was in the middle of South Africa where nobody had apparently gotten the news that Mandela had been elected and the townships still had curfews and black taxis/white taxis.  *Yeah, I had fun*.”  It chokes you up when this magnanimous experience you’ve just had is whittled down to a couple of polite sentences to a disinterested few.  Your family and true friends will save you—the ones that really want to know how you drank tuica and played Uno with school principals and how the Japanese customs officials bowed and excused themselves out of the room when they discovered your trove of feminine products.  (Ha!!)  When you return home from overseas, those who really know and love you will envelope you like a blanketJ. 

And this especially includes Patrick and Brandon—what a gift to be able to give each other “reverse culture shock” therapy at a moment’s notice.  I did 99% of my traveling/living overseas by myself, so maybe these words are streaked with a bit more spit and fire than most people, who knows.

I did manage to find solace….  I talked with other expats, joined language conversation groups, and made new friends with people who had the same obsessions.  I planned my next overseas trip almost as soon as the plane skidded along the tarmac.  When I got homesick for Japan, I went to Uwajimaya and ate Udon, when I was homesick for Romania, I sang to my Romanian rock CDs and made ciorba while making care packages for those I left behind.  I kept busy with work.  I had purpose and a whole list of plans. 

So, there are my two cents.  Just get together with lots of friends and lean on your familyJ.

I’ll be thinking of you,


  1. Wow, what a great share.
    The last month or so I've been thinking I'd like to live abroad-and experience a variety of countries. I don't have any clue how one finds gainful employment doing that.
    Hope your re-entry to the States isn't as difficult as you fear. You've got lots of blogger support to help.

  2. Great post Kat. My husband and I have both lived overseas temporarily and find that we have gravitated to others with similar experiences since returning home. Our closest friends are those we made overseas, or those who lived away from Australia in the past.

  3. I can very much relate to what Amy describes here. I returned twice to my home country from living abroad, and it was especially difficult when I returned from Taiwan. I hope for you that it won't be as difficult, and Amy has a point that you are returning with your family and not alone - that certainly makes a difference. Good luck to you - thinking that you will live on the same side of the US as I do is a nice thought!

  4. Well I realise this is nowhere near in the same league, but I grew up in Scotland and moved to England when I was 29. A few years ago I decided to go back and live in Scotland again, and I just couldn't stand it - I had to come back 'home' to south-east England after six months. There are some wonderful things about my country of birth but going back made me remember how I'd never felt I fitted there, and I couldn't relate to the insular and sometimes bigoted views that many people seemed to hold. People who'd never stepped out of the country would go on about it being the best place in the world! - and many of their opinions came from the same place of ignorance about the rest of the world. It was made harder for me in the sense that I had no friends, no family, and no job there, so I was desperately lonely and without a structure to my life. I realise this is not at all on the same scale as going to a completely different country with a totally different culture, but I do feel I can relate to it on some level. When you go back somewhere, you're not the person you were when you left and it can be hard to re-integrate.

    Good luck, Kat - being prepared for it and having your husband and son understand will make a big difference.

  5. Yay for Amy and her words on return. Its true.. all of what she says. I think it makes us more grounded to have been away. On a different level, we see and realize how much abundance there is in America and the things that Americans take for granted. Its interesting to say the least... not all bad and not all good either. I had nearly the same experience only with the cereal aisle versus shampoo.

  6. Even after more than a year spent back in the US - I still find the cold cereal aisle overwhelming!

  7. I am feeling sane and validated having read some of these posts. I lived in Australia for 21 years, 27 in various cities around America, then a little over a year in Denmark. Transitioning back to good old Oz social culture is very hard for me. My old friends don't like me talking about America all the time. I am making one cultural faux pas after another, and have had the good old foot and mouth disease for a year. Not in the sense that I'm not diplomatic. My skills are in international diplomacy. I am too liberal with my views and what I talk about in public places. I'm told I'm too loud. Sorry you Aussies. You guys really are extremely loud in restaurants, and talk about nothing most of the time, so let's not start culture wars.


What's your view of the world? I love to hear yours too!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.