(3 minute read)
If you’re an expat and you’re returning home, there’s a decent chance you’re headed for a bit of a rough time assimilating back. You may have noticed that on your holiday trips home you found your friends and family quite provincial, more interested in the misbehavior of the neighbor’s dog than they are in the political situation in China or the amazing restaurant you found on the beach in Phuket. They just don’t seem to understand or even be interested in your life. Now, that’s annoying when you’re just visiting, but when you’re back permanently, it can be a real challenge. Returning expats sometimes find themselves alienated from the people they care about the most.
What is really going on inside both the returning expat and the friend or family member who was left behind? To answer that, we have to understand that we are all social creatures, and therefore we are all constantly comparing ourselves to others.
You have come back from this glorious expat adventure in which you lived extremely well, went on exotic vacations, made friends with fascinating people, ate amazing food and probably saved a ton of money into the bargain. Meanwhile, your friend or family member has had none of that. They might admire you now, perhaps be a bit in awe of you….but since awe and admiration are first cousins to jealousy and envy, you can be sure that they’ve got some negative feelings about your excellent adventure, and about you. Hearing your stories, as entertaining as they are, just makes them feel inferior and inadequate.
Perhaps you might feel hurt by that, and even angry at them for not being purely happy for you. Sadly, we’re not built to just experience happiness at other people’s good fortune — there’s always a voice in the back of our head saying “What about me? Why didn’t I get something good?” (Just try to imagine the last time you felt unadulterated joy at the good fortune of a peer.)
And let’s be honest: when we tell the folks back home about our expat adventure, we’re not educating the other person out of the goodness of our hearts. At least a small part of us is looking for that awe, that admiration. That’s why we curate ourselves on Facebook in the first place.
It’s inevitable that we like to generate awe and admiration in others. After all, we spend a lot of time looking at other people’s lives and thinking how much better off they seem to be than us. But if you give in to that temptation, you’ll get one-upmanship in return, or, if your audience feels they can’t compete, you’ll be faced with withdrawal or a change of subject. That’s why people seem so provincial, and so interested in the behavior of the neighbor’s dog: learning about your expat life makes them feel bad about themselves, so they bring up topics that don’t make them feel bad.
Here are some rules for ensuring a smooth re-entry into your home-based relationships:
Talk up the positives about being home. You’ll generate a lot less envy and jealousy if you tell your dear ones that the choice they made — to stay put — was a good one and that you’re happy to be back.
Only talk about your expat experience if you’re asked. If someone hasn’t asked about what it was like, you can be pretty sure that it’s going to be uncomfortable for them to hear about it. Of course, if it’s the school bully who made your life miserable back in 10th grade, by all means tell them what an amazing time you had. You might even want to embellish a bit.
Less is more. Just because someone asked you what it was like living in Hong Kong doesn’t mean you have to tell them everything. Social niceties force most people to inquire, but hearing about how wonderful your life was will probably make them wish they hadn’t. Give them a little bit of information and watch to see if they ask for more. If they don’t, you know it’s likely they’re feeling envious and jealous.
Focus on stories that won’t make people jealous. You may have had a good time as an expat, but it wasn’t perfect. You can choose to talk about that wonderful spa in Bali, or you can talk about getting food poisoning in Chiang Mai and how the doctor didn’t speak any English and you felt so awful you couldn’t decide if you were more frightened that you were going to die, or that you weren’t going to die.
Show interest in the lives of your friends and family. Your expat days are over, and you’re back home, so the sooner you get involved in what’s happening at home, the better you’ll feel. The trials and tribulations of your sister’s home remodeling may seem dull after witnessing the Umbrella Revolution, but that’s your life now. Wishing you were an expat again is only going to slow down your assimilation back home.
These are not easy rules to follow. We want our loved ones to understand us, and to share our experiences. For the saintly few among us, we’re not even looking for awe and admiration. But regardless of our motivations, the fact is that we’re more likely to generate envy and jealousy, so for the happiness of others — and for our own sakes — try to put a lid on it.