There's No Going "Back to Normal"
Moving home after living abroad is a hard experience, one that I can only equate to graduating from university. You move away from home, to a new place with new people and it’s scary in the beginning. But before you know it, strangers become friends and you’re not getting lost in the halls anymore, instead this place starts to feel like home. Years fly by and all of a sudden it’s time to graduate. You’re excited because this is a milestone, one you’ve worked really hard for. You know that on the other side of graduation, is massive amounts of growth and your whole life full of opportunities you can’t yet fathom. But that doesn’t mean it’s not sad or scary or intimidating. You have to leave the place you’ve called home and the friends you called family. Your lifestyle is going to change dramatically and you might even doubt whether or not you can survive this next chapter in life. Everything is about to change and what makes that exciting also makes it a little terrifying. It’s bittersweet in every way.
Well that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about moving home after 2 years of living in Australia. The move there was initially really hard and I wanted nothing more than to return home, to get back to “normal” and “real life.” But about a year through the experience, there was a massive shift within me and all of a sudden “normal” and “real life” was everything Australia had become. I didn’t feel out of place anymore, I felt at home. I couldn’t even pick out Australian accents and sometimes forgot that I didn’t have one, because that was the norm. I missed my family and friends in the US of course, no one could replace them, but my boyfriend became my family and the friends we made memories with was a completely different group of people. I started listening to Australian music almost exclusively and can now confidently drive on the left side of the road. By the time my two years were up and it was time to go home, I identified with Australia and New Zealand. I felt a kinship to their people and that warm feeling you get in your heart when you think about home. And I didn’t want to leave.
I was excited for the next steps in life… I had a promising future waiting for me in San Francisco. And since my partner is from New Zealand, me moving to San Francisco to start the process of getting paperwork and visas sorted made the most sense for us. I’d be financially secure for the first time in two years, progressing my career, and reuniting with beloved family and friends. I was so excited to go home for all of those reasons. But I was also leaving friends and family behind, with no known plan to see them any time soon. I was leaving a place I called home, knowing I might never call it home again. It was the end of a relaxed lifestyle I’d come to really enjoy. And for all of those reasons, I was sad.
I’ve only been back for a day, and it’s already such a weird transition. It’s starting a whole new phase of life, but with the familiarity of a life I used to know so well. I can walk down streets of a city I barely recognize, and know exactly where I’m going. I can shop the aisles of an unknown grocery store, and know exactly which brands I like. I talk with old friends about people I don’t know. Everything is different, but nothing has changed. I’m a new me in an old and familiar place, and learning how to exist here is going to be hard. There are the obvious, slap you in the face differences like living in a city vs living out of our car, but it’s the little differences that make me feel foreign in my hometown. Hearing American accents everywhere when I’m listening for Australian, pausing at the front door to take my shoes off before remembering that most people wear shoes inside, looking the wrong way before crossing the street, stumbling through making a cup of coffee, chatting about work amongst friends, the reality shows people follow…
They’re little things, but together they make me feel out of place. My wonderful friends made an effort to welcome me home and it helped remind me that there is so much happiness for me here, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an adjustment. People keep saying that everything will feel normal again really soon… But that’s just it. It won’t. Because “normal” is in Australia for me now. “Normal” is listening to Triple J, driving shitty cars with the windows down, smelling sheep farms as we drive by. “Normal” is falling asleep next to my partner and cuddling in the morning while the alarm clock snoozes. “Normal” is working sporadically and traveling indefinitely. Nothing about life in San Francisco is “normal” to me anymore, and that’s okay. Just like when I left for Australia, or college for that matter, I had to adjust my expectations of normal. Just as I had felt out of place then, I’ll feel out of place now, until one day “normal” will fit my days like an old pair of jeans and “home” will be here.
Returning to your home country after living abroad isn’t like coming back from a trip, no matter how long that trip was. Returning “home” after living in a different culture doesn’t feel like coming “home” at all. It feels like being an outsider in a place you should belong. It’s being surprised and annoyed by all of the accents that sound like yours. It’s a feeling of inner incongruity, pieces of yourself trying to figure out where and how they belong, if they belong, in this environment. And the hardest thing is, no one understands how it feels. No one understands the changes you’ve gone through and how being “home” doesn’t feel comfortable anymore. No one understands that things will never go “back to normal” here because “normal” is a world away for you. You’ll find a new sense of normal, but you can never go “back to normal."
So here’s to the day that “new” becomes “normal” and I feel like an American again.