Going back home as an expat is a mix of excitements and doubts. You are so excited to see your family, your friends, eat your favorite food and do things the way you are used to doing them. Be it, brunching, shopping, jogging, banking… but it also comes with its lot of challenges, particularly the first time you go back home as an expat.
I’m currently sitting 6 hours into my flight to Paris, only half-way through, looking back at all the trips home I’ve made and how easier and easier it is becoming every time. There are times like today where I have planned it and look forward to it: a family reunion for Christmas, never-ending dinner with amazing French food, catching up with old friends. And there are times where it's last minute and not so fun, you still have the family reunion and the beautiful food but this time it's around a coffin not a table...
Planned or not, going back home is always challenging in some ways. There are so many people to see, so many things to shop, so many activities you've been missing and really look forward to. I'm not a fool anymore, I know I will see only half of the people I want to, do only half of the shopping I was counting on and if I'm lucky, understand super-duper organized, a fourth of the activities I was planning.
Here are a few tips to survive your trips back home:
Planning is key
One of the most important aspects of your trip is planning and setting priorities to avoid disappointments: What are you really looking forward to doing, what type of administration tasks do you need to do, who do you want to see?
The best way to organize it is to spreadsheet. You may want to thank your company for this one, all these Budget and P&L taught you the necessary skill to create an epic holiday spreadsheet - creating a day by day planning including activities, transportation, accommodation, and budget. With that, you’ll see how much you can realistically get done. Don’t forget that your trip is supposed to be a holiday – at least the days are deducted from your annual leave – so don’t overdo it. Once you finish your list of priorities, start filling up your planning and see how much will fit it.
There are two essential tricks to be more productive:
- Set up a base camp and let everyone come to you. This is a classic returning expat mistake, running around to see as many friends and family as possible. You’ll spend the entire time on the road speeding from one place to the next which is exhausting, time-consuming and expensive. It is simply not doable. Arrange get-together, and maximize the number of friends or family members you’ll meet in one time, letting people coming to you instead of going to them. Don’t forget you are the ones who squeezed in in a tiny economy seat for hours in a stinky plane, they can get off their arse and do a few kilometers to come and see you.
- Stick to your planning – limit the add-on and don’t get too lazy. Spreadsheet a "per day" plan for your trip but don’t do it down to the minute – some of the best moment with your relatives will be the unplanned ones.
Organize yourself in advance
If there is one thing I learned after so many trips home is that it is always more expensive than you planned it to be. There are the gifts you need to bring to your family members on your way home, the gift you must bring to your team members and friends in your adoptive home, the shopping you have plan to do and a lot of shopping you hadn’t plan (mostly spend on food and beauty products not available in your adoptive country). Set up a budget, a way to access your money and stick to it! If you have bank account back home, is it better to wire money, or use your local card? Consider everything and see where you can save a few bucks.
Get your roaming activated or get a sim card as soon as you land with loads of data. You will surprise yourself with how many changes of plans there will be and how much you forgot about your country. GPS will be needed, reaching people too.
Check before leaving that your health insurance plan covers your home country (especially if you are an American) – you will push your limits, the weather will be different than the one you are now used to, the food as well, you’ve got 50% chance that you or someone in your travelling party will get sick, and you don’t want to end up paying for fare for it.
This one is a tricky one. Because you want to bring as much as possible from your adoptive country, so you don’t buy things in your home country – your home country being most probably more expensive than your adoptive country. BUT, you will do a lot of shopping, more than plan and want to bring with you LOTS of things you can’t find in your adoptive country. You will need luggage space/weight for that, so be strategic. Here the tricks are 1- not to bring too many things with you, so you have plenty of space in your luggage, and 2- to choose your airline wisely. Some airlines offer 20 kg, some 23 kg and some 30-kg allowance. You want to book the 30-kg baggage allowance even if the tickets is a little more expensive or the journey a little longer, at the end it will be well worth it, especially if you end up paying 30USD per extra kilos…
Be ready for culture choc, jetlag, overeating, judgments...
Home is a happy place and going home a happy experience, but there will be a few struggles.
Jetlag will be the first inconvenience to hit you. You will arrive home tired from the journey and looking forward to a good night sleep – you won’t get it. You will either find it very difficult to sleep because it’s not yet time in your adoptive country, or your kid(s) will wake you up at 3.57am because it is already time to wake up there. The first couple of days will be hard, so don’t plan too much within those.
I love my family, I really do, they are the entire and sole reason, I keep coming back to France. Having said that, being around them can be stressful at times. Your borderline cousin is still borderline, your loud uncle is still loud and past the euphory of the first days, it will hit your nerves as it used to do. Just prepare for it and accept it, you want your trip to leave good memories for everyone, including yourself so stay above conflict.
Prepare yourself to feel guilty and judged.
There will be a lot of expectation and pressure from your entourage on why you are not staying longer, coming more often and why they see you or your children so little. And more annoyingly, they will question your decision to move abroad, how you can be happy far away from your landmarks and relatives and when are you coming back for good – no matter if it is your first or tenth trip. As time goes, only the oldest member will keep questioning you, the youngest just get used to it. I don’t have the answer on how to deal with this one, I think it is extremely personal and your true-self only know the answer. But do know that these questions will be asked and they will make you feel guilty as hell.
Prepare yourself for a culture choc. After all, you have put a lot of effort to adapt to your new country, and while home is a familiar place, your habits did change. I, for example, avoid driving for a couple of days as we aren’t driving on the same side of the road. I did not wait the first year, and end up driving on the wrong side… Coming from South-Asia where everyone is friendly, I also struggle with the unfriendliness and unhappiness of the Parisians, and avoid places like the subway at all cost.
Being prepared will most definitely make your trip back home a lot smoother and relaxing. I’m not saying it’s going to be all rainbow and unicorn the whole time, the holidays will still be hectic, occasionally stressful and an emotional roller coaster. But planning really helps reduce the stress and exhaustion.