Expat Life

Expat Checkup: Six Months Back Home

Writing the first sentence of a blog post after a long absence is such an awkward task. Do I address the fact that I haven’t published anything here in over four months? Or do I just pick right back up like I was never gone at all?

Even more awkward – did anyone even notice I was gone?

The past four months have been busy, which I get it, everyone has a full plate these days, but my mind has felt exceedingly busy as well. So much so that stringing words together in any sort of coherent fashion proved impossible. Instead, I turned my focus to other things – namely, everything you’re about to read below.

But first, I want to talk a little bit about what repatriation (i.e., returning to one’s own country after living abroad) has been like.

Two alpacas on a farm in Tennessee

The #1 thing no one tells you about becoming an expat – you do not stop being an expat after you return home. At least not for a while.

It’s a phenomenon known as reverse culture shock, which can present itself in any number of ways. For me, it was marked by an extreme high shortly after returning as we eagerly indulged in all of the things we’d missed so much the past five years. (I won’t lie, I’m pretty sure I ate at Taco Bell at least fifteen times that first month.)

However, shortly after our first month back, the tides began to turn and I suddenly felt like I was trying to stay afloat in the middle of the ocean, in the dark, in nothing more than an inflatable dinghy. It was disorienting and I felt discouraged, particularly in myself, nearly every single day.

I’d like to tell you I put my big girl britches on and pulled myself out of this self-doubting funk straight away, but I didn’t. I let myself wallow in it for a while. Longer than I should have.

After a great deal of self-reflection, I believe I’ve gotten so good at the practice of starting anew and enjoy the excitement of it so much that I now prefer it to returning to what I know. I find it far easier to keep moving forward than to try to reconcile the person I am now with who I once was, which is precisely the uncharted waters this move forced me into.

It’s not so much that we reinvent ourselves every time we move as it is we take the ways in which the places we’ve lived before have changed us onto the next place. That’s what makes going back home so difficult for some people, myself included. Sometimes the ways in which we’ve changed make it so that we simply can’t go back, figuratively speaking anyway.

Anyway, I’m past the worst of it now and most days I seem to have myself sorted out, thank goodness. (To keep my pitiful ocean analogy going, my little dinghy is miraculously still intact and I’m close to land. Some days I can even feel it brush the bottom of the boat.) I hope to be able to write more clearly and helpfully about this in the future, but for now, let’s move on to what’s been going on lately, which is actually quite a lot!

Clearing out our storage unit

It feels a little ridiculous to even mention this four months after it happened, but seeing as we were still living in our temporary apartment the last time I wrote an expat update, I’ll say it anyway – we’ve moved into our permanent apartment! And we LOVE it.

There is floor space for days. Closets galore. Cabinets in the bathrooms. A hot water heater that doesn’t have to be turned on half an hour before we shower. It’s an older apartment, but it still feels like we’ve hit the housing jackpot. If we could just pick this place up and move it everywhere we go next, that would be excellent. (Particularly because then there’d be no need to pack up!)

Our long-awaited shipment from Singapore arrived the last week of August and it was like Christmas morning in the summer unwrapping all of the much-missed items I’d forgotten to pack in our suitcases when leaving Singapore.

In addition to our Singapore shipment, we also had a 10×10 storage unit full of all sorts of things I deemed worthy of keeping five years ago that needed to be cleared out. Let’s just say, my 29-year-old self had a completely different idea in mind of what she would need after repatriating than my current self does.

That being said, I opened the last box last weekend and discovered a collection of mix tapes I made back in 1998. I’m talking real cassette tapes. The kind you’d pop into the stereo and wait patiently next to until your favorite song came on the radio, then quickly push record as soon as you heard the opening notes. Ah, the days before iTunes and Pandora.

I was disappointed I had no way to find out what was on them until…wait…yep, I found a cassette player, too. It was fate at that point. We were meant to listen to those tapes. And so we spent the evening jamming out to scratchy tunes by K-Ci and JoJo, Third Eye Blind, Savage Garden, and all of the other bands that made the late 90’s so awesome.

I suppose my 29-year-old self knew what she was doing after all.

Picking out the perfect pumpkin for Halloween Our happy ghost Halloween pumpkin

Changing leaves on the trees at the beginning of autumn

This was also our first time in a couple of years to get to experience a season other than rains-all-day-every-day and less-rainy-but-still-rains-a-lot.

Historically, fall hasn’t been my favorite season (that award rests firmly with spring), but I loved it this year. Our apartment backs up to woods and it seemed like every morning I opened the blinds, the trees only got more colorful. I’m sure if we live here long enough, I’ll start under-appreciating this season again at some point, but it was a beautiful thing to witness this year.

Not to mention, celebrating holidays that typically occur in the fall are a lot more fun when it actually feels like fall outside. Our anticipation for the end-of-year holiday trifecta (Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) was strong this year!

Standing outside the US Capitol building in Washington, DC

As for travel, we’ve slowed down quite a bit and I’ve only managed to visit two other states in the past four months. (Well, I guess we wouldn’t call D.C. a state, but whatever, Virginia then.)

We had a heck of a time deciding where we wanted our first trip after moving back to the U.S. to be, and even considered going to Canada, but in the end, we decided there was really only ever one correct choice. After visiting over a dozen other countries’ capitals, it was time to see our own.

Cory and Lex had never been before. I’d been to D.C. several years ago for a wedding, but I saw so little of the city that it hardly counted. This time, we saw it properly.

We traveled to D.C. during the worst of my – I don’t know what to call it exactly, gloomy period? – and for the first time in several months I felt like myself again. Speeding around on the metro, walking all day every day, losing myself in the history of a new place – I really do credit that trip with helping me, at least initially, connect to the U.S. again.

If I can get my blogging act together, I’ll try to share more about that one soon because it’s a trip I wish every American had the opportunity to take. (Well, everyone else, too, but especially those of us who call this country home.)

Big brother peeking into the crib at little brother Holding my newest nephew on a trip to Seattle in December

Family photo shoot with the new baby

The other state I made it to was a new one for me – Washington! And the state itself wasn’t the only new thing waiting for me there.

For the second year running, I have a new nephew! Simon was born in December and I made it over to see him in time for his one-week birthday. Just when you think your heart can’t possibly get any more full, someone shows up to prove you wrong.

For a whole weekend, I got as many baby snuggles as my metaphorical heart could handle, and all the running around the house in circles a hundred times over with my oldest nephew as my physical heart could handle.

I sure do love these nephews of mine. I may be partial, but I do believe my family makes the cutest tiny humans.

Hugs all around for our greatly-missed family members

Speaking of that, I’m not sure I ever properly explained why we decided to cut our four years in Singapore down to two, but one of the major reasons was so we could spend more time with family for a while, both the young ones and the old ones.

All of our grandparents are in their 90’s now, and only getting to see them once a year (and even less in the case of Cory’s grandmother) just wasn’t getting any easier. We found ourselves wishing the distance weren’t quite so great more in our first year in Singapore than we had in all three years we spent in London combined. It just felt like the right time to come back. I mean, how else was I going to show my grandfather how hard I’d been working on my ASL skills? Or play enough games of Chinese checkers with my grandmother that I might finally win one? :)

In all seriousness, though, I feel incredibly grateful that we were able to spend the entire holiday season this year from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day with family. That hasn’t happened in a long time.

Stockings and presents beside the Christmas tree Opening presents on Christmas morning

It’s now been nearly a month since Christmas. I do finally have the decorations put away, except for a small wooden reindeer I accidentally skipped over and which will now be staying up all year long.

I decided not to make any resolutions this year. Not because I don’t have any goals, but because I’d like to take the pressure off myself this year to tick things off lists. I’m a very methodical person by nature and enjoy making long to-do lists just to have something to cross off, but I think what I need more than schedules and lists right now is flexibility.

Will I accomplish as much in 2019 as I was hoping to? Probably not. Will I spend this year happier and more carefree than I did the last? Man, I’m really hoping so.

2018 wasn’t a bad year, not at all. I learned a great deal, mostly about myself and where my strengths and weaknesses lie, but also about where I ought to be placing my priorities. And I could never call a year like that a failure.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and balanced new year for all of us! As always, thanks for reading. xx

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  • Mrs. Match
    February 14, 2019 at 11:33 PM

    I cannot believe how grown up Lexi looks these days. It must be so strange to be back stateside after all of your travels. I’m glad you’re getting past your gloomy phase. Here’s to a great 2019!

    • Sarah Shumate
      February 15, 2019 at 3:09 PM

      She’s nearly an adult now! Crazy to think she was only 10 when we left the US. It doesn’t feel like that much time could have passed, but clearly it has. :)

  • Jessi (Two Feet, One World)
    February 5, 2019 at 4:34 PM

    Yay welcome back! Was so interested to see how our repat experiences mirror and differ each other :) I’m lucky that my little boat has felt pretty steady – let’s see how I go in winter though! Looking forward to seeing your US adventures!

    • Sarah Shumate
      February 7, 2019 at 8:03 AM

      I’m so happy to hear it’s been smooth sailing for you so far. Hopefully winter won’t change your mood. Well, at least any more than winter usually affects people anyway. :) Maybe you’ll get a mild one this year and still be able to get outside for hikes and beach walks!

  • Kelly
    January 24, 2019 at 10:06 AM

    Hi Sarah,

    You were definitely missed. Despite not knowing you personally (and as odd as this might sound), I found myself wondering on occasion how you were coping with repatriation. I’m an American who has lived in Europe on and off (but more on) for a total of almost 10 years, so I’m all too familiar with the feelings of uncertainty that accompany a move home. I feel like I find myself in a position now where I don’t fit in 100 percent here or there. It can be alarming, but I try to focus on how amazing it is that I have “homes” across the world. Anyway, I’m so happy you’re back to blogging. Your posts always resonate so much with me.

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 25, 2019 at 10:04 AM

      Hi Kelly…thanks for leaving such a kind comment. I don’t think it’s odd at all. I read many blogs myself and easily get invested in the lives of “strangers”. :) I truly appreciate that you thought of me.

      Oh, yes, I feel exactly the same way. Square peg-round hole everywhere I go. :) I think it’s easier to feel like I don’t fit in in another country, though, because the reasons why I feel like an outsider are so obvious and expected. It’s when I’m “home” and still feel like an outsider that I begin to wonder if there’s actually something wrong with me. Ha!

      I do like how you put it, though – homes across the world. What a beautiful way of thinking about the places you leave behind.

  • Kiye Sic
    January 24, 2019 at 12:27 AM

    Great read. Thanks for sharing!

  • Marina
    January 23, 2019 at 9:21 AM

    Hi Sarah! I take long breaks from blogging/blog reading, but I did notice you hadn’t written in a while when I finally came back! I hear you on this repat stuff. It’s been three years — THREE YEARS. I lived in Korea for seven years on and off and I can’t believe how fast these past three years have gone. It is weird to think that I’m almost to half the time that I lived as an expat.

    I think that I will always have wanderlust, but I all I want right now is to feel settled in Washington again. There is also so much to see in Washington and this entire country AND Canada which we are so close to up here. You know what, I think I’ll take a little day trip to B.C. on Saturday.

    That being said, you will always find me scheming about how I could move to a foreign country in ten years after paying off debts and building up savings. I mean, I can’t afford to buy a house anyway so why not live the wandering life forever? Or maybe I will find a way to buy a house and just rent it out while I’m gone. Now that would be the dream!

    Looking forward to hearing more about your time at home and your plans for life here! Let me know if you’re ever in the Seattle/Bellingham area.

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 25, 2019 at 9:42 AM

      Haha – I like your thinking! Why throw hundreds of thousands at a house when you could travel instead? :) We’ll probably be lifelong renters for this exact reason.

      It must be such a strange feeling to be a full three years removed from your expat life. Right now, when I think about our lives before we were expats, it feels like I’m remembering someone else’s life. I wonder if that is how it will be several years from now when I think back to our time in London and Singapore. I really hope not.

      Anyway, as far as being settled, you certainly picked a great spot to do it in. You really are well-situated for some pretty epic exploring. (I’m not jealous at all that a day trip to BC is that easy for you…ha!) I am hoping to revisit Seattle sometime this year to see my sister and family – we’ll have to make a plan to meet up!

  • Angelique
    January 23, 2019 at 12:04 AM

    Loved catching up with your life back home! Reversed culture shock really can take a while, I was in the same funk after returning home from the States after a year. Glad you are feeling better!

    Spending time with our loved ones is so important. So happy to hear you guys got to spend the holidays with family again! And congratulations on the new addition to the family!

    I hope you have an amazing 2019!

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 23, 2019 at 9:30 AM

      Thanks, Angelique! It’s so good to know I’m not in this boat alone. :)

      Being back near family has definitely made the adjustment easier. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen my grandfather at least 4 times in the past six months which is nearly as many times as I saw him the whole five years we were abroad.

      Anyway, a very happy 2019 to you as well. I’m looking forward to seeing all the forests and landscapes you discover and photograph this year!

  • Lynne Gann
    January 22, 2019 at 8:34 AM

    Glad to have you back in the states even if it’s not as our neighbor. One of the statements you made resonated with me. I’ve always been what I call a dreamer & plan many trips that I never see come to fruition. I’ve started many businesses in my head & I’ve started many hobbies to only fizzle quickly. I love new beginnings & starts & places – it excites me & energizes me. When life becomes too routine & stagnant I struggle. God has been working on me to learn how to become more content & to persevere through difficult seasons or stagnant times. My Mom came to live with me 4 years ago & this season has been so challenging. My dreaming & planning has slowed way down & I’m trying to live in the moments I have been given with my Mom. Like you with your senior family, my 94 year old Mom is all we have left of our parents. I’m intentionally trying to make these days count & have wonderful memories in the here & now. I’m sure dreaming & new beginnings will be soon ahead, but for now I’m grounded in the present & content (for the most part) :) to just be. Thanks for all the wonderful pictures over the past years – I’ve gotten to do a lot of my dreaming through you! :) Hugs

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 23, 2019 at 9:11 AM

      Thank you for sharing that with me, Lynne. I love the insight taking care of your mom has given you. What a lovely thing it is to be a dreamer, but equally so to understand the pleasure of contentment. There is a season for both, I believe, and I’m glad you don’t look at the adventures as being over, just on pause for a while.

      “I’ve started many businesses in my head & I’ve started many hobbies to only fizzle quickly” – this is me exactly as well. I constantly wonder where I’d be in life if I kept even just one foot on the ground, but then I usually drift off and start wondering about something else. :) My university’s mantra during the years I attended was ‘Dreamers. Thinkers. Doers.’ I feel like I’ve definitely got the first two down pat, the last one, not so much. Ha!

  • Rachel G
    January 22, 2019 at 3:14 AM

    Going back “home” is such a weird thing. I’ve only done it once–gone back to the USA for college after 4 years abroad at that point, and it was really hard. Probably didn’t help that my family was still in Malaysia and I was all of 17. And then Angel and I moved to China the week I turned 23. I did live in the USA long enough during those six years to start to feel like it was “home” again, and I miss Michigan from time to time, but I know moving back wouldn’t be an easy transition for me this time, either. No plans to move back at this point, I hope Angel can stay in his current job for years to come…but I also hope we’ll at least be able to visit more regularly (we’ve only been back once since 2014). I want Cyrus to have strong connections to his country of citizenship and his family there who loves him very much.

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 23, 2019 at 8:57 AM

      I can imagine how difficult it must have been to go off to college and leave everyone you know (plus the life you were used to) literally on the other side of the world. You’re a brave girl!

      I completely understand you wanting Cyrus to still have a connection to the US as he grows up – as long as he still has family there, I’m sure he will. :)

  • Kelly
    January 21, 2019 at 2:33 PM

    Beautifully written Sarah and after almost 6 weeks back in NZ I am definitely on that rollercoaster ride that you’ve experienced.
    Distance and age really pulls on your heart strings when you’re an expat; I lost both my Nana’s while living in England but when I was home visiting I always made sure I gave them all the time in the world as those relationships are more important than acquaintances that just come and go.
    Your family do bake the cutest babies in the world!
    I’m in total agreement with you re Washington DC; I’ve still got a draft blog post with a million and one photos, it’s an incredible city with the museums, architecture and history….I would say I prefer it over London…so on that bombshell I’ll finish this novel of a comment.
    Can’t wait till your next update and thank you for writing about your experiences as it’s not easy for everyone to adjust.
    Lots of Love, Kelly x

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 23, 2019 at 8:49 AM

      I’m so sorry to hear you lost both of your grandmothers while living in England. I know that must have been tough. It’s hard to lose a family member any time, but especially when you’re away and can’t be there to mourn/celebrate the memories with the rest of your family. (I know for sure your Nana’s appreciated how much time you spent with them when you were back home, though – your time is the greatest gift you can give someone, I think.)

      I’m so excited to read your DC article when you write it! I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I loved DC more than London, but it is my favorite US city I’ve visited so far. I loved being able to connect with my own country’s history for the first time outside of a textbook. Plus, the city itself is just cool. Anyway, thanks for your wonderful comment and I wish you luck as you begin assimilation into NZ life again. Email me anytime if you want to chat. xx

  • Ashley Urke | Domestic Fashionista
    January 21, 2019 at 11:31 AM

    Loved reading this sarah! My heart is with you in this season of refinding home.

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 23, 2019 at 8:41 AM

      Thanks so much, Ashley. I really appreciate it. :)