The Expat Dilemma: When Home Doesn’t Feel Like Home Anymore


It always happens to me on the very last day. I take a stroll on my parent’s balcony and breathe in the familiar sights and sounds. I listen to the birds chirping, take time to admire the bougainvillea’s and breathe in that cool seafront breeze and close my eyes.

Tomorrow I am leaving this place I have always called home, only to go back to the place I now call home.

I am happy and I am sad.

I am depressed and I am excited.

I laugh a little and cry a little.

I look around and wonder when I will be back and what more will have changed when I do.

Some days I have felt more like a foreigner in this place I used to call home. And the new strange, foreign country where I currently reside feels more and more like home. I am torn between leaving my family and friends while at the same time, looking forward to going home and sleeping in my own bed, driving my own car and slipping back into my old routines.

It’s a strange feeling to be caught between differing homes and I wonder if or when I will ever be able to board that plane without such a mix of emotions.

For many expats around the world, this is a familiar struggle. In the UAE, summer is the time when many expats take a summer vacation to go back to their home countries for a visit.

When we leave home to go work abroad, we anticipate it’s going to be a tough adjustment and that it will take some time for this new place to feel like home. What most of us don’t anticipate is that on return trips back home, suddenly we will feel like a fish out of water.

What happens when suddenly home no longer feels like home? When instead of warmth and nostalgia, all you feel instead is displacement and loss? Friends and family will show you or nonchalantly point out little things that have changed since your last visit; your favorite ice cream parlour that has closed down, the newest shopping mall in town or the best place to have breakfast in the city.

Suddenly you realize you no longer know many mundane details about life in your home country that ironically you do know about your adopted country. Somehow in the process of making a home in another country, you have become disconnected from the day to day life in your home country. You might not have voted in the previous local elections. You were not there when the record rainfall happened. And you weren’t there when your best friend from childhood got married.

On my recent trip back home, I realized how complicated trips back home had become for me. Your mother will have to remind you where the glasses go in her kitchen cupboards and your father will insist on knowing (and approving) your daily plans, making you feel like that 16 year old teenager again, when you retreat to your room.

Except this time, I’m a 34 year old married woman and mother of two kids staying in my teenage room. Everything seems the same, but feels different. I fall back into some old habits while a lot seems to go over my head. My kids delight in playing with their cousins and spending time with their grandparents, while I try to get used to the lack of independence, asking for rides and the often unsolicited advice which usually comes my way.

The question that helps me to clarify my ambivalent feelings this summer is the usual “when will you move back home?” by well-meaning family and friends.

And suddenly I find myself describing my real struggle between home and home.

When you live in a certain place, it slowly starts to define you. It takes over your heart, your mind, and your thoughts and somehow nestles deep into your conscience. It becomes synonymous with comfort and warmth. It provides you with new experiences, treasured memories and a feeling of belonging.

My life back home defines me. My life abroad also defines me.

I realize there is always room for both in my heart. Saying goodbye is never easy but saying hello won’t be too hard.

When the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and when time seems to stand still – I know I am in a place I call home.

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