Last month I got an email from a reader who was feeling some hesitancy towards his inevitable return home next month. He asked more about my return to the states after my second year in Madrid, which touched on all of the above questions. I'll share some of his email below, and then reproduce my answer.
" ...did you end up keeping up and maintaining your close friendships with your friends back in Wisconsin after you returned from Madrid, or did you just feel like you had changed too much?"
"I think the thing that's going to be most killer for me is I know that most people aren't going to be really interested in my trip, and just knowing all of the wonderful things that I love about Madrid I am going to be leaving behind. It is truly a wonderful, wonderful city!"
"How long did you stay in the US before you left again to Korea?"
"Do you have any suggestions on what I could do to somehow make things easier on myself?"
Since I taught in Spain right after graduating from college, many of my college friends moved from our University's city and started jobs/lives in new states the same time I left for Madrid. I kept in touch with just a few friends from home while I was away (and am still friends with them today). So part of what was difficult with my return is that the number of friends I had to hang out with in Madison after Madrid was very low, since so many had left Madison after graduating.
I was back in the USA for a year (working to pay back most of my student loans) before I left for Korea. But I made many friends during that time, and made the most of it once I got out of my reverse culture shock funk. So I do have some recommendations, since you asked:
Feelings are temporary
Something to keep in mind is that feelings are temporary. I did in fact cry myself to sleep some nights after returning! But know that you won't always feel how you feel right now. It took me a few months to get out of the grey cloud, but since that fall I've experienced many highs and some different lows.
Your present is unique
Remember that no matter where you are, the present is the only time you will be in that particular place with the same people who are there right now. Once I had that realization after returning from Madrid, I started a "Thankful Thursday" post every week on my blog to keep myself focused on gratitude. This helped me appreciate my time back in Madison (and now my time in Korea, away from my close friends and family). If you really want to go back to Spain, you can figure out how to make that happen. But while you're home in the USA you're in that particular city. Take advantage of the things you can do there that you can't do elsewhere, and take advantage of being around the people who are also there. (Here's how I took advantage of my time in Madison).
Join a Spanish conversation table
Check craigslist community, facebook groups, and meetups.com to see if a Spanish conversation group exists in your city. If not, you can always start one! My university (UW-Madison) has a weekly conversation table that I went to in the fall and spring after returning from Spain. Since it only ran during the semesters, I volunteered to lead the Spanish conversation table for the summer so that we could continue meeting. Each week I'd send out an email to current participants and put posts on craigslist and Facebook so others could join. It was a great way to keep up with Spanish, meet people, and during the school year I could encourage young students to study abroad (and meet others who had studied/lived abroad like me)!
All the years I've spent as a foreigner abroad really make me sympathize with foreigners back home. I know how it feels to be away from family and friends, and to be afraid of everyday interactions when you don't speak the language (in Korea where I currently reside...). My first year back from Spain (after studying abroad for a year) I volunteered at Literacy Network in Madison, tutoring ESL to adults in our city. I also joined a UW-Madison group BRIDGE, a friendship program that paired Wisconsin students with foreign students at our University. My second year back I volunteered for a bit as an English conversation partner at the Wisconsin ESL Institute (WESLI) in Madison. So, you could use your experience to help other foreigners, through volunteering or joining (or starting!) a Meetup group with an international theme. Volunteer experiences can help you make friends, be connected to your community, feel good, and possibly turn into a future opportunity.
Pursue your interests to make friendsSounds like you do have some friends at home to return to, but by getting involved in your interests you can make more friends (some who might understand more of what you're experiencing). I really love ultimate frisbee, so I played on a spring and summer league when I was back in Madison. I also started going to a French conversation table because I'm learning French. Staying busy and getting to know people through these activities was so beneficial for me -- and fun!
Give yourself some time to feel downIf you noticed above, I didn't start those Thankful Thursdays until January, but I returned to the USA at the end of September... so it took a few months for me to turn things around. Writing that post on reverse culture shock (in November?) was so helpful for me. I didn't know it would have that effect until after I had written it, but I felt so much better after letting it out somewhere. If writing's not your thing, maybe there's someone you can talk with, or some other way to work your way through the reverse culture shock feelings. And everyone's experience will be different -- the first time I came back from studying in Spain I experienced virtually no reverse culture shock. Many of my friends from the study abroad program returned to Madison with me for my senior year, so we continued to hang out and could talk about Madrid memories with each other whenever we wanted to. If there is reverse culture shock, know that it will wear off over time. When you're feeling rushed at a restaurant or can't get over the ridiculous amounts of water in the toilets, make note of it, because in a few months it won't have the same effect.
For former expats who have returned home, what helped you re-establish yourself back home after living abroad? How could you share/make use of your international experiences?