The last time I wrote an article about expat life, I was nervous as heck to post it. I had written it at the peak of my expat struggle. It was as raw as can be. And, perhaps, that’s why so many readers immediately related to so much of what I said. I received messages upon messages from people who felt the same way, relieved to know that they weren’t alone — and so was I. But now, after my second year anniversary away from South Africa with three return visits under my belt, I feel a bit different (yet still nervous to post it). While all those lessons or so-called ‘realities’ of moving abroad are still every much relevant to anyone moving, I feel like I’m reaching a new phase in my ‘adjustment’: I don’t know where home is anymore, but South Africa isn’t it.
I think it’s likely that expats will feel this phase of emotion and reverse-culture shock at different phases in their adjustment. Maybe feeling it only two years into the process is later than some (like Craig, who felt it a bit on a visit home after only 6 months) or maybe it is much earlier than others (like some of our friends here who would still like to return to South Africa).
Nonetheless, it’s a very real part of being an expat. A loss you will feel even when you return to everything you thought would be familiar. It is so strange to try explain such a feeling. In fact, it left me in a kind of internal struggle everyday of the few weeks I spent in South Africa recently, trying to understand where Africa stood in my heart and where Canada now lies in my future. Here is how I felt, South Africa.
Dear South Africa…
The Nostalgia, the Excitement, that Feeling of ‘Home’
It all pulled on my heart strings like the idea of a home-cooked meal by mom. Those weeks prior to my flight ‘home’, I was sure it was going to be the best time of my life — my expectations were high. I imagined life how it used to be and I could not wait to ‘relive’ it for the next few weeks in MY country. MY country where I no longer felt like the outsider or foreigner. MY country where everything is more familiar. MY country where my friends and family were patiently awaiting my visit ‘home’. BUT what happened instead was a feeling of displacement and loss above all. Why?
Home has Changed. I have Changed.
I thought I hadn’t changed. I thought I was the same person who got on the plane to leave you for Canada two years ago. I can assure you, I’m not. The process of immigration is in itself, life-changing. I might have struggled as hard as I did adjusting (read about it here) and I might still be struggling with some of those same issues, but I will still be changing, adjusting and adapting to my new life — more than I ever knew. Change is inevitable, but living abroad accelerates it. I was forced to fit in to my new home country and even though I was resistant to change, it happened (and WILL happen).
Home is not familiar anymore.
For the first few days, I struggled driving around my home city of Durban where I had lived for the first 20 years of my life. I nervously took roads that I knew were less busy and chaotic. I even struggled to find things in grocery shops that I had basically grown up in. All the things I had been dreaming of back home — idealising it all in my thoughts, symptomatic of an expat in my first article — were mostly, a let-down. Home had changed. You had changed. And even if not literally, it had changed in my perception, now that I had adapted to my new expat life.
Actually, You Don’t Seem So Great Anymore.
I write this with incredible guilt and uncertainty as to how I have gone from two opposite ends of the spectrum. In my heart, you, South Africa, are still my favourite place in the world. Had we not moved, I would have been the happiest living out my life the way I had been. Even when we arrived in Canada, I spent most of my time comparing it to you and how things should run. But old norms and values from your home country are viewed from a fresh perspective when you return, and you’re bound to see everything in a new light.
The only thing that didn’t change and that probably won’t ever change. The South African people. We are a different kind of breed and I will never stop missing our culture and unique ‘vaaaibe’. We’re humourous and friendly. Kind and loving. Proud and welcoming. That means, I will always talk to any person abroad who has a hint of South African accent with excitement like I’ve just struck gold. I will always smile when I land in O.R. Tambo and hear the South African banter between friends, or when the Vida guys shout together as a coffee order comes up. I will never stop missing the people. That hasn’t changed. But…
South Africa, We’re Growing Apart
The visits are likely to become less frequent. Every time I leave, I feel emotionally drained and upset and find myself starting to pull away. I feel disconnected — You are not the same anymore. We’ve both moved on, and have found ourselves in different phases.
Perhaps this is why we travel so much. We’re no longer citizens of our South Africa (metaphorically, that is), and we’re not yet citizens of Canada. We’re citizens of the world, either continually searching for that feeling of ‘home’ or running away from the lack of ‘home’. Don’t take any of this the wrong way, I am South African through and through. There is no changing that, it lives in our blood. There is not a day that I don’t sing your praises or reminisce about how life used to be. But again, we have both changed. Today, I woke up a little less sad to be in a new country, a little more familiar with our new country and a little more certain about our choice to move.
It All Makes Sense Now.
To end, it seems fitting that I re-quote what I originally said in my first article, but probably only realised the true meaning of recently: “Life might be difficult for a while, but I would tough it out because living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.” – David Sedaris
I hope you understand, South Africa. This is just how I feel.