There I was, back on American soil after having lived abroad for almost 4 years as a military spouse.
I was flooded with emotions; anticipation, excitement, overwhelm, and a deep burning to run to the nearest Target. As I was contemplating what changes I’ve missed in my time away, someone walking by almost tripped me and didn’t excuse themselves.
Let me give you a little context. We most recently were stationed in Japan, where there are deep rooted strict cultural norms concerning how you act in public and interact with those around you. The collective, or wa, comes before self. So when that aforementioned “someone” walked by and almost tripped me, I honestly didn’t know what to do. My gut reaction, even though it wasn’t my fault, was to turn and say “gomenasai,” Japanese for “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” followed by a quick exchange of respectful head nods or bows. However, there was no turn or even acknowledgement from the other party. I furrowed my brow in confusion for a second, but decided to shrug it off with the thought that maybe they were in a hurry.
A few minutes later, I was super thirsty…thank you inevitable dehydration from being on an international long haul flight. One of the other things that is slightly magical about Japan is that, no matter where you are, there are vending machines or convenience stores every couple hundred feet. We had been walking for about 10 minutes and there was nowhere in sight to grab a drink. I know it may sound silly, but I felt a slight panic like I had just entered the Sahara desert without the proper preparation.
In that moment, I thought to myself “I wish I was back in Japan.” As soon as the thought came to mind, a wave of guilt washed over me. How could I not be more excited to be back in the United States? This is my home. Where was my sense of patriotism and love of country? Within the first 30 minutes of being back in the States, I was already feeling the effects of reverse culture shock.
The first time I experienced this was when I was an exchange student in high school. I went abroad to France for a year, and came back a very different kid. Habits and life priorities had changed, food preferences were a 180 from when I had left, and I found myself desperately missing the place I called home for a year. Thankfully, the organization that organized my stay abroad did an out-brief where they covered what reverse culture shock is and how to cope with it.
So in the airport on the way home from our tour in Japan, when I started to feel sad and guilty, I called on the information that had been given to me almost 15 years prior to help me deal with the swirl of emotions I was experiencing. I reminded myself that my reaction was normal, a sign that I created a healthy relationship with my host country, and that I took full advantage of my time there. I made a mental checklist of the things that I loved about the United States and why I was excited to come home. I actively reminded myself that things would be drastically different, and reassured myself that it would be ok. I know I probably sound like I was having a full on existential pep talk in the airport, but it was more like a “you’re going to be FINE, just give yourself a few days to reacclimate.”
Once I started to feel better, I wondered how many other people experience this when coming back from doing a tour OCONUS. How many other dependents and service members have had to reconcile their aching for where they just were, and excitement to be home. I reached out to friends, and realized my story wasn’t singular, just more defined as I had a name to put to the conflict of emotions.
So what should you do to prepare yourself if you’re moving back home after a stint abroad?
Begin preparing emotionally early
Allow yourself to be sad that you’re leaving somewhere that you’ve made a home. This is a totally normal reaction, and shows how resilient you are that you thrived in a place that was once outside your comfort zone. Go on excursions before you leave. Hit your favorite spots and take photos to help not only you remember what it was like, but also share your experiences with others.
Talk to someone about your apprehensions
There were things I was worried about that I made sure to work through by chatting with friends and recognizing what was ahead.
Make a to-do list that excites you.
I had a list of people I wanted to see, places I wanted to eat, and stores I wanted to shop at when I got back stateside. When I was feeling homesick for Japan, my list helped pull me out of a funk.
At the end of the day, acknowledge how you are feeling. Appreciate each place for the wonderful things it has to offer, and know that properly grieving a previous home is 100% healthy in order to move forward in this crazy, military lifestyle.
You’ve got this, friend.