Commentary

Returning Home After Living Abroad

Spring Rolls in Hanoi, Vietnam
Written by Duke Stewart

“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Returning Home After Living Abroad

I never would’ve imagined returning home after living abroad as so refreshing and well, fun. What happened to the person, aka me, who was running away from a supposedly unhappy existence? What changed? Is it the place or me who sees things differently? I promise that you’re not reading an instant millionaire’s essay or anything, but the support that’s come from family and friends has helped. It’s been a process of adjustment, and repatriation isn’t easy. Each day is a series of “going for no” and reading rejection letters, but in order to achieve freedom and happiness, you have to fail along the way.

Outside of Duke Forest in Durham, North Carolina

I still struggle every day but couldn’t be happier. That’s a part of life and something Christina and I knew when leaving our cushy life in Korea. After a month of living in the U.S. again and thinking about our time back at home, I never thought the following words would reach my fingers to be placed onto a piece of paper and eventually out into the world. I’m okay with returning home after living abroad. It took some processing and work to reach this point, but I have absolute confidence in the previous sentence. Getting there started with the last moments of our trip between Korea and Home.

By the Pool in Hanoi, Vietnam

Exhausted in Hanoi

The final days and nights in Hanoi are bittersweet and pressure-filled. I’m in love with the crowded sidewalks and busy streets that surround this senseless paradise. After two months of traveling through Asia, we’re exhausted and have been trying to keep up the pace since somewhere around Chiang Mai. Maybe we need to toughen up, but life is calling back home. After four years in Korea, and now this, it’s time. We power through these final moments and gulp down as many bowls of pho and bun cha as possible. Hanoi is an exercise in overstimulation and perfectly enjoyable between moments at the hotel pool. We booked here just to relax around that pool.

Streets of Hanoi, near the Old Quarter

As we wait for our car in the lobby, the feeling still hasn’t come. For the moment, Christina and I are still living abroad and in “travel” mode, even as the car arrives at the airport. The exciting journey is still moving forward and the flight home is just a part of it. I get a final glimpse at the Vietnamese flag and walk into the airport with passport in hand. Our nerves skyrocket when the clerk explains that there’s been some sort of mistake. Our flight, that was booked months in advance, left yesterday. The kind, and very, patient airline representative eventually realizes we are here at the correct date and time, and my stress levels drop back to normal.

Spring Rolls in Hanoi, Vietnam

Worried at the Airport

Our extra bag goes on the conveyor towards the baggage car while we walk towards security and farewell point. A group of school-age girls are standing there and going through some emotional goodbyes with family. I wonder how long they’ll be away and where. Hopefully, friends and someone to take care of them will always be there during the journey. My concern for these kids overshadows our own life abroad that was shaky at first but turned out okay. Maybe they need to hit bottom like we did in order to grow and remain strong. The quick trip through immigration takes us to the terminal where I’ll never understand people’s fascinations with duty-free goods.

Ngoc Son Temple in Hanoi, Vietnam

We walk around, wait for our plane to board. Overnight flights are never fun for me, and I don’t plan to sleep even though we search around and buy a neck pillow. In case you never want to wake up with massive pains up there, buy one. You’ll thank me later. I realize that there’s a slight possibility of sleep during this flight, but history is not on my side. Thoughts pop up filled with screaming babies and drunken old men who constantly need to get up and walk around the cabin. That’s really what happens unless you’re either lucky or fortunate enough to reach business or first class.

Flying from DFW to CLT

Drowsy and Hungry in Japan

Our first flight goes to Tokyo and the scene of so many memories but just for a few hours. A quick scan of the movie selection leads me to Jurassic World, a choice that’s all too fitting for this journey. This was the movie of choice for our return boat from the Gili Islands to Bali after the first one showed the more likely disaster movie adaptation of Life of Pi. I’ll save that for another time because the lack of sleep is convincing me that Chris Pratt is the star of an epic picture. Say what you will about this movie, but anything with a raptor whisperer part wins in my book.

Ramen in Narita Airport

I wake up after dozing for a few minutes, and the plane is already approaching Narita and Japan for our final layover. To this day, I still don’t know how Jurassic World ends and refuse to watch it on anything that doesn’t have my life in its hands. Narita is the same airport where my time studying abroad in Japan began. Back to the present and we’ve sat down to a nice bowl of ramen and think about our trip to the Kansai region over New Year’s. I felt like I was walking through Japan’s kitchen during that trip and want time to stop so we can hop on a train to go back.

Arriving in DFW from NRT

Overwhelmed and Happy in Dallas

The last flight is with American Airlines and the people are nicer than I expected, thanks to the world’s perception of traveling with U.S. carriers. I find the staff to be almost overly polite, if that’s even a bad thing. They must’ve been low on native Japanese speakers, but the flight attendant on the speakers does well enough to impress even the sternest of businessmen. A woman and her boyfriend sit in front of us chatting about things in English, and a thought forms inside my head. Are all conversations going to overwhelm and confuse me at the same time? When will I get used to this?

By the Baggage Claim in CLT

In Korea, I’d grown accustomed to tuning out the local language and was fine to get work done in full coffee shops or restaurants. Somehow I was able to turn inside and avoid the stares that always pointed my way. Now I’m just another guy sitting on a plane getting overwhelmed by a simple conversation as the plane taxis into Dallas-Fort Worth. Those feelings get pushed to the side because of all the things I want to consume in the airport. Can I really order a perfectly toasted bagel that’s filled with the rest of breakfast? The convenience and speed of serve-yourself coffee makes me happy in Dallas. My senses are on overdrive.

Shrimp and Grits in Boykin South Carolina

Back in the South

The airport shuttle picks us up in Charlotte after I stare at Bojangles’s signs and realize that I’m back in the South. We arrive to our hotel and remember that this is America. In Southeast Asia, I can’t imagine the luxury that would’ve greeted us, but in Charlotte, it’s nice enough but about as basic as one can get. In Hanoi, we spent $50/night relaxing in a fancy Old Quarter hotel with a rooftop pool and surrounded by some of the world’s best food. In Charlotte, you get a motel for twice the price and it’s only within delivery distance of a gastro pub and every pizza chain that’s known to man, or woman, for that matter.

South of the Border near Dillon, South Carolina

Christina and I pass out as soon as we fill our bellies with good greasy food and wake up for the first time in America in two years. It’s nice to write that even now if you ask me. I spend some time at my mother’s and write, pitch, and fill out resumes. Midlands South Carolina hasn’t changed too much, but I have, and walking around it with a renewed curiosity is fun for that week. Moments like these are the life through travel that I hope to continue and also, to write about. My mother and I reconnect and go for road trips through the countryside, visiting old relics like our family’s country store.

Lenoir Country Store in Horatio, South Carolina

Reunited and Scared in Durham

After days of scouting old restaurants that serve shrimp and grits and barbecue that’s cooked in a pit right, life calls and I know it’s time to leave. This time with my mother is extremely valuable because she’s missed me and has always been there for me. This is the least I can do. However, my wife is working very hard to get things moving for us and needs my help. We are no longer living in cozy and convenient Korea where things are normally handled by whoever owns our visa. My mother and I have one last drive together and I’m still looking at this place like a tourist. Arriving in the Triangle Area and Durham is a pretty awesome feeling.

Walking through Duke Forest in Durham, North Carolina

I see people walking on Duke Street’s sidewalks with smiles on their faces. Christina meets us, and, until reality sets in, we’re back and ready to create that happy life at home we’ve wanted for so long. Weekdays are spent writing and pitching like always while Sundays are reserved for hikes in the forest that surrounds us. Drives around the area are still confusing and our little Honda gets lost, though on a less frequent basis. After years of living abroad in a completely foreign land, this should be easy. We are one month into living at home and opportunities are knocking. Life is moving along. I can tell you now that it can be done. We can do this.

Do you think we can? Have you ever returned home after living abroad? I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts in the comments section.

Returning Home After Living Abroad

About the author

Duke Stewart

As a recovering Expat, I write about Life through Travel and want you there with me through captivating stories followed by guides on how to do the same. My work has been featured in various magazines throughout Korea and in online publications including the awesome Hipmunk.com. I am also a nerd and love to point out a situation's similarities to any of my favorite movies, books, or tv shows. You've been warned:) Follow along on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily updates.

12 Comments

  • It sounds like you’re adjusting pretty well! I experienced the exact same thing in regards to realizing I could understand people’s conversations again… that was one of the biggest things for me to get used to, actually. I still miss being able to just tune out the ‘background noise’.

    I really like how you structured this post, it flows very well and has a great finish. Well done! And good luck with those opportunities!
    Nathan Anderson recently posted…Christmas Letter 2015My Profile

    • Hey Nathan and thanks for your compliments! I bet you’re having a blast down under but I’d love to hear about your experiences traveling to an English-speaking country and how your sensors differ from when you’re in a non-Englishy country. Anyway, that’s just a thought.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope you’re having an awesome trip! Stay in touch, my friend.
      Duke Stewart recently posted…Visit Japan through Photos from HiroshimaMy Profile

  • Hi! I too am a once/current/future expat with roots in NC. Heavy on the ‘current’, currently. The first best part of coming home is hearing the southern accents at the DC airport! 🙂 I always sigh and smile.

    Keep guarding your downtime. Give yourself space to (re)learn to love where you are. Just like you learned to love where you were. And enjoy a KrispyKreme for me! 😀

    • Hi there CJ!

      Which part of NC were you from? It’s my first time living here but I’ve had family here my whole life. I spent time between WV and SC so I’m also familiar with the DC area. Very cool that you stopped by and left a comment. I’ll indulge with some Krispy Kreme the next time I see one:)

      Hope you’re enjoying yourself, wherever you are. Take Care.
      Duke Stewart recently posted…What to do in France this WinterMy Profile

  • Coming home after living abroad is so weird. You’re neither here nor there. You ache for your (second) home yet you were at home. I’ve now been back home (3 years) a lot longer than I’ve been gone (just over 1.5 years) and I think it took me almost 2 years until I felt home was actually home again. Good luck! It’ll get easier with time 🙂 P.S. Love the “recovering expat” line in your bio. I used that for a long while too.
    Adelina recently posted…Dreaming of Iceland: The Land of Fire and IceMy Profile

    • I’m happy to know you too were once “recovering.” 🙂 Amazing to think that it took 2 years to get used to it. That’s quite a ratio and I’m hoping that it’s not the same for me. Where did you spend all your time when away? Or did you go to multiple places?

      Thanks for commenting, Adelina!
      Duke Stewart recently posted…What to do in France this WinterMy Profile

  • When I came home after living abroad for 6 months it took me way too long to get used to my life again. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to get back into things after living abroad for a couple of years! But a lot of it is just your mindset I think 🙂
    Rianne recently posted…Australia BucketlistMy Profile

    • It’s strange at first and yeah, I’m nowhere near 6 months in like you were or are now. I’m starting to get used to it but yeah, there are so many weird things in the U.S. that I forgot about. Sales tax being added to stuff is the one that confounds me on a daily basis, lol. Just use the fixed price and make things simpler for people! But yeah, that’s one I can think of. Do you have any specific things that drove you crazy at first?

      Thanks for commenting, Rianne!
      Duke Stewart recently posted…What to do in France this WinterMy Profile

  • Welcome back to the states. Though I’ve never lived abroad I find the process of settling back into one routine from another an endlessly fascinating process. Just think how relatively few people have been lucky enough to experience what you’ve gone through.
    Jeri recently posted…#AuthorInterview: Christa WojciechowskiMy Profile

    • I appreciate your thoughts Jeri and while you do say that I should think about the experience, I guess it’s hard to do so when I’m trying to get on my feet every single day. I agree though. I need to take a breath and reflect on what we’ve done over these past few years and even now during this readjustment process.

      Thank you for reminding me, Jeri. I’m glad to have someone like you stopping by and commenting. I hope you have a wonderful weekend and I’m looking forward to reading your latest as well:)

      Take Care.
      Duke Stewart recently posted…What to do in France this WinterMy Profile