I knew when I committed to working abroad in South Africa for a year it would be an experience that would change my life. However, I never could have anticipated the precise ways in which it would be altered. Things went so well, I ended up extending my stay in Cape Town for nearly three years. I learned to live on a strict budget and saved up enough funds to return home to America for a couple weeks over the holiday season each year.
It's cliché, but visiting home was always an emotional time for me. I didn't want to let go of my life in South Africa, yet it was so easy to fall back into familiar routines. If you’ve ever lived abroad or studied for an extended period of time, maybe you’ve felt the same way? Here are some of the lessons I learned after visiting my hometown over the course of those three years.
Stay open to changes at home
As much as it might feel like everything in your home country related to your life is on “pause” while you are living abroad, it isn’t. When you arrive back home, you might notice subtle changes, like your parents re-arranging the furniture, and not so subtle changes, like your favorite restaurant or shop closing. While you’re abroad, you might miss celebrating significant milestones in your friends' lives, like weddings or childbirth. It’s normal to feel frustrated or regretful about missing these events, but understand that’s part of of the sacrifice of living abroad.
Communicate your intention to visit, not stay, before arriving home
It's so important to communicate with friends and family what your return home means, especially if you really are just visiting. Though it might be your vacation, when making plans to meet and catch-up with friends and family, respect that they might have prior commitments and can’t be as flexible as you might be able to. If your stay is temporary, be sure to tell everyone in advance. Remember how tough it was to say goodbye to everyone the first time? You're going to go through that again. It can be difficult for loved ones to process that you aren't moving back home for good, so try to set everyone’s expectations around your visit.
Tell Your Stories and Listen to Their's Too
Your friends and family will likely be curious about your experiences abroad and you'll likely be bursting at the seams to tell everyone how amazing your life was while abroad. If too many of your conversations start with, "That reminds me of this one time, in...", it will cause everyone to tune out after a while. Try to get all your stories out in one big catch-up session so you don't sound braggadocios. Let your friends and family ask questions, then, be sure to take a turn asking them how they've been and what they've been up to at home.
Keep in Touch with Friends Abroad
Between Skype, WhatsApp, and social media, you have no excuse not to keep in touch with everyone. One way you can ensure a successful visit back home is continuing to keep in touch with everyone while you’re away. Chances are, you'll also have like-minded individuals who love traveling the world as much as you do as roommates during your time abroad. That’s why it’s also a good idea to keep in touch with the new friends you make while living abroad. You never know where you (and they) might end up. One idea is to keep your foreign phone number in your WhatsApp account specifically so your local friends can still reach you at your old number. You never know when you might find yourself returning to their home country (or vice versa).