Yep, I’ve turned into that girl who starts all her sentences with, ‘When I lived in Hong Kong…’ My room is filled with knick-knacks from places I can’t pronounce. I can give advice on jet lag, travelling with only a carry-on and finding cheap flights online. I can speak in different tongues. If you know me, you’re probably bored of my travel anecdotes.
If you don’t know me, I should prefix this post by stating that, up until three months ago, I lived overseas. I spent five years in Hong Kong, with a few intervals in Italy (because I like to be complicated like that). I never planned to leave the UK or live in other countries, especially for so long, but it just kind of happened.
So, last year, for a number of different reasons (none of which are falling out of love with travel), I made the decision: I was moving back to the UK. It was (and is) the right decision, but that hasn’t made it any less difficult. It’s also been incredibly difficult trying to articulate all the strange, conflicting things I feel about being back ‘home’ (quotation marks intended).
So, I thought it was about time that I wrote them all down and shared them here with you. Here is everything I’m feeling about moving back to the UK and why I can now confirm that moving back to the UK is much, much harder than moving away.
Reverse Culture Shock
Let’s start with a goodie. Reverse culture shock can actually be a lot of fun! It’s pretty cool to be able to see your home country through new eyes. Things I once took for granted now seem exciting and exotic. Things like walks in the countryside, drinking a pint in a cosy local pub and looking up at historic city buildings I had never noticed before.
Then again, reverse culture shock can also be a total mind fuck.
I still find it difficult to follow a conversation in a crowded place because everyone is speaking English. When I buy things, I convert the money in my head into Hong Kong dollars and then back into pounds. I get weirded out by things like how my parents’ house has both a front and back garden… why do we need both? What are front gardens even for?
I’m not ‘back’!
Of course, there is another layer to add to this shock because in moving back to the UK, I moved back into my childhood room at my parents’ house. This felt completely normal when I flew back a few weeks before Christmas; it felt like my annual Yuletide visit. It was only after New Year that it began to feel a little odd and uncomfortable. Like I’d gone back in time and I was 16 years old again.
I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls recently (what else do people do in the evenings in the UK?). In A Year in the Life, 32-year-old Rory moves back in with her mum. Everyone in the town says, ‘It’s so great to have you back, Rory!’ And she snaps at them, ‘I’m not back!’
This is exactly what I feel like shouting every time I see someone I know.
I bumped into a guy I knew from school while I was out shopping. We saw each other, but awkwardly looked the other way. I wanted to shout after him, ‘I don’t still live here! I lived in Hong Kong for five years! This is just temporary!’
So, I’m doubly confused. There’s the ‘coming home’ to my home country and the ‘coming home’ to my parents house. And both feel like ‘home’, but neither of them feel like home.
None of you people understand me!
Not only do I feel like a child again, but I also appear to be acting like one. My mum tried to explain to me what an espresso was the other day and I almost bit her head off: ‘I lived in Italy for nine months, Mom! God! I think I know what an espresso is!’ And then I stormed off to my room like a proper grown adult.
There is an overwhelmingly immature teenage angsty feeling I have that no one understands. Because no one truly understands what it means for me to move home, nobody saw the life that I had outside of the UK and nobody saw how much I changed. Just how I sometimes forget that all my friends have grown up in those five years since I’ve been away, I think sometimes people forget that I did too.
Of course, I can’t expect everyone to sympathise. Unless you have also lived and worked outside of your home country for five years, I can’t expect you to put yourself in my shoes.
There is an ironic loneliness and isolation in coming home, surrounded by old friends and family who I can’t relate to and who can’t relate to me. To most, I’m just suffering the ‘post-holiday blues’.
Now it’s time to start your real life
Sometimes I get a little frustrated because I am constantly having to explain and justify the reasons why I’ve moved back to the UK. A lot of people seem to think that I have come home to ‘start my real life’, whatever that means. Some people believe the last five years of my life were an extended holiday, or a five-year gap year.
I correct people through gritted teeth when they talk about me looking for ‘my first job’, or when they describe how I’ve finally got travel ‘out of my system’.
There’s also a subtext to that phrase, ‘real life’. There’s an expectation of a ‘real life’ should entail. I must be moving back to the UK because I’m ready to ‘settle down’; to get married, buy a house and have kids, right?
Oh, how that really couldn’t be further from the truth!
Because this doesn’t feel like ‘real life’
The irony is that this life, the life of being back home, is the one that doesn’t feel real. The life I had back in Hong Kong was chaotic and colourful. It was maddening and magical. Vibrant. It was life at full speed. Beyond the emotional connection, Hong Kong was also a place where I had purpose, a career, fulfillment, travel, an apartment, adventures, friends, hobbies… a life.
Moving back to the UK is what feels like a strange dream. Like the edges are fuzzy, or that something is out of place, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. The people are harder to connect to. The culture is impenetrable. I feel like we don’t speak the same language.
Moving home feels like decaf.
Why don’t I just move away again?
‘If you hate being back here so much, why don’t you just move away again?’
Trust me, it is taking everything in my power not to pack a suitcase, book a flight and never come back. I have spent evenings searching for flights on Skyscanner, leaving the end destination option open just to see where I could go.
Because this is my natural response: fight or flight, and I always choose flight. I know how to touch down in a place I’ve never been before and just start up a life there; seek out the expat communities, make friends, research things to see and do, learn the language and find work.
But moving back to the UK? This is a foreign minefield and I have no idea what I’m doing.
When moving away again sounds so good and it’s all I’ve known as an adult, I struggle to remind myself exactly why I came home.
How I want to work without being limited by a visa. I want at least two years of something solid on my CV to use as a springboard to go back abroad again sometime in the future. How I want to spend time with friends and family, many of whom I’ve barely seen over the past half-decade. I want to explore more of the UK and Europe. I want to write a book and work on publishing it.
But, man, sometimes that beach sunset view sounds really tempting. And I’m not ruling it out.
This is the worst of it
Actually, I was saving writing a post like this precisely for the reason that I didn’t want to be so negative. I planned to wait until I had things figured out a little more; like a job, a place to live and some money. I wanted the end of this post to be a happy, ‘but look how it all turned out fine in the end!’
Not to depress you, but it hasn’t worked out that way. My ‘temporary’ time living back at home with my parents for a few weeks has quickly turned into three months. There is always be this niggling feeling in the back of my mind reminding me:
This time four months ago you were climbing the ruins of ancient temples in Cambodia… and now you’re watching Netflix in your pyjamas…
This is how I feel about moving home when I’m at my lowest: the feeling like I’ve lost the thing that made me special. Living in Hong Kong was who I was. It was how I introduced myself to people. It was what defined me for five years of my life. Without it, I feel… wordless. Or rootless. Or restless.
And the longer I’m back, the more I feel it trickling out of me; like the international twang to my accent, which is also slowly fading. The longer I’m back without making progress on the things I’ve come back for, the more I’m panicking and feeling like I’m failing.
OK, but it’s not all bad, right?
No, it’s not all bad! On the flip side, I am finding joy in the most trivial of things:
Without a language barrier, I can have a conversation with nearly everyone I meet, from the bus driver to the person who serves me coffee to someone I pass on the street. I can phone up friends for last-minute dinners and actually make people’s birthdays because I’m permanently in town. I can eat all the fish and chips, roast dinners and bacon butties that I want!
There’s also a little sparkle of ‘I’m back in the UK, home of London and Manchester and Shakespeare and the Shetland Islands and… and… I can do anything. I can be anything. I’m no longer constrained by language barriers or visa requirements or cultural differences. The world is my oyster card!’
When I’m pining for my Asian ‘home’, I’m very aware that I’m looking back at five years of expatriate life in Hong Kong through my ‘grass is greener’ glasses. And that’s a good thing. I want to remember the best of times in HK, not all the reasons why I couldn’t stay.
So, how does it feel moving back to the UK?
In a nutshell, it’s a complete paradox; I feel lost in the place that is most familiar to me. I feel like an alien. It feels like I left the word ‘home’ somewhere else. I’ve misplaced it and I’m trying to look for it again in all the wrong places.
Really, I’m having to redefine ‘home’.
But despite flipping between happiness and horror, I still believe I made the right choice. I just wasn’t anticipating that it would be easier to carve a life for myself in a city where no one knew my name than it is to build a life back in my home country.
So, I just have to breathe and be patient. I’ll figure it out. I’ll find a place where I fit in again. Turning the unfamiliar into the familiar is what I’m best at.
After all, there’s no place like home.
All images from The Wizard of Oz (1939), hosted by Insomnia Cured Here via Flickr.