Longevity Abroad and the Rootlessness that Comes with it

This is my 25th year of living abroad—that’s practically my entire adult life. During this time, I’ve gained insights into a new culture, learned a foreign language, and found my way in unfamiliar situations. I have gone to school, worked, raised kids, made friends, been sick, had pets, been happy and sad, gotten divorced, sent kids off to college, made mistakes and had successes. In short, I have lived life. This quarter-century milestone also means that for most of my adult life I’ve been away from family. It means I have missed out on the comfort of innately knowing how the society around me works, of having a shared culture.

I find that one of the harder things of spending most of your adult life abroad, is the sense of rootlessness that eventually starts to creep in. Over time, I have adapted and adjusted to the society I’m living in. By now I understand it, I feel comfortable with it, but it’s not “home”. At the same time, my home country feels increasingly foreign. I’m not up on popular culture anymore, politics are peripheral, and relationships have changed. Yet, I still think of it as “home”. But, will it ever feel like home again? I play with the idea of moving back, and I wonder, what would it be like if I did?

One of the things you learn early on when living far away from home is that you’ll have to make some tough decisions regarding missing out, on the good and the bad—on celebrations and festivities, on being able to “be there” for a friend in need, or helping a sick relative. Time, money, and support are typically what determine the course in these instances. Sometimes, you not being there will very clearly put the burden on someone else’s shoulders. You’ll have to make a deal with yourself to be ok with all of this. I think you’ll also have to count on some regrets—at least that’s true for me.

Returning home to one’s roots as you get older isn’t that unusual. Plenty of people do it. But, perhaps the leap to starting over is a bit bigger when having lived abroad for a long time. Readjusting and blending takes time, and oftentimes what you used to know so well, now feels unfamiliar. In some ways, it’s like moving abroad all over again.

As my kids are getting older—the youngest will be off to college before I know it—I’m beginning to think of what comes next for me. Once they are all out, I have little to tie me to where I am, other than good friends. I don’t think my kids are going to stay close by, they are more likely to be geographically spread out. I feel it is part of their makeup by now. Ever since they were little they have flown back and forth across the Atlantic, they hold dual passports, they know multiple languages, they are used to communicating across time zones. My two oldest have already managed to live across the world from each other (and me) for their first couple of years of college. Perhaps some of my rootlessness has spread to them—I hear it’s common with third culture kids.

I often think about spending more time with my family back home. Getting to know my nieces and nephews better, helping my parents as they get older, bonding with my siblings, being there for some of the celebrations—and the hard times—that I have missed these past 25 years. However, when I think about what it would be like to live there, the picture gets fuzzy—it’s unclear to me how I would fare and how long it would take to feel at home.

By: Felicia Shermis

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