The ExPat Returneth

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Ain't Got No Home: The Returnee's Lament

Clarence “Frogman” Henry said it best. As a returning expat from Japan, I have moved on to other digs, back to the U.S., but still a strange land. What am I to do with all the experiences, wonderful and frustrating, that I had for 5 years of observation and assimilation into another culture? Do I forget them? No one here cares to listen to my stories. Do I scrapbook them? Seems impersonal and simplistic. Do I relive them? Can’t do that here, Japanese restaurants are few and far between. No, it’s time to re-assimilate into a whole other culture, make new friends, and start over.

Moving to Charleston, SC seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I grew up in the southeast, Atlanta to be precise, and now live within driving distance of my family. So why do I feel like I don’t belong here?

But I want to, I need to, I HAVE TO.

My indescribable time in Japan has taught me that there’s something to be said about finding your “niche”, a place where you feel at home, wrapped in a blanket of belonging, a place where you can relax and breathe life in deeply. Who would guess that place would be in a foreign land, a topsy turvy world, a place where everything is opposite from what I have learned to be “normal.” But indeed it was “home.” I can’t explain how a southern girl, turned west coast Seattle-ite, can find peace and acceptance in a place so alien. But I did, and frankly, I miss it like hell.

So now I am plagued with questions like how to transition from a place where everyone knows your name and is always glad you came to…a place where although you share the same values, appearance, interests as those all around you, they don't take notice of you or care to get to know you? How do I make friends?

So what have I done to connect and find friends in this new place? Well I know that to find a friend, the first step is to BE a friend. I go to church. I join bible studies. I pray a lot. I found a newcomers group and participate in their activities. But I still find that there are no connections with 350 members. I don’t know why. Maybe those who have not experienced the challenges and excitement of expat life, are not as “hungry” to develop real relationships.

The Crowder family in Japan
Expats know that “time” is a very limited thing. We know that our “time” will soon be over. I wish that everyone would live their daily life knowing that their “time” in this place is limited and will soon be over and to therefore take every chance to form lasting friendships with those people whom God puts in their lives. The model Iman was once asked what the secret of her beauty and fashion was, she said, “I wake up and live every day as if it is my last”.

Expats know how to live their lives this way. I am blessed because of my experience. Whereas I used to say “home is where I hang my hat”, now I know that “home is where I open my heart”.

Cheryl Crowder has just returned to the U.S. from Nagoya, Japan, where her husband was on assignment for the past 5 years with Boeing. Originally from Atlanta, GA, she moved to Seattle in 1981 to begin a new life out west. She has had several careers that took her from city life to farm life and considers herself adaptable to any living situation. She and her husband of 28 years are now beginning a new journey in Charleston, SC with their teenage daughter, dog, and 2 cats.


  1. Wow, Cheryl, I feel like you said it!! I was in Kobe for 35 years and now outside of Seattle, in a town that is sister citied with a small place near Nagoya. But I am SO homesick for Japan--but you are the other side of the continent and .... but I love your post--yesssss, a lot of us expats feel like this. As an expat who is an expat at heart, I find it really hard to make new friends who have any idea of who I of luck to you!

    1. Kay, I wish we could meet for lunch! I can't imagine moving after 35 years! I have some friends who lived 20+ years in Japan and moved to a new country and new culture. That must have been very difficult.

  2. Great post, Cheryl. I love what you said about the expat's time being limited and how we still apply that. We try to get away on the weekends, even an hour drive into the city, because we were used to getting out and seeing things in Japan. Through some friends' comments, I think they feel it's strange that we choose to get out of the house on the weekends. I can't imagine sticking around!

  3. I feel similarly with the military life. I have found, however, that I don't develop "real" friendships.. more like superficial ones. My friends that really know me are ones I've had since elementary school. Hope you find your niche here soon :)

  4. I know it wasn't possible, Cheryl, but I sure wish you could've come back "home" to the Seattle certainly have friends here! Even though I've never lived anywhere else as an adult, I know what you mean about the difficulty of making new friends. You and my longest-friend Judy moved away about the same time, and I just haven't made any other close female friends. I think this used to be easier in years past, but I'm not sure if it has to do with being older or that life is so fast-paced these days. Surprisingly, new and old Facebook friendships do help though...

    1. Is this who I think it is? If so, I want you to know how much I missed you the whole time in Japan and how much I miss you now!

  5. Cheryl--do you think that maybe the people around you now can tell that you don't really want to be back in the US? At some level, you seem to be carrying a chip on your shoulder, and that can be a turn off for most people. Myself, if I met someone who so obviously thought that "where she used to live" was so much better than where she lives now, I'd leave her alone too. It's really quite an insult, you know, to clamor on about how someplace else is so much better than here. I mean--(putting myself in the place of the people you've met in S. C.) *I* live here--and if you don't like it, why don't you just turn around and go back to that wonderful, beautiful, perfect place full of wonderful, beautiful, perfect people you just came from?

    And, now that you're back in the US, why do you still call yourself "ex-pat"? Is it because you are hoping that this return to the US will be short, over with in a hurry so you can get back to Japan? Really, you are no longer an ex-pat, except in your heart. In truth, you're a woman who spent some time living in Japan, but you're back home now.

    Except you're not. You're pining for Japan. It's like, you had an affair, then you came back to your husband, but spend all your time praising the guy you had the affair with. People won't be friends with you because they can tell you don't have any interest in them. You are just decorating your new house--a house you don't like--and "friends" are on the list, like lamps and throw rugs.

    If you find it easier to blame others--and who doesn't--you can continue on your present course, and keep dreaming of Japan. If, however, you truly want friends, you need to get over your affair with Japan and go deep into your heart to where the delight and honesty are. You might just find that where you live NOW is also interesting, beautiful, and welcoming.

  6. Hi Anonymous,
    To be fair to Cheryl, I edited her post for her and cut out some of the ways that she has attempted to get involved in the area. "Home" is the United States, but her city is still brand new to her. When you live overseas, friendships bloom easily. People bond over shared experiences quickly. You get used to quick and deep friendships. It's frustrating to make similar attempts in your home country and not make friends as easily.

    I think if you haven't lived overseas, it's hard to understand how homesick you get for the country you've left. Loving the host country, in some ways, is like loving a person that you can't see anymore. Reverse culture shock is very difficult. That's why I created this blog so we'd have a place to commiserate.