Re-entry When Home Isn’t a Place.
A Guest Post by Sarah Davies
I’ve had many re-entry experiences in my lifetime. To different homes, in different countries and at different stages of my life. You would think I’m an expert, but what makes it all the more challenging for me is that the concept of returning ‘home’ has never been straight forward.
Home to me is everywhere and nowhere.
I was six when I left Wales and moved to the Netherlands with my family. My life changed quite a bit from that point on. I became a third culture kid where change became my new constant. There wasn’t one family home, there were ten. There wasn’t one school, there were six. There wasn’t one set of friends, there were many. I never had a strong connection to one place, that one place to call home.
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I’ve often wondered if this different mindset on home, and subsequently on belonging, had any impact on my re-entry experiences. Did I have different expectations when it came to my re-entries? Did I encounter any different struggles as a result? Did it actually make re-entry easier?
I decided to take this opportunity to revisit my re-entry experiences to see how I approached them and what I learned from them. So, here’s a glimpse into a few of my re-entries and what I picked up along the way.
Be mindful of the loved ones you left behind.
My first re-entry was when I was thirteen years old. I spent the summer in Nigeria with my best friend and her family who lived in Ikeja. I left my own family back in the Netherlands and had the most incredible, eye-opening summer without them. That summer changed me, and it honestly felt like time had stopped back home in the Netherlands.
It’s strange, but I hadn’t considered that life continued whether you are there or not. I’d hit pause on my life in the Netherlands as soon as I got on the plane to Nigeria. My family hadn’t. They’d continued to create fun memories together in Europe that summer, just without me. I found myself feeling pangs of jealousy for the family times I had missed out on, but I also felt incredibly grateful as I’d been given the space to grow and explore without them. When I returned, I naturally wanted to share my experience with them, but I was also aware that I was the one that had left and consciously took the time to listen to their stories as well.
Each time I travelled and moved internationally, after that summer in Nigeria, I always stayed mindful of my loved ones left behind. It helped me feel connected to them during my time away, and it helped me reconnect with them when I returned.
Approach re-entry like any international move.
When home isn’t connected to one place, it’s quite easy to approach returning home as just another move. You don’t feel like you are returning ‘home’, you are simply returning to a place where you once lived. I think approaching it this way can help avoid some disappointments as life isn’t going to be the same as when you left it.
When I was fourteen, we left the Netherlands and returned to the UK, my passport country. I didn’t view this move as returning home, as eight years in the Netherlands had removed my sense of attachment to the UK. It was just another move where I would have to start from scratch, make new friends, and get to grips with the cultural expressions that were unfamiliar to me.
Understanding that I was technically British but didn’t feel British went a long way in helping me adjust to being back in the UK. It wasn’t all smooth sailing as many didn’t understand this. I found my background changing depending on the conversation I was having. For many people labels are comforting and often it was just easier to be put in a box that didn’t quite fit. Conversations sometimes ended quickly as I wasn’t really connecting with them. I knew who I was, but I found it difficult to share who I was with others.
Nowadays, I make more of a conscious effort to share my story more consistently, so that I can keep the conversation going. I’m giving myself more of a chance to connect with people every time I move.
Expect change when transitioning abroad
I’m comfortable with change; I actually enjoy it and I anticipate it. With almost all of my re-entries I expected change, I excepted things to be different. All except one, and I struggled as a result.
After four years of high school in the UK, I chose to stay another three years for university. Three more years in the same country seemed like a lifetime to me back then and it felt like I was committing to the UK and establishing some semblance of roots. This was a scary prospect for someone who loved change, so I escaped and took a gap year before returning to start university. I spent four months living and working in the Netherlands, had a short stint in Azerbaijan, and worked and travelled in the US.
Returning to start university after my gap year wasn’t easy. It was a new step, but because it was in the same country, I didn’t approach it as a change. I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on my feelings about staying in the UK, which in hindsight would have been incredibly helpful. Instead, that feeling that I was potentially settling in the UK had just grown stronger. Staying put meant stepping outside of my comfort zone. This overshadowed the fact that I was actually starting a new chapter of my life at university.
I was lucky though as I’d met my (now) husband on my gap year and he made the transition easier. He lived nearby, had shared part of my gap year with me and also understood the struggles of re-entry. I hadn’t returned from my gap year alone and he helped me feel grounded during those three years at university.
Find your people
From the age of six, I shared my home with many international students as my parents were house parents at boarding schools. I grew up surrounded by role models who were going through culture shock and reverse culture shock, struggling with not belonging and I had a front row seat. I watched them work their way through it and find a sense of belonging with each other. With others who understood, as they had either been there or were going through it as well.
Thanks to them, I learned that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t quite Dutch or British enough as I was me. I didn’t need to belong to a place as I had people who understood me. Finding your tribe was essential.
Is re-entry different for me? Maybe? As a TCK, I had already encountered some of the challenges that come with re-entry (loss of identity, wondering where I belong, feeling restless) so it wasn’t all new to me. Change isn’t necessarily easy just because you expect it though. I think expecting it helps, but I still had my fair share of curve balls thrown at me.
How we experience our re-entries is so unique and personal that you can’t really compare them. Re-entry can be challenging and hopefully by offering you a glimpse into some of mine you know you aren’t alone. I may not have a traditional definition of home, but knowing I wasn’t alone has helped me feel at home anywhere.
Sarah Davies grew up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and has lived in the UK, the Netherlands and the US. She has experienced multiple re-entries to her passport country, the UK, as well as her former host country, the Netherlands. She is now raising TCK’s of her own in the Netherlands and is enjoying the unique opportunity this offers to reflect on her past experiences. You can follow her on Instagram @saartje_fach