It’s almost that time again: the start of the annual expat migration back home. Some of you will be going home to stay… but we’ll talk about that another day. Today I’d like to focus on home leave instead.
Home leave is a divisive topic in the expat community. Some people love going back home; others hate it. My best friend Deb lived in Belfast for seven years, and relished the intensity of her visits back to Toronto.
“I packed in everything I could,” she says. “Everybody wants to see you, and it’s vibrant and exciting, because you’re cramming all the visiting and running around into three weeks. I never felt like it was too much.”
Another friend, Alyson, simply can’t relate. She confesses to being overwhelmed by her hectic home leave routine, which involves “sixteen flights in three weeks (most in the US), sleeping on relatives’ and friends’ couches, [and] getting the kids over jet lag twice (Asia to US, then East to West coast).” Organizing each year’s expedition is a Herculean task she would rather avoid.
Avoiding home leave disaster is all in the planning. Here are four do’s and three don’ts for ensuring a more satisfying and relaxing trip back home:
Book a hotel room. Home leave isn’t cheap, and staying with family or friends may seem like an attractive alternative to the added expense of a hotel room. But oh, how this strategy can backfire, especially if children are involved.
Fatigue and overexcitement lead to meltdowns, jetlag leads to erratic sleep schedules, and sharing living quarters may very well lead to damaged relationships. At some point in the trip, every expat needs a little space; the privacy afforded by a room of your own is well worth the hotel bill.
Spend quality time with loved ones. Expats often feel that they’ve “moved on” while everyone back home has “stayed still.” Simply asking friends and relatives about their lives will reveal that this isn’t true.
Yeah, there might be some initial awkwardness as people figure out how to relate to you, but taking the time to nurture significant relationships is too important to skip.
Treat home leave as a family vacation. “There is no balance of everyone’s needs,” says Alyson. “We have to see everyone or our parents complain that we don’t love them enough.”
Trying to please everybody has been the undoing of many an expat. When stress levels starts to mount, you’re better off withdrawing from the fray until things cool down again. Hang out with your spouse and kids and enjoy your holiday, just like normal families do.
Reconnect with your home culture. Doing things that can’t be done in your host country — whether it’s eating certain foods, playing popular sports, or some other culture-specific activity — is a big part of what home leave is all about. Cultivating that bond with your home culture is important in maintaining a strong cultural identity, especially for the kids.
Alyson leapt at the chance to put her sons in a baseball day camp in Washington, DC; not only did it give her some precious time to herself, but “the kids had a great time doing something they can’t do in Singapore.”
Don’t do too much. Many expats spend their entire home leave running themselves ragged. “It’s insane,” agrees Alyson, who spends three weeks criss-crossing the country, trying to fit everybody in.“I’m not that keen on my relatives, so wasting my summer holiday shuttling around visiting them is not my idea of fun.” (I’m not sure if she’s kidding about her relatives, but she makes a good point.)
A less stressful alternative is throwing a party (or several) to reduce the number of visits and cut down on the amount of travelling. Even better is planning these gatherings before arriving back home.
Alyson has opted to start skipping some family members altogether, noting (tongue firmly in cheek) that she doesn’t want to “add another stop on the Pain Train.”
Don’t be a braggart. Relocating overseas is a life-changing experience, and every expat has stories to share. Too bad not everyone wants to hear them. Returning expats often don’t realize that their enthusiasm for their new lifestyle can sound like bragging — especially if that new lifestyle involves exotic travel.
The list of things to avoid includes showing endless photos of you riding elephants, dancing the Flamenco, or doing anything that smacks of privilege; using expat-speak; and starting sentences with “As I said to the ambassador down at the club….”
But don’t complain, either. If life abroad is less than ideal, any complaints are best saved for the therapist’s couch. Friends and family likely won’t sympathize about your hassles with the maid — they’ll be too busy thinking how pretentious you’ve become.