When I'm asked where I'm from, it's a challenge to answer in absolutes. I was born in Cornwall, England but I did all of my teenaged growing up in Auckland, New Zealand. I was already a bit of a mutt before I moved to Taiwan but now I feel like I've morphed into something else entirely but goodness knows what that actually is. All I know is that when I went back home to NZ for a visit recently, I felt different. Stretched. Slightly misshapen. A little odd. There were the obvious things that happen that made me notice, like the fact that I forgot that in NZ you follow road traffic conventions and keep to the left on escalators (in Taipei it's the reverse and you stay to the right-hand side) and I was shocked and appalled by the cost of living and how it had risen since I had last been back - mind you I don't think you need to have left the country to feel like that when inflation is 5-6% per annum and wage increases are 1-2% per annum.
But there were other things that made me feel weird, like after having had a couple of glasses of wine at the wedding I was there for, I found Mandarin phrases bubbling up through. I found myself nearly saying "為什麼?" (wèishéme?) instead of "Why?" and other strange linguistic anomalies. I found myself feeling unusually intimidated by hoodie-wearing youths even though I knew that they weren't at all dangerous. I found myself feeling like a stranger in a place where I used to be absolutely comfortable - feeling exactly the same way that I did two years ago when I first moved to Taiwan. I guess if I was going to be staying in NZ longer than I was you'd say I was experiencing reverse culture shock but since I was only there for a week, I'll just call it feeling out of place in a familiar environment.
It's a fairly lonely experience too. There you are, feeling like a fish out of water and everyone else around you has no idea you're feeling like that. Why would they? You've come back home. It's natural for them to assume that you feel like you've just slotted straight back into your old life and everything feels comfortable and familiar. So how was I supposed to tell anyone? If I responded to "I bet it feels good to be home!" with "Actually it feels really weird and I don't feel like I fit in here anymore..." then I run the risk of accidentally offending someone or making it sound like I wasn't enjoying the fact that I was back in NZ which I was, absolutely. Being back and seeing all of my dear friends and spending time with family was fabulous. The ability to shop in regular stores who carried my size was brilliant. Going to the supermarket and seeing more cheese than you could shake a stick at was lovely. Nothing was wrong with New Zealand, what was wrong was me.
Living overseas changes you, it has to - you have to adapt to a new environment, usually learn a new language and get used to all sorts of crazy things. I mean, this makes sense logically but the emotional reality of these changes can sometimes be harder to accept. Going back to NZ pointed out to me that I wasn't the same person who left in 2009 and that felt very strange. If I wasn't that person anymore then who was I? Where did I fit in? Where was home really at? There is something rather unsettling in not really knowing which country is your home but it's also kind of exciting because it opens up all sorts of possibilities. If I can count England, New Zealand and Taiwan as my 'homes' of various types then doesn't that mean that ultimately anywhere we choose to settle could be considered home? Life without boundaries can be terrifying but also freeing. Maybe that old t-shirt no longer fits but there are many more out there that will.
Have you ever had this experience of going back to a place you used to live in and feeling like a stranger? How did you deal with it?