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Homeward Bound: When Being Home Isn’t Where You Want To Be.


In German, it’s called “Fernweh” (lit: far away pain). It’s the sense of wanting to be anywhere but where you actually are. Think of it as inverted homesickness. Though the ragged poverty of the English language prevents us from expressing this emotion, we have all certainly experienced it. That slight sinking feeling; knots in the stomach – a stinging shpilke in the gederem. As many of us prepare to leave JET in the coming month, we find ourselves wading into a pool of mixed emotions about where we’re headed. Joy in knowing you will soon be reunited with family, friends, pets, (and burritos), washed over by bitter pangs of sadness from the banal uncertainty that accompanies leaving. Will I find a job? (Eventually) Will I crave sushi everyday? (Naturally) Will I ever see the people I met here again? (Hopefully) What if…? It’s all part of the macabre reality of being an expat – repatriating. After all, you are literally trading in your current reality for a previous one, as if it were a Toyota. This is when you start to think that you’d rather be anywhere but “home.”

Eventually, everyone has to go back. The nomads, the wanderers – they can truly never lay claim to some ethereal yurt in the sky; calling the entire planet Earth “home.” The human constructs of citizenship and national identity – ironically – sometimes limit to our sense of belonging. Your time in Japan has undoubtedly shaped you in many ways – some noticeable, some not. As you return home, you may feel uncertain about your sense of belonging. Now, you are not fully American, Canadian, Australian, so on. Yet, you are not fully Japanese. So what are you? You become suspended somewhere in-between and this is a totally terrifying space. If there’s one thing worse than being too many things, it’s the feeling of being nothing. So, this space and time where you must figure yourself out, resuming where you pressed “pause,” might give you a severe case of the blues. Experts often label this as “reverse culture shock”, but I think “fernweh” is apropos. In those moments when no one is relatable and there’s the faintest tinge that everything, yet absolutely nothing, feels right, you’ll wish you could be anywhere but where you are.

You’ll be fine, though. I’m sure, somewhere, someone has crafted a beautiful 12-step program to the “Repatriation Blues” (and it’s probably sold nine copies), but the real true remedy to that intense sense of dis-belonging is just pure patience (and a few bottles of wine). Your family and friends will, more than likely, be unable to relate to your experience. Sure, they’ll sit a spell for a few of your musings, but when you truly feel overwhelmed, reach out to your fellow JET returnees. They’re going through the same thing. Don’t let anyone fool you with “I’m fine.” (We spent years trying to banish this from our Japanese classrooms!) Contact your local JETAA chapter, pick up a new hobby, and also talk with your friends and family – they may not be able to understand your experience, but you can help them better understand that something like JET has changed you in many ways. For someone who hasn’t had the privilege of international exchange, the idea that you become uncertain of your cultural identity, and may even resent home may be a foreign concept. They may not understand that you want to take all the good stuff of both cultures and blend it together. That feeling of wanting the best of both cultures is a great opportunity, though.

Now that you are armed with your JET experience, it’s time to craft yourself into a human pastiche of all things Japan and your home culture. Take a bento and chopsticks to your future board meetings, change your entire wardrobe on a specific day irrespective of the weather, tell your employees, “Sorry for leaving early,” even when it’s midnight. Eat more fish, consume more tea (the health benefits are immense!), and learn to cope with a bad situation with an audible and disruptive “しょうがない!” followed by a demure “excuse me!” Fernweh, like our experience, is only temporary. However, your memories are not. Now, go forth, tack into the wind, and internationalize the $#!t out of the world (and yourself).


Louie Bertenshaw

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