An Ex-Pat American Visiting Home After Four Years Abroad

I didn’t set foot in the United States for four years. Cue the culture shock.

When we set sail from NYC on that fancy, one-way cruise ship, my now-husband and I had no clue we wouldn’t return to the States for four years. We simply watched the Statue of Liberty fade into the early morning fog as our ship began its passage across the Atlantic. Our plan was to visit my hometown of San Diego in six months, and then probably move back a year or two later, depending on our job prospects.

I was too excited about moving to London (dream come true) and starting my master’s degree to consider the possibility that I was leaving behind everything I knew. Sure, I’d technically lived abroad before during my Uni year in Wales, but it been hadn’t too different from my usual student life — late nights cooking ramen over the shared kitchen stove, rushing to finish a sudden laundry list of essays, earmarking pages in used textbooks. I hadn’t really Moved to a new country.

This time, though I hadn’t really registered it yet, I was Moving. The next few years were a whirlwind of school, marriage, pandemic, and baby. Four booked plane tickets for California all cancelled due to aforementioned events. We moved house twice and were about to close on purchasing a flat. Life catapulted forward in my new home country, and I changed with it — though I didn’t know it until this December.

After our failed attempts to visit in the past, I refused to publicly announce our extremely delayed return to California until we were firmly planted in coach and the fasten seatbelt sign had turned on.

For the record, at this point I was not considering the psychological impact of my long-awaited return. I was dreaming of donuts. (Seriously, nothing compares to good old American donuts — though shout-out to Australia for coming tantalisingly close).

American Accents. Everywhere.

This may sound obvious, and even a little ridiculous to include, but being surrounded by American accents from the moment we boarded the plane was… jarring. I’d become so accustomed to an array of English or UK accents that my own felt foreign.

After a lifetime of finding it difficult to imagine I had an accent (because ‘Merica), to four years of being a foreigner in the UK, stepping onto a flight of Americans was one of the stranger linguistic experiences of my life.

I felt the rhotic ‘R’ vibrate through the core of my being. It seemed like the volume in my ears had been turned up each time someone spoke. The first few minutes on board felt like both a homecoming and a shift into an alien dimension.

All that space.

Before I go any further, I need to give a PSA to basically all of Britain:

You need seat covers in your public toilets.

This is one of the biggest things I’ve missed about the US. We seem to be one of the only countries in the world to have disposable seat covers in public restrooms. Fellow Americans, you do not know how good you have it until you have to rip up pieces of toilet paper and try to balance them on the toilet lid while desperately holding your bladder.

Not gonna lie, the first thing I did when we got off the plane at LAX was rush to the restroom. It was only when I laid down that miraculous pre-cut and environmentally unfriendly beauty that I was certain I was truly Home.

On to actually going home, to the house I in which I’d spent my entire childhood and early adult life had changed a bit in four years. New hardwood floors, fancy splash of paint, it was looking good. And huge. No crawling over furniture to get to the kitchen? What kind of dark magic was this?

The whole “Wow I’ve grown up and everything that once seemed big now seems so small” absolutely did not apply. Everywhere I looked, I’d comment: “Was the backyard always this big?” “Jeez, my old room is twice the size of our current main bedroom.” “I remember the living room being so much smaller.” “The stairs. They’re so expansive, so easy to climb. I don’t feel like I’m about to fall to my death every time I attempt to descend them.”

And then, there was the grocery store. My dad called it “the small one.” This behemoth was twice the size of a Tesco Extra and sold half as many items. Of these items, entire rows were dedicated to cereal. I’d forgotten the cereal aisle was an actual full aisle the size of half an (American) football field. And each of the standard boxes looked like they’d feed an orphanage for a month.

Okay, exaggeration, but it illustrates just how blown up everything felt to me. It was like America had changed the font size from 10 to 18. It took my eyes time to adjust.

Who am I?

That expectation I’d had of a homecoming — where I’d feel like I’d jumped into the cushy (and sugar-saturated) arms of my native country — didn’t really happen the way I’d imagined.

In fact, in some ways I felt like more of a foreigner in my hometown than I normally do here in London. My reasoning for it isn’t something I can easily put into words. Yes, I was technically from this place. I had the passport and the accent and the local predilection for excessive kombucha consumption, but I hadn’t lived and breathed in this place in years. Add to it the cultural changes after Covid-19 (see more below), and my hometown no longer felt quite as… homey.

I was home, and I wasn’t. Apparently, I’d turned into a pseudo Schrödinger’s Cat, which seemed appropriate considering the quantumy dimension shift I was experiencing.

This all boils down to the act of leaving a place resulting in a loss of belonging. Can I regain it? That’s a question for a future Sarah who may or may not move back.

There’s just… so much.

This goes along with the aforementioned cereal aisle, but it was such a culture shock to me that it deserved its own section. There are so many things available in the U.S.

This is coming from someone who lives in a relatively similar first-world country in one of the biggest cities in the world. Some even joke that the UK could easily become the 51st state (it absolutely could not).

The US literally has everything you could imagine. As a local, I’d never really thought about it. When I moved to London, I got hit with a few “where are all the things?” moments, but I’d always attributed that to being a noob to the area.

No, it definitely wasn’t that. I was having legitimate Things withdrawals.

I’m not only talking about the array of items to buy from multitudes of huge stores, but also restaurants, things to do… really, everything. And yes, London has so much, but it doesn’t compare to ‘Merica in terms of just how much is available to do and have.

Pandemic special

There was one pretty decent change that had taken place since I’d left the US. Before, I’d never imagined I’d be coming home to masks and hand sanitiser practically flowing from the taps. Seeing social distancing signage outside my favourite Barnes and Noble was slightly jarring, even two years into the pandemic. It was like I was in a post apocalyptic novel.

I’ve experienced all of the pandemic within the UK, so I’ve learned the British social distancing “culture,” and yes, it’s different from the US, or at least Southern California. I was surprised to see that people in my hometown seemed generally stricter about it. They gave me a bigger personal bubble (although to be fair, that seemed to be the case pre-pandemic). One woman yelled out “COVID!” once when someone had brushed past her too closely.

Having been vaccinated (including booster) wasn’t just a basic requirement for meeting friends, but a way to gauge someone’s moral compass. Some restaurants required proof of vaccination before sitting down to eat.

That’s not to say this isn’t the case in the UK, but when I was in San Diego, it seemed like things were turned up a notch. No judgement, obviously, because who wants to get Covid? But an interesting observation, especially considering that from afar, many of us had assumed the US was back to the wild west of anti-vaxxers and mask-free faces. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Maybe that’s the problem, though. We have these expectations that certain things will be a certain way, and we make generalisations about entire cultures when really, we’re all just getting by the best way we can.

Coming back home also reminded me that places are constantly changing, and being around for that change can powerfully affect our sense of belonging. I was absent for years, and I felt that when I’d returned. Despite being a foreigner in London, the years I’ve spent here have made me feel, at least for this time in my life, more local than I felt in my own hometown.

Have you experienced the same thing when visiting the place(s) you grew up? Let me know in the comments!

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