The 5 Emotional Phases of an Expat’s Return Home

The 5 Emotional Phases of an Expat’s Return Home post image

Over the past 4 weeks, I’ve been on the phone for 10+ hours with entrepreneur, photographer, and 3+ year Bali resident Tommy Schultz. We’ve been discussing every detail of his life in Bali. Our goal is to create an in-depth audio guide (with photos, videos, and an outline on the side) talking about life in Bali. We’ll post a big part of this recording on the blog for free in the coming weeks.

We are making the product because I don’t believe there is enough strong perspective when it comes to travel products. When you enter stuff in to search engines, I feel like a I get a lot of generic overview stuff, lots of spam, and…. well you know what it’s like.

As a prospective long term traveler or expat, what I really want is to sit down with an experienced expat and ask them questions. Talking with Tommy is so much more valuable to me than, say, reading the Lonely Planet or surfing web forums.

We’ll eventually sell the thing for a few bucks. It’s not gonna make us a million or anything, but talking to Tommy about Bali is way more entertaining than the other work I’m supposed to be doing :)

Our final module stuck with me a few days after we talked about it: “Reverse Culture Shock and Bringing Bali Home With You.”

Putting words to how I feel about expatriotism has been a little tricky for me. On our call, I explained a “hypothetical” emotional evolution to Tommy. He seemed to understand.

The 5 emotional phases of a long-term expat’s return home:

  1. Generous appreciation (wherein the expat over-indulges in free refills, fast WIFI, and their favorite fast food joint)
  2. Rationalization (wherein the expat figures said free-refills and fast internet access are the stuff that makes up a good life).
  3. Boredom (wherein the expat gets bored, but tries to combat it with “activities”).
  4. Loneliness (wherein the expat wonders where everyone is hanging out on a Tuesday night).
  5. Panic (wherein the expat starts to find opportunities to jump ship).

When I was 18 I flew a human organ, or some legal documents– I can’t really remember which– to Mexico City. (Remember courier flights?) Anyway, I got to Mexico for 50 bucks and I was off on my first self-directed international travel experience. It was perfect, and it sat in my head that way for the next 10 years.

I’m fairly certain I whispered it to myself upon my return, …. why can’t life always be like that?

Over the next 6 years I scrapped together as much international travel as I could. I even avoided a career in academia because I felt it would prevent me from being able to live abroad (to be fair, being a shitty scholar aided in the decision).

My business career has inspired some mild fits of denial:

“I’ll make boatloads of money and travel a month to six weeks out of every year!”

Sound familiar?

I’ve tried to figure it out, pull it apart, and justify it.

Nothing I can come up with is all that satisfying, so I’m gonna shelf this conceptual puzzel for a while.

Here it is: I’m an expat.

That’s that. I’m gonna go buy a ticket. Today.

It’s been a good run, USA. Your free refills and highways are inspiring. I’ve honestly never been happier to see you. It’s just, there’s so much to do…



@TropicalMBA <– don’t follow me unless you want me to BLOW UP your twitter stream with lame-o personal status updates. You’ve been warned.

PS, Colin says it well.

Published on 02.21.11
  • What exactly do you like the most about being an expat?

    I think I like the wandering and the process of coming to a foreign place and eventually calling it home :)

  • Word!

  • Yeah man, that’s what I’m talking about – went back to Oregon over Xmas, by the end of the 2 weeks I was ready to get on the plane again. As you say, once wanderlust bites, it doesn’t let go. I’m already planning the next big move after the Philippines :)

  • I’ll be heading to Indonesia later this year with my wife and 2 kids. We’ll be there at least a year. My wife is Indonesian and my kids hold dual citizenship now. We’re really looking forward to a different way of life and just living outside the so called ‘norm’ and being an expat (except for my wife who calls it coming home). I’ve been thinking about this almost daily since my first adventure there in 2001. Looking to do some photography of my own while there so I enjoyed the link to Tommy’s site.

  • I thought you were planning on being in the US more this year? Amazing how plans can quickly change.

  • Dan

    haha, me too, suppose I’ve technically fulfilled the promise as 2 months is a lot more than last year AND I’ll be back in the states this year almost certainly. Further, whenever I say “plans” I mean “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”

  • Dan

    Awesome! When you come on shore, please do look me up! Best of luck to you…

  • Dan

    Yeah buddy :)

  • Dan

    Ya herd it.

  • Dan

    That’s the tricky part for me is reducing it into something that makes sense to deliver to people. The closest thing I have besides “I just love it” is that I feel like, if my brain and experience were like a house, moving to a new country is like adding a sunroom on the back. More house! See where this goes… :/

  • What did you think you were going to get from being Stateside/being in San Diego? When you came back, you came back for something. Did you not find it or didn’t find it as valuable as you imagined?

  • Dan

    I came back because Ian and I took over the company 100% so we had to re-tool our operation. We actually got that nuts and bolts partnership, financial, and operational stuff cleaned up faster than expected, so my choice was to dive in to the hard goods side or continue what I started in Asia. To me I’m not only passionate about living abroad and travel, but also investing in our web capabilities. We’ll likely be investing 100% in an Asia based team for all web stuff moving forward to that made the choice easy. One final note, we got a great business partnership offer in Manila that I didn’t expect to come about, so that very much expedited my departure (and is also the reason I won’t be going to SXSW).

  • Sweet. This year I’m going to be building out our web capabilities and I should visit Manila to meet with developers to see if going outside the States is best for Foolish, LLC. I may hit you up for a call to share what I’m thinking to see what you think.

  • Dan

    Do it! :)

  • Obrien_jeffrey

    don’t you go leaving again…you just got back : (

  • Obrien_jeffrey

    also need to talk to you about the Bali guide at some point in the near future

  • Dan

    :D Yeah let’s hang out this week, I’ll get you the product for review.

  • Thanks! I will definitely look you up. Right now we are looking at July/August for our departure. We’ll be based in Bandung but planning to spend that first month or so in Bali.

  • Mike

    I just hope you set up an affiliate program and I will be more than happy to promote your Bali guide.

  • Dan

    Absolutely Mike we’ll be getting with you on it shortly…

  • I remember coming back from my first backpacking trip. Everybody in the pub was talking about house prices,mortgages and room/garden improvements. I didn’t hang about for long!

  • In response to your “The 5 emotional phases of a long-term expat’s return home”, I offer this:

    The 5 emotional phases of a hopeful future expat

    1. Sedation (wherein the future expat is sedated with free refills, fast WIFI, and their favorite fast food joint)
    2. Boredom (wherein the future expat Googles pictures of tropical islands while planning their escape…three to five decades in the future)
    3. Discovery (wherein the future expat discovers a sight called TropicalMBA and some dude who talks about Christmas parties at the beach…that they live on)
    4. Disgust (wherein the future expat begins to wake up to the realization that he will never ever consider those free refills, fast WIFI, and favorite fast food joint as amazing when on his deathbed and thus begins to resent the bullshit that has sedated him for decades)
    5. Hope (wherein the future expat stops thinking about themselves as a template employee and begins desperately trying to figure out how to get the f*ck to that beach like that crazy dude!!!)

    Here’s to Phase 5…correction, here’s to Phase 6: Expat!

    PS – I knew the first time I talked to you when you were back in the States that it would be short lived. Makes me want to get out of here that much more to know that you can’t stand it having been to the promised land. ;)

  • Dan

    haha your comments are better than my posts. Well the key thing for all us is to add in step number 1, appreciation. We are are out there bangin’ away at doing bigger things in life, but all three of us on this comment are living the dream, so appreciate it, and try to bring it to as many others as possible.

    ALSO: thanks for being pretty damn awesome.

    Many people get to those tropical islands and can’t wait to go home. @AnythingIan doesn’t share my expat bent and neither do most of my friends. I guess that’s why I’m always trying to justify it. Oh well.

  • Dan

    Word Deano.

  • I bet even Ian shares the dream of not sitting at a desk for 40 hours staring out over a parking lot only to spend 15 hours commuting each week. HAHAHAHAHA

    And yes, the appreciation thing is big. Being intentionally thankful for that which you have is an attitude I am working on. Trying to get better at it. :D

  • Dan

    Ah yeah, Ian and I both did the 15hr commute as well (someday I’ll post the Google map :)…. nothing like that shiz for a little inspiration.

  • Sad thing about mine? Only 22 miles. Ha!

    Lots of “not driving” on my drive. :)

  • Dan

    wow. that must be a record.

  • I can’t imagine that record compares to the one of how high my blood pressure is upon completion.

    That’s it! Lifestyle Design is a necessary health choice for me!!!! ;)

  • Kathrynmcrobb

    I’ve been reading through your site tonight & can totally relate to u guys. We moved from Ireland to Portugal nearly 4 years ago because we reckoned we couldn’t live without “a little bit more!”
    Yeah, we’re well educated & do love this country, but at times it’s been hard when u come across people who resent you living as expats in their country. We’ve been through some hard times, but for me, tho I’ve loved being stretched & been lonely at times, we’ve made a new life. No regrets..lots of travel ahead..:)

  • Dan

    Hey Kathryn! Thanks for reading the blog, I’m really honored you are taking the time to go through our past articles. Good luck on your adventures! :D

  • Kunal

    Hi, I just discovered the blog when ironically looking for details about Bali. Heading there for a month and a bit for an adventure trip. Anyway, aspiring expat here and switching off the “need a career and job title programming.” Never wanted to leave the beach either, when I headed to Mexico. Always great to read about others who don’t believe in the “live to work” mentality that pervades our culture. Added you to twitter and looking forward to reading more.

  • Dan

    hey Kunal thanks for dropping by and saying hi! Will have some more information on Bali in a bit, look me up when you are there…. :)

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