I’ve just landed in Bahrain and I feel a deep sense of shame. Not at being in Bahrain, that’s pretty exciting – I feel shame for my behavior on arrival as I cleared immigration. You see I’ve been to Bahrain before, though it’s been a few years – and I am fortunate enough to travel frequently around the Arab Gulf… but I’m afraid this marvelous frequency has made me complacent – and complacency is no good at all.

I can remember visiting friends in Germany a few years ago who went into great detail telling me about their plans and preparations for a trip they would be taking to the US. Even though the trip was roughly 6 months away, it was already occupying a fair amount of their time and conversation. They shared planned itineraries, what they would do on the flight, what they were packing, what they were looking forward to… it was impressive. By contrast, I would visit 7 countries between seeing them and when they would actually take their trip, but I had to concentrate intently to remember the names of those countries, let alone expound on details in the way my German friends could.

Some of the reason for all this is that with repetition things become normal. We have to normalize things to some degree otherwise life would be exhausting. Think of something you do everyday, like brushing your teeth. Imagine if every time you undertook this mundane task you did so with the wonder and excitement of someone who’s never brushed their teeth before. You’d eventually be exhausted, and you’d probably exhaust the people around you by getting that excited at least twice a day (as recommended by dentists) and sharing this excitement on social media, over the phone, or in person. (Maybe we should start socially inviting friends over for teeth brushing parties, just a thought.) So we normalize routines to save energy and be efficient.

The danger is that if we get the balance wrong, we can normalize too much and lose out on the wonder of the moment – or find ourselves vastly unprepared. As I landed in Bahrain, I made my way to passport control and slid my passport to the waiting border guard. The official in front of me flicked through my document and asked for the address of the hotel I’d be staying in. Ummm… I didn’t know. Panicking slightly, I dug into my backpack on the floor to find my phone and try and look up an address… I had to connect to the wifi, fill out a form to get online, scroll through emails… all the while holding up the queue of people behind me. The officer waited patiently as I fumbled about and finally got him the required information.

Then he asked how I would be paying for my visa… what?! I forgot I had to pay to enter Bahrain! I had to drop back to the floor and rummage through my backpack for a wallet. Would they accept Emirati currency? I didn’t have any Bahraini currency yet? Was a credit card okay? All the while, the line of people behind me looked on with exasperation.

I hate holding up the line. I loath being the slow down in a system. Had it not been for the fact that I probably would have gotten arrested, I would have run screaming back towards the plane I’d just disembarked, and begged them to take me back from whence I came – I don’t deserve to travel anymore, I’m a line-holder-upper!

My complacency held up a line of innocent civilians… but it can have even further reaching ramifications. It’s easy to become complacent with people, places, and events. Because of our tendency to normalize (which, in balance, is healthy) we can far too easily take people, places, and events for granted. Growing up as a TCK, I picked up the notion that every “hello” is just a “goodbye” waiting to happen. Nothing, nobody, and nowhere lasts forever.

If anything, that means I should know it’s worth the discipline and investment to consciously choose the balance between what I allow to become normal, and what I choose to keep remarkable, sacred even. We have the power to decide what will normalize and what won’t. We don’t often devote thought to the process, instead allowing it to run on auto-pilot, but I think we’d all benefit from a little more intentionality as far as preserving the remarkable. Life is short, and as many TCKs and expats know: every “hello” IS a “goodbye” waiting to happen, so we should be encouraged to treasure and be intentionally present for what happens between those two markers – don’t let normalizing rob you of your moments… besides, we really do need to keep the line moving at passport control.

Home for the Holidays

Oregon, United States

We’re nearing the end of what much of Western culture considers the holiday season… and I have been on the ground, in the same country, for THIRTY-SEVEN DAYS. That’s a really long time for me.

I learned a while ago that change almost always causes some degree of stress – but not always in the ways we think. For someone used to stability, disruption is… disruptive – that’s pretty common knowledge. But the reality is that for someone used to transition, stability can actually be just as… disruptive.

For loads of expats and international students around the world, this time of year can be unexpectedly disruptive. Loads of families living outside the country they came from (or at least the country or countries the parents came from) have ventured “home for the holidays” to reconnect with family and friends.

While it is hopefully a time to see loved ones we don’t always get to see, it can also be a stressful confrontation with the harder-to-understand-than-we-think concept of “home”. If your home for most of the year is an international context with a mix of people from different nationalities, beliefs, customs, and traditions – you’ve likely spent some time adapting to all of that… and now suddenly being in your old “home” you may not be ready to… “un-adapt” for lack of a better term. Sure the initial newness and novelty you bring will carry you for a while, but what if you’re “home” long enough for that to wear off, what then?

Coming home for the holidays can reveal that your experiences may not be relatable, your insights may not be welcome, and your priorities may not be shared. This is often felt all the more sharply because you’re supposedly… “home” – the place you came from, where you should feel a sense of belonging, rootedness, and easy connection.

It’s often said that repatriation (returning “home”) is harder than a move to a foreign place… and sometimes, if you’re around long enough for the vacation-like-novelty to fade, being “home” for the holidays exposes us to a little taste of repatriation.

The reality is, you’re more adaptable than you think. The fact that you’ve adapted to your life abroad and now feel less adept in your previous context is actually evidence of your adaptability: well done! Does that make it easier… no. No it does not. But let’s take a moment to appreciate your adaptability once again, it’s no small feat!

“Home for the holidays” is a learning experience. I think “home” is more fluid than we think. The privilege of reconnecting with loved ones, family, and friends from our past, our previous home, or our history is a phenomenal blessing not to be taken for granted… and as a bonus it may well reveal that we appreciate more about our current home or living situation than we realized.