Originally from the United States, Jamila has lived most of her life abroad. After 25 years of living in Quebec, Holland and then Spain, she follows her husband George back to the US. What she thought would be a relatively easy and uneventful readjustment to American culture, surprised her by being almost even more difficult than living in one of her expat locations.
I had mixed feelings about moving back to Miami (USA) with George. I was sad to leave Ronda (Spain) and say goodbye to friends and I didn’t want to leave this beautiful city with its relaxed mentality, gorgeous buildings, cute little plazas and the all around general atmosphere. At the same time however, I was excited to go back to Miami and see my old friends and my brother, eat pop-tarts and fruit loops for breakfast, and yes, even have a Bud Light! We hadn’t been back in two years, since everyone preferred to visit us in exotic Ronda, so I was looking forward to it!
However that quickly changed when we arrived at Miami International Airport. The first thing that struck me when we came out of the airport was the sweltering humidity and the smog fumes that hit me like a brick wall. Coming from Ronda, a city with a population of 37,000 compared to Miami’s metropolitan area of 5.5 million, it was no wonder! Yet despite my knowledge of this and especially the fact that I grew up in Miami, I felt very foreign.
Although seeing my brother and friends was wonderful and we were welcomed very warmly, I still felt like this was all a short little vacation and in a few days we would hop back on a plane and fly back to Spain. But once our furniture arrived, it sunk in: we weren’t going to go back to Ronda, we were staying here.
Over the next couple of weeks, and still even now, contrary to what I believed would happen, I kept feeling more and more like an outsider. The people were different: either too friendly or too disinterested. I tipped wrong at restaurants to the horror of my friends, I snapped at the saleslady at GAP because she kept following me around like a lost puppy, I spent way too much money buying fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods because I forgot prices differed significantly from Spanish mercados, and the list goes on.
I also couldn’t get over how clean the sidewalks were here. There were no cigarette butts or lettuce leafs sprinkling the streets, everything was so sterile. I mean, not that I missed rotten tomatoes or anything, but somehow it had become part of my daily routine: jumping over fruits, avoiding stray cats, and un-sticking cigarette butts from my shoes. In fact everything seemed so sterile. The way no one ever walked anywhere, they jumped into their cars to go to the store 2 blocks down the road, there were no kids playing in the streets, just the occasional dog-walker and that person was glued to his cell phone!
The skyscrapers in downtown Miami also made my head spin, Ronda’s tallest building seemed to be a small hut in comparison! It was all so different! Where were the little shops and cafés that I frequented so often in Ronda? Where were the gaggles of grandmas pulling shopping trolleys filled to the brim with fresh vegetables? What were all these humongous SUVs doing here, when the biggest car I’d seen in a long time in Ronda was a VW Polo?!
I was also unaccustomed to the way people, especially young girls, dressed here. Incredibly short skintight skirts, very low cut tops, and sky high heels! If any of these ladies were to walk down any random street in Ronda, they would be followed by a throng of people whistling and shouting at them! Not to mention that they would all have broken ankles if they walked up and down Ronda’s hilly cobblestoned streets! Surprisingly, I found myself being slightly embarrassed at their attire and wishing they would cover up. Ironically, had I not lived abroad for so long, I would probably be wearing a similar shoe and short skirt!
Even the relationships with my friends seemed strained. I felt like they were only interested in themselves, no one stopped to ask me how I felt being back or how I was coping. When we would go out to lunch or dinner they would talk non-stop about their new clothes, shoes, handbags and the latest hot parties in South Beach. They seemed afraid of asking me if I was okay somehow, it was as if they didn’t want to be bothered by my problems. In Ronda I had always talked to my girlfriends about everything under the sun except for fashion and society life!
Not to make it seem like all is bad in Miami, I did quite enjoy going grocery shopping at any and all hours of the day! In fact, upon first returning to Miami, George and I made it a point of going to the grocery store only at 3am! It was quite delightful – empty aisles and no lines at the register! Plus, I did have my first Bud Light again 🙂
I really didn’t think that going “back home” would leave me feeling so uprooted, floating aimlessly through the city like a ghost! I guess it will take much more time than I anticipated until I can feel at home in Miami again. After all, after 25 years abroad, I am as much a stranger in Miami as I was in the beginning in each of the different cities I lived in abroad!
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I’ve just come across your post a few days ago and I know exactly what you are going through – but more “backwards,” if you will. I came to live in the Bay Area (California) from Spain over a decade ago as a wide-eye college student in my early twenties. Last February I decided to move back to Valencia for one year and I have to tell you – I have never felt so out of place as I did for the last six months. The problem in the case of expats going home is that a “culture shock” doesn’t seem like a legitimate issue – what’s there to adapt to when all you are doing is going back home, right? But what if you realize that “home” is what you left behind? For me, there was an overwhelming feeling of confusion and even guilt when I realized that I wasn’t one of “my people” anymore – we spoke the same language, but our way of thinking, the mannerisms, the body language, al the little details that make communication what it is – they were completely out of sink. In 10+ years I got used to the uniform, albeit meaningless American politeness (smile, eye contact, “please-thank you’s-have a nice day”) and it took me a long time to get used to the grim expressions of the store clerks and the scolding voices that they use even when they are trying to help. Spanish understanding of concepts like