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Work & Purpose

An American Expat Reflects on Coming Home

Former public radio host Tess Vigeland looks back, and ahead


Oregon law says I was supposed to get a new driver’s license within 30 days of moving to the state. But I’ve been back to my hometown for a year after nearly three years living and traveling in Asia and the Middle East in my late 40s, in search of adventure and a new sense of self-identity. So I guess I’m a tad late. And a scofflaw.

There are a number of reasons I didn’t get around to the DMV. More than anything, for months and months after I got back to the states, where I formerly worked as a public radio host and journalist, I couldn’t decide where home was, or would be.

Getting a new driver’s license feels permanent and I didn’t want to embrace anything resembling permanence. Not after nearly several years of global perambulation. World travelers don’t put down roots. World travelers don’t bother getting a new driver’s license. A new passport, sure! But that’s a symbol of itinerancy, not stability. And I’d convinced myself that the last thing I wanted was stability.

Hopscotching Around Asia: All About New-ness

I figured coming back to Portland was a temporary waystation. I was convinced when I returned to the states that I’d want to live somewhere I hadn’t lived before. After all, my time hopscotching around Asia had been all about new-ness… new cultures, new foods, new faces, new avenues and alleyways. Novelty was my drug of choice, and I got a hit every time I landed in a new country.

It feels odd to say this but… I miss myself abroad. I miss who I allowed myself to be.

Clearly, I would want to feed that addiction when I got home. Go to a city that was new to me. Somewhere to explore people and places and pathways that were utterly unfamiliar. Tap that vein. Get that hit.

What I didn’t realize was that the transition back to a normal life in America would be much rougher than the transition to an unknown, strange and abnormal life abroad.

I didn’t realize the pressure I would put on myself to duplicate the outward successes of my previous life as a public radio broadcaster and journalist in Los Angeles. I felt stuck, but didn’t do any emotional work to unstick myself. And I felt tired. All the time.

Looking Back, a Year After Returning to the U.S.

When I look back now, one year later, I understand that I needed space, and time, to re-enter. From what I’ve read, this is common among expats who return to their home country.

When you’re traveling and living abroad for extended periods of time, you don’t realize how exhausting it is. Just the act of trying to communicate in places where you don’t know the language saps your mental and physical energy.

When everything is new, you aren’t aware how much your brain is working overtime to compensate for the constant unfamiliarity. For 32 months, that was my life: constant stimulus. It was addictive and, I now know, depleting.

Turns out, returning to the familiarity of my hometown was a relief to my system. I didn’t have to think so much, try so hard. It was a relief to have a ready-made community of friends and not have to seek out new ones in a new city.

Loving Life in Portland, Ore. Again

It was a relief to be surrounded by the comfortable and the familiar.

It also turns out that in the 25 years since I last lived here, Portland has become a pretty cool town. I love the clean air and water out of the tap. I love that specific shade of green that blankets Oregon hillsides and the smell of its forest cathedrals. After three years in the tropics, I love boots and sweaters and coats. And most of all, I love that my parents live here, and I can see them anytime.

Do I miss using my passport every couple of weeks? Absolutely.

Do I miss figuring out where to go next? Yup.

More than anything, though, I miss the intense friendships forged in the fire of living abroad. I miss the conversations about global politics, global travel and the global horrors of dating (my time abroad came post-divorce), over a bottle of wine and fresh-cut mangoes.

What I Miss: Myself Abroad

There’s one more thing I miss. It feels odd to say this but… I miss myself abroad. I miss who I allowed myself to be.

For nearly three years, I reinvented myself over and over and over. I’d land somewhere and nobody knew who I was, who I had been, what I did for a living, my marital status, what I liked and didn’t like… nothing.

No one had a single expectation of me. And there is a mind-blowing freedom in that. I’ve always been a genuine person, I hope, and I like to think I’ve let people see the real me for most of my life. But still… we all put on a show, don’t we? In some way?

I didn’t do that while I was traveling. I was fearlessly me.

I did not care one bit what strangers in a strange land thought of me (though of course I want always to be seen as a good global citizen). I was so absorbed in the adventure, in learning, in creating, in documenting, that I stopped thinking about ambition and perception and all the other things we’re taught to care about.

I was free to be whoever I wanted, however I wanted, for as long as I wanted. I was me, but even truer.

I feel like I’ve lost some of that. Quite a bit of it, actually.

Fearless, But Less Free

I’m still fearless. But I feel less free. I’m not sure why, though I do place some blame on stepping back into toxic American culture. Here, what seems to matter most is how much money is in your bank account and what you’re doing to climb another rung on the ladder. We apologize for taking naps and vacations and we identify ourselves by what we do for a living. I didn’t do that over there.

I still adventure; I went on a road trip recently and hiked at 10,000 feet alone among the world’s oldest living trees. I try mightily not to care what anyone else thinks. But it’s different from the Tess I was over there. I’d like to find that Tess again.

None of this is what I would have predicted when my flight landed from Seoul 12 months ago. But as I look back, it’s what was supposed to happen. And I’m going with it. I’ve gotten really good at that… just going with it.

It’s why I figured it was time to go get a new license. I can always get a different one if, and when, I move again.

I still believe nothing is permanent. And that’s a good thing. It means change is always afoot, even if you don’t know or feel it. I’m content in this moment to have a few small roots growing underneath me. And I’m enjoying doing some work that takes advantage of my skills, even if it’s not as high-profile as what I used to do. But I may change my mind in six months. Or five years.

‘Til then, I’ll hang onto this new license, even though the photo isn’t that great. Because at least for now… I’m home.

Tess Vigeland
By Tess Vigeland
Tess Vigeland is author of Leap: Leaving a Job With No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want. She is the former host of public radio's Marketplace Money and is the recipient of the 2019 Gracie Award for Best Host/Anchor and a National Edward R. Murrow Award for Continuing Coverage for her work following the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.  She currently lives in Portland, Ore., and you can follow her writing at Tessuntethered.com.

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