The tinsel has meticulously been draped over the tree branches, the smell of freshly baked cookies has permeated every room in the house and the holiday classics have been belting from the stereo speakers since Thanksgiving. It's the time of year when families -- near or far -- come together, coworkers clink champagne glasses and school kids eagerly await a weeklong vacation. Above all, though, it's the season marked by giving, gratitude and good cheer.
Or, is it?
In a few short days, droves of people busting at the seams (mostly from a few too many sugar cookies) will be trying to shift and shimmy into airline seats fit for a 10-year-old child. Singles, couples and families will jet across this vast country for joyous holiday feasts and festivities. But mixed in amongst these "home for the holiday" travelers is a completely different breed of traveler: the expat.
Distinguished by their stunned expressions and garbled speech patterns, the expat is an individual who has left his or her home country to live elsewhere -- either temporarily or permanently. Expats comprise a broad range of individuals from business professionals working abroad to 20-something study abroad students.
The glamorous lifestyle of an expat, however, doesn't come without a few hiccups.
Most expats endure some hair pulling, feet stomping and fist pounding outbursts during the initial transition. And, while adapting to a foreign culture doesn't happen in an instant, it is often an expected part of the adjustment. Books, articles and pre-departure packets are crammed with information that warns travelers of the phenomenon known as culture shock.
What most expats don't expect to encounter, however, is the reverse. Returning to your home country should be easy. But all too often, returning travelers discover that coming home is far worse than going away.
How can that be? You wonder.
Quite simply: reverse culture shock. The re-entry process for any traveler who has lived outside of his home country -- whether for two weeks or two years -- can be a trying time. But, returning home around the holidays manifests a whole new host of issues.
The typical effects of reverse culture shock are compounded by flashing light displays synchronized to Gangnam Style, newspaper circulars and web banners screaming "Buy me, buy me!" and scores of sweet and savory indulgences lining kitchen countertops. There's nothing quite like holiday commercialism to welcome a friend or family member back into the land of overabundance.
While some expats may relish these holiday extravagances, others might react to this overstimulation by turning into a real-life Grinch. For reasons you probably won't understand, these travelers may arrive home in a less than joyous mood, which may be demonstrated by the following:
Due to the cheerful music, colorful lights and excited expressions plastered across childrens' faces, most people exude a kinder, gentler nature around the holidays. Compassionate, kind-hearted deeds are the norm during this gift-giving season. Returning travelers, however, might be the exception to the rule.
Buying lavish flat-screen TVs, chic tablets and high-tech cell phones might outrage some travelers who have spent time in places where textbooks and writing utensils are a luxury. Living abroad often makes travelers more aware of the superfluous consumption habits in the developed world, for better or worse. Unfortunately, the holiday sales and aggressive shoppers can make some returnees slightly more disenchanted than they might otherwise be if they returned during another time of year.
Walking aimlessly through store aisles, sifting through sale racks and contemplating the "perfect" purchase may not be everyone's favorite holiday task, but it has become a holiday tradition for many. Malls and retail outlets, however, can feel like a full-fledged circus to returning travelers. The materialistic nature of shopping can cause quite a stir from those accustomed to buying handmade goods from local markets.
Instead of braving the long lines and elbow-poking shoppers, returning travelers might try to avoid stores altogether. Purchasing products that probably lack the "Made in the USA" tag might seem a bit senseless to some returnees.
The sugary sweets and fruity libations that show up at company parties, family gatherings and New Year's celebrations have become an accepted waistline evil. But, despite the few extra pounds that are packed on, eating and drinking is one custom that returning travelers can partake in. The reason, however, might be quite different from the typical holiday reveler.
For returnees, devouring a dozen frosted cutout cookies is most likely the result of a comfort binge. The irritability that is characteristic of many returning travelers is often due to emotional stress related to reverse culture shock. Sometimes, a few (or many) sugary desserts help calm edgy nerves.
While the holiday season tends to be a pleasant, jovial time of year for most, remember that it can be viewed quite differently in the eyes of someone who has lived abroad.
If you're returning home, prepare yourself. You may welcome all of the holiday decorations, celebrations and merriment -- but it's possible that you might not. Whatever your state of mind, try to keep your "bah, humbug" mood in check. Don't let your discomfort and annoyance ruin the holiday spirit of those around you.
And, if you're welcoming someone home in the next few weeks, prepare yourself as well. Get The Ultimate Guide for Homeward Bound Travelers to help your friend, family member or coworker with the return process. Just be aware that Santa Claus might not be the only one digging into the cookie jar this holiday season!