Between 2007 and 2010, it was a privilege to call Copenhagen, Denmark my home. I was just shy of turning 23 when I moved there and had no idea how life-changing the next three and a half years would be. I originally moved there to pursue a two-year master’s degree program; but after graduation, I ended up extending my stay to work for a local university. Although I never became ‘a real Dane’, it felt like home and those 40 months living in the land of Lego and bicycles solidified my adult identity.
Last November, I had the unique experience of visiting ‘my second home’ after nearly 4 years away. What happened upon my return shocked me.
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Growing up I belonged to ethnic and religious minority groups, which made it difficult to negotiate my identity. All I wanted to do was belong, but no matter how hard I tried, it was never possible. Although my childhood was filled with mostly positive memories, I never felt whole. I was always stuck between two worlds, neither of which I could ever completely belong to.
I had studied abroad twice as an undergraduate (in France and Spain), but ironically, it wasn’t until my time in Copenhagen that I finally felt that I fit in somewhere. I finally felt complete. This feeling had absolutely nothing to do with my terrible Danish accent or my inability to ride my bike as elegantly as my Danish counterparts. And it certainly didn’t have to do with the fact that I was shorter and with darker features than most of my Danish friends. In fact, it was the simple fact that I didn’t have to belong that put me at ease and allowed me to finally feel comfortable in my skin. For once, I didn’t feel the need to change who I was to more closely resemble those around me. I was happy to be different. In fact, it started to be a point of pride for me; one which still holds true today.
As you can imagine, after this life-changing experience, it was extremely difficult returning to the US, my ‘real home’. Not only did I have to deal with ‘reentry’ or ‘reverse culture shock’, but I also had to learn (for the first time) what it meant to be an adult in America. This lead to a new phase of life which included strong feelings of homesickness (for Copenhagen) and a new learning curve for ‘being me’. To be honest, the feelings I endured upon return to the US resembled what one feels after a breakup. You try to move forward but everything and everyone reminds you of the experience you once had. In a way, my mourning for this breakup with–or rather, divorce from–my life in Copenhagen continued for years. Even up until this past year, I was still longing to return to my life in Copenhagen (only this time, with my husband!).
After booking my tickets to Copenhagen last fall, I began dreaming about my grand return to my former home. I imagined it would be nothing short of spectacular. I was finally going to see my friends, my favorite hangouts and set my Danish self free.
What actually happened was truly…heartbreaking.
Instead of returning to a place where I felt comfortable and at ease, I returned to a city which I no longer recognized. It wasn’t the place where I once felt that I truly belonged, but rather a place where I realized I could, moving forward, never be more than a visitor. Maybe it was because of the difficulty I had speaking and understanding Danish or the fact that there were new shops and buildings everywhere I turned. Or maybe it was the simple fact that the biggest part of my Danish identity was absent: my bike (which had been fully equipped with a basket and lights, I might add). Whatever the reason, one thing was certain: this visit to Copenhagen shattered my dreams and brought about the harsh realization that I was once again homeless. Copenhagen was no longer my home, but neither was anywhere else.
It’s different. I’m different. And that’s a good thing.
Overall, this realization was good for me because it meant I could truly let go of the past (read: no more homesickness for Copenhagen) and could move forward to new adventures–adventures that I could share with my amazingly supportive husband. Instead of feeling sad that I left (yes, even in 2014 I felt deep emotions of sadness when I thought about Copenhagen), I now feel a sense of relief. My desperation to return has vanished and has since been replaced with sweet memories of my time there.
Although living abroad clearly has it’s ups and downs–especially after you return to your country of origin–the beauty of living abroad is that I am continuously reminded that anywhere and everywhere can feel like home. And most importantly, it introduces new people and experiences into my life which change me for the better and in ways I could have never dreamed of.