Moving Home After Living Abroad: 4 Tips for Re-Entry

I recently moved back to my hometown, San Francisco, after spending the past three years in Chile, where I taught entrepreneurship courses at universities and collaborated with local startups.

This is not my first experience with re-entry. I’ve experienced two severe bouts of reverse culture shock over the years, along with many milder ones. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

After Chile, Back to School

These pictures are from my year abroad. On the left I'm with my host mother, Latife, and her husband Jaime. In the middle I'm standing in front of the library in the Toma de Peñalolen, where I volunteered. On the right, I'm with my montañismo classmates at the top of a snowy mountain we climbed together.

These pictures are from my year abroad. LEFT: with my host mother, Latife, and her husband Jaime. MIDDLE: standing in front of the library in the Toma de Peñalolen, where I volunteered. RIGHT: with montañismo classmates at the top of a snowy mountain we climbed.

At the end of 2005, I finished my year studying abroad in Chile. As I packed my suitcases, I tried to summarize my experience in one sentence: Chile’s a country of contrast between rich and poor, traditional and modern, liberal and conservative, city and country side and as an international student, I was able to see the extremes of all of these different contrasts often in the same day. In December I left Chilean summer and landed in California winter.

Chile changed my perspective. I’d grown up. I was 21.

It hit me hardest when I went back to college. I lived in the sorority house where I’d lived B.C. (before Chile). The rules seemed silly — no boys upstairs after ten or downstairs past midnight, you must wear light-but-bright-blue + bronze + brown tweed for tomorrow’s event….

I overcommitted myself. I needed two classes to graduate, but signed up for five, including a social entrepreneurship seminar, a student-taught women’s leadership course and ballet, plus too many activities and internships.

About a month into the semester, it hit me hard. Rushing everywhere, fueled by fear of missing out, exhausted — I missed Chile.

A few months later, I graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies. Then I moved to China. (Here’s the full story.)

After China, Hometown Adventure

In December 2007, after a year and a half in China, I moved back to San Francisco.

As I packed my bags, I tried to summarize my experience into one sentence and came up with one word.

Harmonious. A word I’d heard many times in China. “Build a Harmonious Society” is a Chinese government slogan that refers to hierarchy, stability, peace and respect. This was the topic for a student speech competition I’d judged and a favorite buzzword for Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. But when I arrived home, I realized that this convoluted story about “harmonious” was not what anybody wanted to hear.

When people asked me about China, I said: “Fun, interesting. Lots of people.” And then we’d move on to another topic.

I’d say things like, “Wow, there’s free coffee at Bank of America! You can understand exactly what I need and help me in five minutes!?!?” and “Wow, Trader Joe’s has so many choices. And I can read all the labels!”

Fast Forward to Now

San FranciscoNow I’m back in San Francisco again, adjusting. I’m staying in my parents’ house (they’re out of town) and I’ve had plenty of time and space to myself over the past month. I’ve figured out how to introduce myself without going on and on about my travels. I can’t say it’s been totally flawless: 6am fire alarm I don’t know how to turn off? Not fun. Long-distance relationship? Not easy. But I have learned a lot over the years about how to process all these faraway experiences and move forward here.

4 Tips for Going Home After Living, Working, or Studying Abroad

(1) Give yourself time to adjust.

There are lots of subtle, mental shifts that you don’t necessarily recognize until you’ve lived them, but if you’re in the supermarket saying, “OMG I can read all the labels!” you should give yourself that moment to pause and think about it rather than jumping right ahead to, “I have five minutes to buy all these things on this list.”

(2) Keep your descriptions concise.

Your family and friends probably don’t want to hear all the details. An analogy: one of my best friends earned her PhD in biophysics. If she were to talk for an hour about her experiments, I probably wouldn’t understand it all. She and I are better off talking about things we have in common: friends from high school, what her sister’s up to, a bit about what we’ve been doing since we last met. But it can’t be a monologue. If it is a monologue, it is not really a conversation.

(3) Don’t go back to the same living arrangements as before.

It’s important to re-negotiate the major relationships in your life, as well as where you’re living and how you’re spending your days. You’ve changed. It’s important to figure out ways to acknowledge and account for these changes. It’s easier said than done, and it takes time.

(4) Get professional help.

Working with a résumé editor, or a career coach that can help you translate your experience into clear value in the local labor market, or a professional who’s familiar with re-entry issues can be helpful. Cate Brubaker has excellent resources about Re-Entry Reality on her website, Small Planet Studio.

What else might you add to this list? 

Update: November 25, 2014


Added by Stacie Berdan, via Facebook: “I’d add one more tip: Learn to tell a great story. This way, when you’re asked about your international adventures, you can share it in an engaging and non-threatening way. This one is particularly helpful with employers.”


I agree. It’s so important to be able to tell a great story that resonates with whomever you’re talking in a specific situation. Since I’ve been back I’ve frequently told the story of how I chose General Assembly‘s User Experience Design Immersive. In Chile I taught entrepreneurship classes with a focus on design methodology, and I wanted to go deeper into how design methods can be used to improve user experiences. It’s a more technical, specialized and applied approach to topics I’d explored a bit before.


It’s really important to be able to connect the dots in a way that’s engaging, non-threatening, and easy to understand.


Now that we’ve finished the course, I’m applying for jobs. This means that I’m continually re-telling my story, choosing details that are specifically relevant to each potential employer. In some cases this has meant emphasizing my language skills, in others it’s about showcasing my experience with mining-related startups, technical storytelling, this blog, or something completely different. I’m lucky to have such a wide variety of anecdotes to draw from!  

This post originally appeared on Lane Letters, my friend and former colleague Christy’s lovely blog about living adventurously in the middle.

How to Enjoy a Long Layover in Mexico City

I spent Christmas at home in San Francisco, and wanted to come back to Chile to ring in 2012. So I booked a one-way ticket on Aeromexico, which happened to be the cheapest one-way flight I could find, and included a 16-hour layover in Mexico City (roughly 7am-11pm).

Despite the fact that I couldn’t get much sleep on the 1am flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, I enjoyed my layover adventure.

Before I left home, I downloaded Jim Johnston’s Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler onto the Kindle app on my iPod Touch. Very helpful!

After exchanging $100 in cash for Mexican pesos and grabbing a much-appreciated cup of coffee, I got a city map and found the official taxi stalls. I had heard horror stories about unlicensed cabs in Mexico City and chose to play it safe.

I asked the driver to take me to the Zócalo.

Zócalo, early morning with Christmas decorations.

Flags adorn a gorgeous church, not far from the Zócalo

Huevos divorciados, a classic Mexican breakfast. Two fried eggs, one with red sauce, one with green. Served up with chilaquiles and a much-needed café con leche.

I strolled in and out of several pretty churches.

Such pretty light!

I then walked to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where there was a special four-gallery exhibit of sculptures by Gustavo Perez. Each piece juxtaposed the whiteness of porcelain with the blackness and unequaled plasticity of black mud from Oaxaca. So striking.

I then followed my guidebook’s advice and took the subway to Colonia Condesa, an upscale residential neighborhood. I got slightly confused on the subway and needed to backtrack more than once, but I was glad to have plenty of time and no one following my directions. I think the subway was much less crowded than usual, since I was there during a holiday week.

Pretty house in Colonia Condesa

Dogwash-Mobile! What a brilliant idea!

"To sustain this park demands great expenses. Cooperate with us by not permitting its mistreatment." A different rhetorical tactic than I've seen at parks in other places.

My main goal during my long layover was to find the authentic Mexican food that I was spoiled with as a child. Though it did not equal Nana Petra's famous cauliflower casserole, this gordita was tasty.

Not long after that gordita, I got caught in the rain. In the dark. Exhausted. Umbrella-less, I scurried through the rain until I finally found an open restaurant (a lot of places were closed since most of the city was on vacation.) There I ate a decent strawberry and goat cheese salad and asked the waitress to call me a cab to the airport.

I arrived at the airport with ample time to browse through Duty Free’s selection of fine tequila. I chose a brand called Suave.

Overall, I enjoyed my layover in Mexico City, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to save money and enjoy some nice art, architecture, and tacos.

If you have a long layover in Mexico City, you should also read this post: Mexico City – All the Fun You Can Have in 10 Hours by Jack and Jill Travel the World

Cementerio Rapa Nui: A Lovely Place to Rest in Peace

Today is All Soul’s Day, and I feel that it’s the ideal time to share photos from the most breathtakingly beautiful cemetery I’ve ever seen. During our trip to Easter Island, we stayed at a modest guesthouse close to this cemetery.

The morning clouds made the place feel even more dramatic and intense.

One of the most beautiful places I've ever seen! I loved this headstone, carved in harmony with the natural shape of the wood.

Many of the gravesites had solar-powered lights. Every time we passed by at night, I wished I had the appropriate tools and photography skills to capture the beauty of this lantern-lit cemetery within earshot of the sea.

A few weeks before our trip to Easter Island, I'd seen these solar-powered garden lights for sale at HomeCenter (like Chile's Home Depot, a home-improvement megastore.) A cemetery by the sea seems like the ideal place to use these lights.

May all the souls in this special place rest in peace!

I feel a bit weird posting photos of a cemetery, but this place is so gorgeous I really wanted to share it with all of you. What do you think of cemeteries as tourist attractions? Do you have any special traditions for All Soul’s Day?

Easter Island / Isla de Pascua / Rapa Nui – the most visually spectacular place I’ve ever been!

I had the great fortune to visit Easter Island with my parents. It’s called Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui in the local language.

These 7 moai face the sea. Our guide said that they represent the European explorers.

So photogenic!

Sunset as seen from a seaside bar

I know someone who has a truck just like this one. Las aventuras de la rojita! :)

These rock carvings represent a traditional competition, in which the men from each clan would compete to swim to that little island you can see, pick up a special egg, and bring it back intact. The winner got to marry a virgin. And later that woman would give birth in the water. A fascinating story from a gorgeous site!

I snapped this shot of my feet by the pool at the Explora, a deluxe all-inclusive resort where we did not stay. I love visiting top hotels, just to check out the gardens and such! Living large on a budget!

The stairs up to the Explora

The "moai factory" - the place where the statues were carved. We happened to meet an archeologist who was giving a private tour to a Norwegian couple. He told us his theories about how the moai were moved from this spot all over the island. It's a hotly contested academic debate.

The archeologist told us that this moai was in the middle of stratigraphy. I remember this term from the archeology class I took at Cal. Stratigraphy is the measurement of all the exact positions of artifacts and other markers. Very cool.

Archeologist at work

This line of moai was knocked over by a tidal wave about 10 years ago. The Japanese government contributed to support its restoration. Here I met a group of 8 Chinese businessmen from Jiaxing, the "small town" of a million people that was my first home in China. The world is very, very small!

Anakena, the famous beach on the north shore of Easter Island. So breathtakingly beautiful.

Of course we couldn't resist posing for photos with the moai!

Thanks Mom and Dad for bringing me to such a special place!!

Joe Biden stares down Speedo-clad wrestler and names a horse in Mongolia! A quick look at Mongolia’s democracy, urbanization, and political risk.

From Google Analytics I’ve learned that lots of readers come to to learn about Mongolian politics, especially the nature of its democracy, freedom of speech, and relations with the United States. So far, the lone post I have to answer these fascinating questions is this one, about George W. Bush’s visit to Mongolia in 2005.

When I found out that Joe Biden was going to visit Mongolia, as part of an Asian tour featuring far more local color than most diplomatic visits, I immediately set Google Alerts on “Joe Biden Mongolia” to make sure I got a detailed picture of his visit, as well as its broader implications for Mongolia’s position in the world.

I visited Mongolia last September, and my travels really inspired me to write about The Mongolian Ger as a Yanic Symbol and the infamous camel-licking game.

This post is long but hopefully informative.

So, without further due, let me present Vice President of the United States of America, Joseph R. Biden:

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) reacts with a wrestler before a Mongolian wrestling performance during his meeting with Mongolian Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold (R) in Ulan Bator August 22, 2011. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lauded land-locked Mongolia's efforts at democratization on Monday, offering support to a country that is strategically located between China and Russia and sits on vast quantities of untapped mineral wealth. (Source: REUTERS / Zeev Rozenberg Date:08/23/2011)

This is just one of a dozen or so photos of Joe Biden’s trip to Asia that have been dubbed: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Biden… It’s the greatest collection of photographs…maybe ever.”

Continue reading

The Quiet American. An Uncanny Vietnam Coincidence

Andrea James, who I have never met in real life, always leaves fascinating comments on this little blog.  This week she posted a heartbreaking story about the news value of a death.  Her story is uncannily similar to one of mine.

Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.

I first read that line on a flight from Asia back to the United States, in early 2006. I’d bought a copy of Graham Greene’s, “The Quiet American,” from a Vietnamese woman at Hoan Kiem Lake, in Hanoi.

The book remains one of my favorites, for it is filled with life gems like that.

A Buddhist woman prays at Hoan Kiem Lake, in Hanoi, Vietnam. January 2006 | Andrea James
A Buddhist woman prays at Hoan Kiem Lake, in Hanoi, Vietnam. January 2006 | Andrea James
I traveled to Vietnam in January 2007, and I bought that same book from a vendor next to Hoan Kiem Lake. If I had been there one year before, or if she had one year later, we might have met in one of those Hanoi coffee shops with the cool metal filters that drip strong coffee into a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk.

I wasn’t such a huge fan of the book, though. I fell asleep reading it on multiple occasions, and I left it behind in a hostel.

Here are two photos from my 2007 trip to Vietnam:

Hoan Kiem Lake sits at the center of the Old Quarter, a quaint area of Hanoi in which each street specializes in a different commodity (shoes, fruit, bags, silk, holiday decorations, etc), motorbikes whiz past, and food preparation and consumption occur in the same sidewalk space.  The lake’s reflections were incredible at dusk, and I enjoyed watching ladies practice tai chi (hmmm… how do you say tai chi in Vietnamese?)

In the lovely gardens of Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. I’d dyed my hair bright red about a week before.

Here’s a paragraph from an email I sent home from that trip:

My first impression of Vietnam, as I awoke on the train from China, was of a visual geometry completely unlike the the six-story concrete boxes so prevalent in the city I’ve called home since August.  The workers’ triangular wicker hats, the tall Victorian-style houses, even the rice paddies formed sloping triangles in my surprised eyes.

OK, enough travel reminiscing for now. Back to the “real world” of China…

On “doing well & doing good” – a reaction from Mongolia

This adorable little girl lives at the ger camp in the Semi-Gobi Desert, the place where we rode camels.  I chose her photo to illustrate this post, because I think her stylish coat and practical boots exemplify the type of consumerism that improves the lives of everyday Mongolians.

While I was in Mongolia, the insightful and prolific Akhila Kolisetty featured this quote from Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund:

You told me that you don’t like the phrase ‘Doing well by doing good.’ Yet, that’s what comes to mind for many when they think about social investing. What does it mean to you?

It implies that there are easy solutions. That the perfect way to change the world and end poverty is if we all can make a lot of money doing it. But when you look at poverty and what it takes to break through entrenched systems, high levels of fatalism, unbelievable levels of corruption, incredibly bad distribution, no infrastructure, you are not going to make a lot of money and serve the poor in a way that they can afford. You may make a lot of money and serve the poor in usurious ways that keep them poor forever, like many of the mafia services do, but if you want to provide systems that are fair and affordable, and that they can trust into the long term, building them takes a long time. Over time as you really hit scale,  you will make money, but we’ve been in some of our deals for six or seven years and we feel we’re just starting.

I like Akhila’s response, which includes these words:

At the end of the day, “doing good and making money” is all a myth that we have deceived ourselves into believing. And perhaps it’s a marketing tactic of social businesses. But I’m sorry, but you can’t do both. Sure, you can ensure your social business is sustainable, but you, yourself are not going to be rich. In fact, your lifestyle and salary will probably be comparable to the lifestyle of non-profit employees. There is no difference between the two. Joining a social business is not a way to get rich or make money – it’s ultimately simply another way to empower the poor and work towards social justice. And I hope we can change our language to reflect this truth.

Click here to read the rest, and while you’re at it check out the rest of her excellent blog, Justice for All!  I wrote her an email in response, which included these words:

I am writing this from Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia.  Good businesses in this country include cell phones, satellite TV, car repair products, warm coats, solar panels, tourism, stuff for kids.  All of this stuff makes life better for ordinary people, and makes money for the companies who sell it (though probably not a lot given all the things that Novogratz mentioned.)

The little girl’s coat and boots are probably imported from China, and purchased with cash brought in by hosting foreign visitors.  The family has lots of livestock, so it probably produces most of its own food.  But in this modern world, with solar-powered TV and foreign friends, a family cannot live on salty milk tea alone!

I’m curious to hear what you think :)

Oh yes, of course your camel can lick my …

I am already giggling as I think of the Google search terms that will now bring people to my blog… haha… (Amended: I just edited this headline to clean it up a bit in case I ever decide to run for public office.)  But I really do have a great story to share and I am glad this silly title made you want to read it.

On the last night of my Central Mongolia tour, we stayed in a ger in the Semi-Gobi Desert.  We arrived just before sunset.  The family welcomed us with a bowl of salty milk tea, and snuff.  The snuff came from a small glass bottle and smelled like overly perfumed baby powder.  The smell stayed in my nose for the next several hours, and I have no idea what it really was.

At sunset I borrowed a camera and started taking artsy shots of camel silhouettes against the horizon.

A Mongolian tourist, who appeared to be drunk, mildly mentally handicapped, or perhaps both, approached us, hugging and kissing his camel with enthusiasm rarely seen in humans over the age of five.  He had his camel lick my shoulders and shirt.  He lifted up his own shirt to let the camel lick his nipples, and in the universal sign language of gestures, tried to convince me to lift up my shirt and let the camel lick my nipples.

That picture is blurry because I was too nervous and ticklish to stand still.

I think it was an odd ploy to convince me to take my shirt off!  Needless to say, his wish did not come through; my shirt stayed on!

This camel-licking game continued (and the giddy man attempted the same trick on Mongolian women as well) until the other group staying at the camp returned from their camel ride.

We then mounted the camels, tied them all together in a line, and strolled through the desert under the vast, starry sky.

P. S. I just Googled the words “camel lick Leslie” and this post is not the first one that comes up!  First Google shows us this informative advice column from  The writer has done some investigative reporting regarding the veracity of the letter, and it is a highly entertaining read.

The Places I’ve Called Home

This post started as a comment on Small Hands, Big Ideas, Grace Boyle’s wonderful blog.  Following a meme that seems to be flowing around this corner of the blogosphere, she outlines the places she has lived and what they meant to her.

Her post begins:

I write about it a lottraveling, my relocating and hopping around.

Did you know the average American moves 11.7 times in their lifetime?

On August 1st, when leasing season rolled around this year, I felt so incredibly good that I was staying put. That I didn’t have to: scour for boxes to pack my life away in, get all emotional going through drawers of all my things, throwing out letters, notes and odd receipts over the last however-long, heavy lifting, exhaustion, feeling unsettled, not having Internet because Comcast dude hasn’t come yet, rearranging bills, updating addresses, etc. [more]

I could definitely relate to her comfort in not having to move!  This year I have stayed put as well, which is kind of a big deal since I have moved so many times since I graduated from high school.  Here’s an illustrated summary, year by year.  My birthday is at the beginning of the year so it makes this kind of retrospective easier.  The photographic record saved on this laptop is far better after the age of 20, so I apologize for the lack of early documentation.  I do take comfort in knowing that the vast majority of the people reading this have seen more photos in my parents’ house :)

0-5 San Francisco, California. In the city, in a Victorian, near a park that had big scary swans.

5-18 Menlo Park, California. Suburbia, Silicon Valley, lots of activities for kids like me.

This is our family flag, which my mom’s flag-loving friend Ted originally sketched as a birthday gift for her.  She and my dad loved it so much that they had a seamstress sew it for them for their 10th wedding anniversary.  My mom’s last name is Swanberg and my dad’s is Forman, and the flag illustrates both names.  Swan + iceberg + four men.  Get it?  Corny, I know.  But tremendously useful for explaining what my name means in simple Chinese.  But then people follow that up with, “What does Leslie mean?”  I asked Google, and Google told me it means “meadow.”  “What’s a meadow?” The Chinese person would ask.  “Grass.”  “Can I call you grass?” “No.”  It does not help that the Chinese word for grass sounds like a bad word.

18-22 Berkeley, California. College. Lived in a dorm, sorority, quasi-cooperative.

My friend Jesus Roman took this photo of the Campanile very early in the morning.  He took the next one, of Sproul Plaza too.  It is usually packed with people, so he must have taken this at an obscenely early hour.

21 Santiago de Chile. Lived with a family for two months then with two wonderful Chilean girls. I think this was the best year of all, for so many reasons.

With Jaime and Latife from my host family.  Latife’s daughter Barbara and grandson Alejandro are not in this picture, but they were around a lot too.

With my roommates Tania and Carolina in Chile.  La Tania also lived in Beijing as a child, since her father was a diplomat, and La Caro did all of the artwork on the wall.  In Chile girls’ names usually are preceded by “La.”  I was usually called La Leslie or (far sillier) La Leslyta.

22-23 Jiaxing, China. Lived in an on-campus apartment that my students thought was huge compared with their shared dorm rooms. Eye-opening, convenient, and fun!

I lived on the 3rd floor.

23 Shanghai, China. Lived in a hostel, tiny studio, then a lovely duplex. Learned about corporate social responsibility. Strolled through the French Concession.

This was my walk to work.  I interned at the American Chamber of Commerce, which is located in the Shanghai Centre, the tall modern building in the photo.

24 Suburbia then San Francisco. Experienced intense reverse culture shock until I moved into a new place, a Victorian flat in the city with four new friends.

We lived in the blue house with the black car in front.

That house is just two blocks from Alamo Square, the picturesque photo spot I describe to non-San Franciscans as “that park they show in the credits to Full House.”

My parents always send Christmas cards with photos of my brother and me.  This is the 2008 version, taken on Thanksgiving morning, just after Ben got back from studying abroad Australia, and just before I moved to Beijing.  We had a shelf in that house with photos from every single year, all the same size, in similar frames.  My parents have since moved into a new place in San Francisco and I am not sure if it has a similar shelf.

25-26 Beijing. Spent a full year living in a place that I describe as “The Real World: Beijing.” I lived with a belly dancer from Kazakhstan, Swedish male models, a Bulgarian girl teaching English at a tennis-club kindergarten, an American journalist / big sister I never had, a French engineer who inspired me with her globetrotting green-ness, a fur designer from Moscow, a Ukrainian fur trader who came with his mom to buy wares, and many more people.  No, these people did not all live there at the same time!

Silvia from Bulgaria, whose photo is in the center, made this collage of our roommates one night when we all ate dinner together.

Then I moved in with an ambitious Aussie. Recently he moved out and I stayed put. It felt great to sign the same lease, and not move my stuff! I have a wonderful new roommate, in my comfortable, convenient, 2-bedroom.

I made breakfast yesterday.  My roommate took this photo to send to her grandmother.  I sent it to my grandma too.

So, what about you?  Where have you lived?  I want to read your list!