Daily Learning Journal · The Unlikely Expat

How to Read in a Foreign Language

When I moved to the Netherlands, books were my primary language teachers. I built a respectable collection of books in Dutch, and taught myself how to read them. And within that year, I would go from struggling to understand children’s pictures books to reading whole novels. My last book of that year would be a 1,000-page novel (“Pilaren van de aarde” by Ken Follett).

Reading in a foreign language has been an incredibly rewarding experience. And here, I’ll walk you through how you can start doing it yourself.


Just being a book lover didn’t make me qualified to learn a language from books. My past failure to grasp the Turkish language proved this. I’d spent years studying that language, and with what felt like no progress.

What I needed was to change two ways that I approached the reading process:
1. Learn from context
2. Prioritize the story, not the translation.
It wasn’t until I grasped these two things that I really started learning from books.

Learn from Context

Sometimes the story and your current knowledge of the language will be enough to learn new words. 
But if you can quickly look words up online, why go through the effort of learning from context?

It’s more effective for long-term learning. When I learn a word on my own rather than from a dictionary, the word sticks out in my mind. I remember it longer than those words I learned from quick online searches that same day. They often stick out so much that I remember which books I first saw them in. 
For example: 
• The word “verpleegkundige” (nurse), I first read in “Thuis in Virgin River.”
• I learned from context the word “asiel” from reading “Papegaai vloog over de IJssel”
• The book that taught me the word “monnik” was “Pilaren van de aarde.” 
And so on. 

It gives you a sense of pride and satisfaction. When I learn a word on my own, there’s a small jolt of excited pride that follows.
This feeling is addicting, and keeps me reading further than I normally would have. It’s like finding a piece to a jigsaw puzzle, and putting it satisfyingly into place. It’s no longer just an item on a long list of translated words. You figured this word out yourself. And that makes each word feel special, more meaningful to you.

It keeps you in the flow of the story. When you look up words online, you’re leaving the book, probably getting distracted with other things while your phone is out, and forgetting the story. Looking up every unknown word gets frustrating quickly. 
But when you focus on learning from context, you’re sticking with the story. You’re observing it more closely, going over what’s happened so far. It doesn’t feel like a chore, but rather an encouragement to engage in active reading and learning. 

Prioritize the story, not the translation

When you first start learning a language, reaching fluency seems like a worthy goal to focus on. But in the long run, it can be demotivating. 
As a beginner in Dutch, I struggled to understand children’s picture books. This is, of course, entirely normal in the beginning. But with the wrong perspective, it can turn into a disaster. 

When I read with the intent on becoming fluent: not understanding a simple story can feel humiliating. I get discouraged by the slow progress, and the road to fluency looks increasingly daunting. With all of this piled against me, I’m more likely to give up and postpone the language-learning for later. Then repeat the cycle.

When I instead focus on reading the story: learning comes easier and more naturally. Translating no longer feels like a dull task, but instead a way to continue the entertainment. The unfamiliar words become a series of small mysteries. Each time I unlock a new word, I reveal more of the story. The focus shifts from what I don’t understand to what will happen next. And the more I focus on the story, the easier it is to learn from context.


Now that you have a better understanding of how to read in a way that makes learning easier, you’re ready to choose your books.
To find your ideal starter books, there are a few important qualities to look out for.

Choose Something Simple

(Picture of “Mijn Eerste Groot Leesboek”, by Richard Scarry)

A book that’s simple is one with:
• Elementary-level words
• Short sentences
• Easy enough for small children to read
The best starter books are those designed for children just beginning to read on their own.

Choose Something With Pictures

(Picture of “Frey & Vixie”)

When a book gives you pictures to accompany foreign words, you have a better chance of figuring out the words’ meaning. Pictures give you hints of what the story is, and where you are in it. And the more pictures you have to work with, the more help you have in releasing that burden of looking up the translations online.
You’re learning from context, and getting more involved in the story. 
Sometimes it’s easier to remember a word or phrase when you can connect a picture to it. This is where comic books really shine in language learning!

Choose a Familiar Story

(Picture of “Frey & Vixie”)

I had a better chance of learning foreign words when I already knew the story that encompassed them. I’d find familiar character names and places, and use those as guiding posts for where I was in the story. 
Although, if you’re learning Dutch, be prepared for familiar names to be entirely different. 
For example, when I read Harry Potter in Dutch, I didn’t read about Hermione Granger and Neville Longbottom watching Quidditch at Hogwarts. Instead, there was Hermeline Griffel and Marcel Lubbermans watching Zwerkbal at Zweinstein. 
When you’re choosing your first books to learn a language, try to skim through them for familiarity.

Choose Something Engaging

(Picture of Donald Duck Megapocket: zomer editie)

Even if I’m reading a book that’s simple, familiar, and full of pictures, I might still struggle to learn. Often, that’s because the story is dull. The more naturally I can keep my attention on the story, the better off I am in staying with that book and learning from it. 
I first learned the word “muggen” (mosquitoes) in an engaging part of a story in the Donald Duck comic book. Animal rights activists were protesting the use of bug spray which harmed the poor mosquitoes. So they released thousands of mosquitoes on people. 
This was nothing like simply coming across the word “mug” somewhere, and checking it on Google Translate. I’d have had to look it up several times before actually remembering the word. 
Here, there was humor, vivid pictures, and a ridiculous scenario. My attention was hooked, I learned from context, and I never forgot the word “mug” after that. 

Now What?
So you’ve grasped the right mindset to go into learning, and you’ve chosen your book. 
Next, I’ll show you how I went about translating.


This process prioritizes keeping the flow of the story.
Because when you have to set your book down to Google every unfamiliar word, the reading starts to feel like a tedious chore.
And from there, your interest and focus wavers, making you more likely to give up early.
Keeping with the story is the best way to make this practice a long-term habit.
Here’s how I do it.

Reading Stage

I’m going to suggest something I’ve hated for most my life: writing in books.
It’s proven to be too valuable a tool in my language-learning journal to overlook.
So yes, write in your books. But please, for the sake of the books, write in pencil, and lightly.
To start: When you’re reading, and you encounter words you don’t know:

Circle each unfamiliar word. Since we’re prioritizing keeping the flow of reading, you won’t look these words up yet.
The point of circling unfamiliar words is to acknowledge them, mark them, and continue reading.
You don’t have to circle every word you don’t know. Just those you feel might be important to the story or spark your interest.

Not every word is worth knowing. At least not in the beginning. You’ll have plenty more chances to expand your vocabulary.
Just focus on what you feel is essential to the story and your current level of fluency.

Try to learn the word from context. You might feel you need an unfamiliar word’s meaning before you can continue reading.
If that’s the case, rather than defaulting to Google Translate, try to figure the word out yourself.
Sometimes the context of the words or story surrounding that word is enough:
– What is the rest of the sentence saying?
– Do the sentences before or after this one give any clues?
– What’s going on in the story right now?
– If this is dialogue, what is the character’s personality like? What are they likely to say here?

And if the story isn’t giving you enough clues, your current knowledge of the language might help.
For example:
Say that I already know that the Dutch word “twee” means “two”.
And I later come across the word “tweeling” in my book.
The main character is talking about their sibling, but referring to them as their “tweeling.”
Since it has the word “twee” in it, I can guess that the word has something to do with “two” or “double”.
And since it’s about a sibling, it’s reasonable to assume “tweeling” refers to a “twin.” 

You won’t be able to figure out every word from context, but that’s okay. Each one you do figure out makes it worth all the effort.

Write down your guess. Each time you have an idea of what a word might mean, write down that guess in the margin. Add a question mark beside it to show that it isn’t a finished translation.
The point of this is to be more active in the self-learning phase, and remember your guess for later.
Because this still isn’t a good time to look the word up.

Continue reading. The goal is to keep the reading and translating phase as separate as possible.
Unless understanding the word’s meaning feels absolutely essential to the story, let it remain a mystery for a bit longer.
Only when you’ve found a good stopping place in the book should you move on to the next stage.
A good stopping place might be the end of a paragraph, a page, or a chapter. Whatever feels more natural to you.
Once you’ve found a good stopping place in your book, it’s time to start translating.

Translating Stage

Look up the word. Now you can go back to the words you’ve circled and guessed translations for.
For individual words, I prefer Reverso Context over Google Translate. It lists all the meanings this word can have, as well as sentences this word is included in to understand it in context.

Write down the translation. After you’ve found the translations for your new words, write them down.
You can do this in the margin of your book, are on a separate piece of paper. I recommend the latter. It allows you to keep all your new vocabulary in one place for easy reviewing later, and it can double as a bookmark.
Keep your notes as clear and short as possible, and note the page number you found each word on.
This paper will come in handy when you’re reading later and come across a word you feel you’ve already learned, but can’t quite remember what its translation is.
If you find multiple translations for one word, just write the most appropriate for the context of the sentence you found it in.

(Note: If you plan to donate or sell the book after you’re finished reading it, remember to erase those pencil marks first!)


Once you have a list of new words, you might be intimidated to remember them all.
This is where developing a learning routine and organizing your accumulating knowledge can come in handy.

Keep a language-learning journal

Learning a language is an immense task, and it’s best done with time and repetition. Having a place you can record what you learn and visit daily for reviewal is a tremendous help. You can keep a paper notebook, or use my free TIL (Today I Learned) Journal template in Notion. The template will help you to keep your entries highly organized and easy to access.
If you want advice on how to keep a daily learning journal and structure your entries, my post Guide to the TIL Journal in Notion—as well as my other posts on the TIL journal—can give you an idea on where to begin.

Choose your words, and record them in your journal. For a day’s entry, record the words you’ve learned. Not all of them though. You don’t want to overload yourself with 50 translations in one day.
Choose the ones you consider more important and likely to come across later. Or just choose words that interest you. Or words whose meaning you guessed correctly and want to remember with pride.
Choose what you most want to remember.

Give your words context. This is where a little creativity is needed on your part. 
Find a sentence (either from your book or Reverso Context) that has your newly learned word. 
Then write around it to give it more context, so your memory of the word can be better triggered when you revisit the page. 

For example: 
Say you find a sentence with an unfamiliar word: “hoestje.” 
The full sentence: “Het is niets, alleen maar een hoestje.” 

You might already know the rest of the sentence: “It is nothing, just a _____.”
You look the unfamiliar word up, learn that “hoestje” means “cough,” and write it down. 
But will you remember that? 

What if you added more context to this sentence?

Roger came into work hacking and wheezing with the rattle of a clunker car. His nose burned bright red, and his eyes watered. His colleagues kept their distance as he stumbled to his desk and sat down. It was flu season, and no one wanted to get sick. 

The man in the cubicle opposite him poked his head over the wall.
“Are you sick Roger?” he asked. “Wouldn’t you like to go home and rest?” 
Nee,” Roger’s raspy voice replied. He waved him off, giving a few close-mouthed puffs as he suppressed another hacking fit. 
“I’m not sick. Het is niets. Nothing to worry about. Alleen maar een hoestje.” 

Now, you have a story you can connect this word to. A familiar place for it to settle down in inside your memory.
Obviously, this takes more effort than a simple writing the word and its direct translation. But if you really want a word to stick, I recommend giving it your own context!

Review your notes consistently

To get those words to your long-term memory, review them every so often. Even if it’s just five minutes a day.
If you’re using my TIL Journal template in Notion, you can set which entries you want to review, and find them on the study view. 
After you’ve studied one, it goes to the bottom of the page, and those that haven’t been seen the longest go to the top.

When you keep your notes on your phone, this also makes for a perfect substitute for social media scrolling. Whether you’re waiting in line, taking the bus, or just bored and have that urge to grab your phone for some kind of mental stimulation, you can choose that moment to look over your language notes.


After some time of reading colorful children’s books, you’ll eventually get restless to advance to higher-level reading.
Be patient, you’ll get there in time!
Here’s some advice to help you level up in your books:

Choose books that aren’t too hard, aren’t too easy, but just right. You can figure out if a book is too difficult for you by reading a few pages or so. Circle every unknown word you come across. This gives you a visual of just how much you know and don’t know.
Can you still follow the story well enough before translating these words?
If the whole page gets filled with circles, take that as a hint that this book is beyond your current optimal studying level.
Having too many unfamiliar words that you can’t grasp from the context of pictures or story will feel like a chore, because you’ll have to look them up one by one. And the more you have to translate, the more the flow of the story is jolted, and loses its appeal.

Stick with familiar books. I’ve mentioned sticking with a story you already know when choosing your starter book. This still applies as you advance to more difficult reading. If you were a bookworm from childhood, you have the advantage of having a wide range of familiar stories at different reading levels.
For example:
After I read simple Disney storybooks in Dutch, I “graduated” myself to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books. Later, I’d reach the “Harry Potter” reading level. And several books later, Ken Follett’s “Pilaren van de Aarde”.

Set reading goals. Like many beginner language learners, I wanted to read Harry Potter first. This would prove to be a more challenging starter book than I was ready for, and I had to set the book aside. But instead of this being a wasted effort, the book served as a goal book.
Every so often in my first months of reading in Dutch, I would refer to my Dutch translation of the Harry Potter book. I’d skim a few pages to see how much more I could understand. And seeing just a little bit of improvement was a huge encouragement!
Setting a goal book is more motivating than the vague and massive goal of “I’m going to become fluent in Dutch.”
This is smaller, with clear signs of how much progress you need towards understanding it.
When you get a book and realize that it’s beyond your current fluency, don’t get discouraged.
It’s just a new goal book to reach later down the road!


Have reasonable expectations from reading. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but reading alone will not make you a fluent speaker.
Reading in your foreign language will help you in many ways. You’ll improve your vocabulary. You’ll get better and better at reading. You learn to consume the language better.
But forming your own sentences and actually thinking in the language cannot be improved by reading alone. Practicing writing improves writing. Practicing speaking improves speaking. So if your reading motivations are fueled by social anxiety and the determination to improve speaking skill while avoiding speaking, I’m sorry. Reading won’t get you there.

Expand beyond reading books.

• Combine reading with listening to an audiobook.
Set the audiobook to a slower speed, one you can follow easily. Try this with something you’ve already read before to make this even easier, so you can prioritize listening to how each word sounds.

• Watch children’s shows in your target language.

• Use Duolingo to get a sense of the grammar rules, the sentence structure, and common words.

• Use apps like Tandem to practice the language by texting or talking with people who are native/fluent in it.

• Watch Youtube tutorials to get free grammar lessons and a grasp of the pronunciation.

• Talk with locals in person if you’re in the right country for it. 

Final Words

Reading alone doesn’t get one to perfect fluency in a language. One has to practice listening, writing, and speaking as well. 

But reading is still invaluable, especially as an expat. I use this skill daily to read labels on groceries, follow instructions for household appliances, read notices, fill out forms, check emails, follow street signs, review our local newspaper, and so on. 

And besides being useful, it’s also been a satisfying journey as a book lover! 
I remember the first time I laughed at a joke I read in Dutch. 
The first time I was horrified in Dutch (thank you, translation of a Stephen King novel). 
And when I was moved to tears by a movie’s dialogue in Dutch. 
It’s a magical feeling to see that books have gotten me so far that I can connect to a language on an emotional level.

And not only that, but it’s also expanded my options of books to read! A couple I’ve read haven’t even been translated to English yet. It’s like unlocking a second life, where not everything can entirely overlap with the first.

I still have a long way to go in other areas of language learning. But in reading, I’m thrilled with how far books have taken me!
I hope you all enjoy your journey as much as I have.
If you have any questions or comments, let me know below!

The Unlikely Expat

The Homebody Expat: Part III

Unlike my little hometown, Istanbul would not wake me to the sound of sweet birdsong and soft breezes through trees. On the contrary…

From our windows came the calls of jackdaws: a clever sort of bird, black and gray with pale blue eyes.
Once they discovered that I would leave out leftover bread outside the kitchen window, they would call to me for more in the mornings, sometimes coming to the bedroom to peck the window if I was still asleep.

The dogs guarding the shops across the street were never off-duty.
They barked at the men who pulled heavy white carts.
These men scour the streets and garbage bins for anything that can be sold for recycling, and toss it into their giant cart.
And when they went down the steep hill of our street, they would lean back, using the heels of their worn shoes and the metal frame of the cart as a makeshift brake system.
Metal against asphalt screeches as they slide, the dogs chasing them along the way—barking, and nipping at their heels until they feel they’ve successfully scared away the “intruder”, and return to their station.

When there was something to celebrate, such as a wedding, everyone was to be informed (whether they wanted it or not).
Honking. So much honking by a parade of cars down the street.
Even if the traffic brought them to a complete stop below our apartment, all the cars would proceed to honk at no one and at everyone all at once.
It wasn’t uncommon for some to bring a gun, and fire into the air from their cars.

Semi trucks were regular visitors on our street.
They struggled and groaned and puffed exhaust gas as they climbed the hill to the intersection beneath our window.
The trucks would often be too big to navigate the intersection without the help of people from the street shouting directions over the noise of the truck (“Gel, gel, gel, gel, gel, gel!”) amidst the impatient honks of waiting traffic.

For the two years I would spend in Istanbul, my sensitive self would be in a constant state of overstimulation to the city.

Rather than face my discomfort of the noise and the crowds, I would stay at home.
I would miss out on what I could have explored. And Istanbul has much more to offer than one noisy street!
I wouldn’t make friends, nor improve my Turkish speaking skills, being too shy to speak with anyone.

Many people would be outraged to hear this. How dare I not take full advantage of the expat experience!
And I can’t debate them on this.

I may have traveled across the world, but I took my little bubble of a comfort zone with me. And that bubble only extended to the walls of our tiny apartment.
I didn’t become one of those inspiring stories about a shy, small-town girl being transformed by her new world into an enthusiastic explorer.
Although I deliberately tried to adapt to this new life, something in my subconscious kept me stubbornly maladapted. Unchangeable.

With all of this said, you can imagine how much of this expat life is completely against my character. And I’ve only covered the noise aspect!
And yet…
I loved it.

The Unlikely Expat

The Homebody Expat: Part II

“Close your eyes, tap your heels together three times, and think to yourself,
‘there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.'”

I would stay in Turkey to visit my partner and his family for three months.
Three months in a massive, crowded, noisy city which sharply contrasted from the quiet, sheltered life I’d grown up in and loved.
Three months of being overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety, curiosity, and admiration.

And when I returned to my quiet little town, I’d expected to appreciate the quiet living more than ever before. And I did.
There was a shift. An unsettled feeling within me that I couldn’t shake.
I wasn’t comfortable at home anymore.
Where was the variety, the excitement, the chaos?

Before I had traveled outside the US, I’d looked at my hometown with the assumption of “this is as good as it can get.”
But now, my eyes were set to a new filter: everything I saw now, I had somewhere else to compare it with:

The traffic here is more peaceful than in Istanbul… But the drivers are less cautious as a result. They don’t respond to problems as fast here.”

I like waking up to sweet birdsong here, rather than the crows and honking cars of the city.”

The food in Turkey is so much better than American food.”

“Why are we all wearing our outside shoes inside?!”

But here’s the thing: I didn’t feel a longing to move to Istanbul. I didn’t miss everything about Turkish culture or big city life.
In fact, if I were to choose which feels more like home, I still would have chosen my small town in a heartbeat.
Only now, I wasn’t satisfied with it.

There is a special word for such a feeling. One which you won’t find in any dictionary besides that of John Koenig’s “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.”
This word is “ozurie.”
He describes it as that feeling that Dorothy must have felt upon returning home from Oz. That “maddening state of tension, trying to live in two worlds at once.”
Which will it be—Kansas or Oz?
“Do you plunge into a Technicolor riot of what might be, harsh and delirious and confusing? Or do you accept the humble beauty of ordinary life, where nothing ever changes and everything is simple?
“…Soon enough, life will offer you an answer. But for the moment, you are like Dorothy, sitting up in her bed, trying to decide which pair of slippers she wants to wear today. Black or ruby? Black or ruby?”

My sense of where “home” is hadn’t just moved from one place to another.
It became scattered, to a point where neither option could satisfy me completely.
There was no moving anywhere to fix the feeling.
I was determined to wait for this discomfort to fade. I needed it to fade.
I needed to feel at home again.
I wasn’t Dorothy, dreaming of traveling over the rainbow.
I was a homebody.
A mousey, introverted, socially-anxious homebody.
I wanted to feel at home without having to face the new, the foreign, the unexpected.

As I waited, I tried to satisfy this discomfort.
I dyed my hair red.
I rescued ferrets to take care of and give a luxurious life.
I turned the music in my car loud, and sang my frustration into the night.
But after nearly a year, that feeling hadn’t faded.

And there were new problems.
The immigration process for my partner to come here would prove more time-demanding and dispiriting than we’d counted on. Not to mention the racism he’d faced by my countryfolk in his short visits here still burned painfully (and embarrassingly) in my mind.

So it was time to decide: What if I go there instead?

And within one month of that question, I was back on that plane to Istanbul.
This time, with a one-way ticket.

The Unlikely Expat

The Homebody Expat: Part I

The Step Out the Door

“The Ozarks is where I belong.”

This wasn’t a declaration of pride, but rather a simple, subconscious inner agreement that I was satisfied where I was:
in my small hometown, where things felt familiar, predictable.

As an introvert with high levels of social anxiety, these were desirable qualities. I wanted peace and comfort; not adventure and surprises.
The rest of the world was just a story I wasn’t interested in reading. A book to keep on a high shelf and collect dusty cobwebs.

But love can make you do crazy things.

Four years before I became a world traveler, I met my partner. A foreigner who lived across the world, and was only visiting the US for the summer. We would cope with being in a long distance relationship for those years, our only reprieves being the few summers he could visit me.
But eventually, it would be my turn to visit him.

By this time, I was 23 years old.
I had never stepped foot outside the USA.
Had never been on a plane on my own.
Had never even ventured more than 2 hours from home by myself.
And was no less burdened by my oppressive social anxiety.

But here I was, not taking just a teensy step outside my comfort zone.
But instead, going on a solo trip that would last 24 hours, flying me across the world to Istanbul, Turkey.

The Unlikely Expat

The Overlooked Trials of Grocery Shopping as an Expat

It was my first morning in the Netherlands.
I got out of bed, light on my feet, the air charged with my own exhilaration.
I poured my cereal, and stood looking out the window at my new home of Rotterdam as I took my first bite—
And spit it out.
Sour milk.
I looked again at the liter of milk, and asked Google Translate what I’d done wrong.
My very first, excited purchase in this country had, indeed, been buttermilk for my cereal.

My heart sank with that familiar heaviness of discouragement.
I’d just spent two years in Turkey, relearning how to adapt to that new world.
And now, I had to relearn things all over again.

In the US, grocery shopping had been a mundane affair.
I knew exactly what I liked from years of experience and from simply growing up with my family’s trusted brands.
But when I moved abroad, the comfortable familiarity vanished.
And suddenly, I had to figure out what the decent prices are and what I like all over again.
With everything.

As someone who strives to be a smart shopper, and whose indecision nearly matches that of Chidi Anagonye in “The Good Place,” grocery shopping was mentally exhausting for me in the beginning.
Which grocery stores are the best choices, considering quality and price?
Are these more expensive dish soap brands worth trying?
Will any of these lotions soothe my cracking, wintery hands?
And the questions continued. From food to cleaning supplies to hygiene and self-care products.

Being as thrifty as I am, learning through trial and error has been emotionally painful.
From eating my terrible food choices, to donating products I regretted getting.
But throughout this past year, I’ve gotten a better grasp of this small part to being an expat in the Netherlands.

This meant learning enough Dutch to not even feel bothered when Google Translate (offline) told me that “vloeibare ontstopper” is “liquid blame,” rather than a drain cleaner.
I can now just read the labels and instructions on the bottle instead.

It meant figuring out what brands I prefer, like which chocolate will get me through the rainiest and windiest days here.

It meant getting the hang of the store hours in the Netherlands— some opening as late as noon, or closing as early as 5:30pm!

It meant noticing which products go up for sale frequently, so I could stock up on them accordingly.

And a very important part of adapting to life here: becoming an expert at purchasing only as much as can fit on my bicycle!

Grocery shopping is only a small part of expat life.
There is so much more to learn and get used to in a new country!
To the point that, with all of it added up, it can feel overwhelming.
But, it gets easier.
And eventually, even in this foreign land, that sense of comfortable familiarity returns to you.

The Unlikely Expat

The Sentimental Expat: Obsession with Memories

When a Homebody Becomes an Expat

When I saw that orange box of Arm&Hammer baking soda in the aisle, I must have perplexed the customers around me as I suppressed a scream of excitement and ran to it, eyes glittering. This, strangely enough, was a reminder of my homeland.
This was an unexpected part of me becoming an expat.
Not all of us adapt to living abroad with ease. Some of us were homebodies before we left our homeland, and become a bit too sentimental over our memories when we move.

The Cloak of Homeland Memories

When we move to a new country, there is a lot to adapt to. New languages, new people, new cultures, new stores, new jobs, new mannerisms, new bank accounts, new lifestyles. And for some of us, it’s hard to adapt to so many changes at once.
So we dawn on our cloak of homeland memories. Its cloth is made of warm, fluffy nostalgia that you can’t help but wrap yourself tightly in. It has images of your favorite memories printed all over. It has a special, warm smell of your sense of “home”. It makes you feel safe and secure as long as you’re wearing it. It’s a security blanket to cling to in foreign lands, when everything else feels uncertain.
But people like me tend to wear it too tightly. To draw the hood so far down that we hide ourselves from the new world, and it from us.

We see only what reminds us of home.
We concentrate only on smells that take us back.
We listen only for the familiar.
We live only for memories.

The Power of Memory Triggers

The breeze brushes against my face. I inhale. There’s a faint yet familiar scent.
Sun-warmed grass and August wildflowers.
My mind convulses as I’m jolted into the reliving of cherished moments in the US. I swim in the bliss of that fond memory for a moment, and crave to find that precise aroma again so that I can revisit it. I become frustrated when that moment ends.
In an instant, my cheerful mood is mutated into lonely melancholy.
All within one breath.

Among our senses, smell is the most powerful in triggering vivid and emotional memories.
Sadly for me, I have a hypersensitive sense of smell. And I’m sentimental. So this means that I have the “pleasure” of recalling such intense, abrupt memories often. My past is always intermingled with the present.

I enjoy wearing the cloak of homeland memories. But it doesn’t come without its risks. If you wear it long enough, homesickness overwhelms you. Any little thing can make your heart ache with longing. You’re plagued by the constant reminder that you can’t live in two places at once, no matter how much may you want to. That when you’re living in one country, you’re missing out on another.

The Danger of Unauthentic Memories

When we miss something, we tend to visit only their best features in our recollections. And when we’re left alone with these one-sided memories long enough, our perspective becomes skewed. This is how we set ourselves up for a truly unpleasant experience:
The reverse culture shock.
It is returning to our homeland, only to be stupefied when it doesn’t match our expectations and mental image we’d been carrying. It is having an emotional breakdown in a Perkins Restaurant not an hour from leaving the airport, because everything about home now feels so foreign.

It’s a scary reality to face, when we realize we don’t recognize our own homeland anymore. And more often, it’s not the country that’s changed, but ourselves. The experiences of travel changes us and how we perceive the world.

The Fragility of Nostalgia

I get that familiar scent of grass, and am again brought back to the bliss of recollection. But something else happens. Every time I’m hit by this nostalgia, the breeze seems to take just a bit of that intensity with it.
The cost of remembering becomes forgetting.
Forgetting that special sensation. Diluting it, until it becomes but a memory of something special; a feeling which I can no longer conjure it to its original strength.

No matter how tightly I might wrap the cloak of homeland memories around me, it begins to lose its warmth. The coziness fades, and discomfort increases.
Because I begin to change. I adapt to my new surroundings. I start to associate these memory triggers not just with my past, but also with where I am now. The past blends with the present.

So I develop a possessiveness over my memories. A desperate desire to keep them secret, keep them safe.
“If I just don’t think of them, maybe they won’t fade.” But memories always come to the surface, even in a foreign land. There’s just no stopping it.

Letting Them Go

Since I moved abroad, I’ve lost that concrete sense of what “home” is supposed to feel like.
I feel a part of it now in three different countries, but not completely in any of them.
I think it is this reason that I tend to cling to those memories that felt most like home. Because that feeling is harder to grasp now. That cloak of homeland memories makes me feel safe, secure, and certain.

But we cannot live in the past and the present at the same time. And even if we do hold on to the past with all our emotional strength and desperation, it won’t be enough. Because memories, no matter how precious, are subject to change. Whether it’s their form, their intensity, or our feelings toward them.

But that’s alright. Because life is not about staying the same. Things grow, things change, and things pass. And if we’re stuck in place dreaming of what was, we’re missing out on what matters now.
Learning to loosen our slack on the memories doesn’t mean forgetting everyone and everything in our homeland. It’s about keeping a healthy balance.
Otherwise, our hearts and minds would stay cluttered with the past.
Why not, instead, clear some space to allow ourselves to breathe?
Sometimes we must be okay with allowing some things to fade, and new things to grow.
With allowing ourselves to grow.

Our memories demand careful care:
Hold on too tightly, and the sorrow will consume us.
Change the memories to our liking, and we make our reality disappointing.
Grieve our human tendency to forget, and we’ll miss the opportunity to live.

And that concludes it!
If you could relate to this obsession with memories in your own life, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Thank you for reading!