There is plenty that has been written about the challenges of expatriation and how to successfully adjust to life as an expat. Organizations often provide extensive support, including training programs, to employees whom they send on overseas assignments, and the books that talk about how to succeed as an expat could fill whole libraries. Unfortunately however, the challenges of repatriation – which almost every expat must eventually deal with, and which are often equally formidable – tend to be ignored.This isn’t entirely surprising. Leaving behind the country you’ve grown up in, with its people, language, culture, and everything else you’re so familiar with, is obviously a challenging experience. On the other hand, many people tend to assume that returning to your own country can only be joyous, comfortable, reassuring, and easy, like coming back home after a tough day at work.
However, in reality that’s not quite true. Returning to your home country after having been an expat can be as difficult as the first few months of living abroad. In fact, because of the vast gap between what people expect from repatriation and the reality of what happens when they come home, it can sometimes be even more difficult. As painful as the experience is, suffering through homesickness, disorientation, culture shock, and depression as an expat is somewhat easy to wrap your head around. However, acknowledging and addressing the same feelings upon repatriation can be considerably more difficult.
The Challenges of Coming Back Home
What’s called ‘reverse culture shock’ is a large part of what makes repatriation so difficult, and the phenomenon is exactly what it sounds like – the whole experience of culture shock, but as a result of returning to a life in your own country. For most expats, it doesn’t take too long for their adopted country to become home. They adapt to the local way of living, they appreciate and even take for granted the benefits of living in their new part of the world, and dealing with the challenges becomes second nature to them. Returning to their home country disrupts all of this and requires a lot of adjustment.
It isn’t even entirely a question of readjustment to what was once familiar, although this is certainly a part of it. Places change over time, and the country an expat comes back to is often quite a different place from the one they left. Expats come home expecting the warmth of familiarity, but instead feel alienated and out of place, while missing the place and culture they’ve left behind. Feeling homesick in a place you once thought of as home can be incredibly hard to come to terms with.
In addition, being an expat often changes you deeply, beyond the habits and lifestyle you adopt to deal with your surroundings. Expats often experience deep and lasting changes in their personalities and attitudes, and these make it necessary to renegotiate their relationships with their home countries and cities.
Friends and family may often be unable to understand and accept these changes, which can make it difficult to pick up and continue old relationships from where they were left off. Attitudes that you once shared may seem naïve or parochial, and it may be difficult to explain why. Friends may also not be as interested in hearing about your experiences and perspectives as you are about sharing them.
Language can also be a problem for expats who return from a location where they needed to learn the local language, especially if they used it often enough to begin thinking in it while lacking opportunities to use their native tongue. Many expats also find that their native accent changes. This is a completely normal phenomenon, but one that friends and family back home often don’t understand and might laugh at.
Another aspect of repatriation that is often uncomfortable and disappointing is the loss of one’s expat status. As an expat, you almost inevitably stand out – you’re different from the locals, and in both professional and personal settings, they may often take an interest in you that they otherwise wouldn’t. Expats often get special treatment, whether overtly or subtly, and although there are unpleasant aspects to this, it becomes an important part of your life. However, when you return home, you’re a local, just like everyone else. If being an expat has become a defining aspect of your identity, losing that aspect can be quite painful and disorienting.
The professional world throws up its own repatriation challenges too. Expat professionals develop skills and ways of working that are often unused when they return home, resulting in boredom and frustration. Sometimes, even the smoothness with which things run – which expats frequently missed while they were away – can make work dull and predictable, and expats miss the challenge and excitement of working in a less organized professional world. In addition, just like friends and family, colleagues in your home country may lack a global, international perspective, which can be quite frustrating.
Of course, the extent to which all of this is experienced depends on many factors, including how long you’ve been an expat and how many times you have repatriated, how long you lived overseas and the extent to which you immersed yourself in the culture, and how different the two cultures are from each other. The circumstances of your return are also a factor – expats who are compelled by their circumstances to return home often find it more difficult to come to terms with repatriation.
Tips for a Successful Repatriation
Temper your expectations: It’s important to be realistic about the repatriation experience. A lot of the pain of repatriation comes from unrealistic expectations meeting harsh realities. Don’t expect everything to simply fall into place, and don’t expect a return to your pre-expat life. Expect complications and disappointments, and expect a period of adjustment. Well before you head home, talk to friends and family, do a bit of research to find out how things work, and consider all the ways in which you will need to adjust.
Take the time to say goodbye: Start saying your goodbyes as soon as you know you will be heading back home. Work at ticking things off your must-see and must-do lists, including food and travel of course, but also anything else you have been planning. Meet local friends and plan a farewell party close to your date of departure. Towards the end, do a bit of shopping for local foods, clothes, arts and crafts, and anything else you might want that won’t be available back home. Of course, it’s impossible to do absolutely everything you want to do, so don’t feel too bad if a few things remain undone. Focus on the most important items on your list, and take enough photographs to look back at later.
Stay positive and hopeful: This may sound like vague, generic advice, but it’s one of the most important things you need to do when you get back home. Maintain a positive and hopeful attitude, and remember that much of the way you’re feeling right now will simply subside with time. You have already proven to yourself at least once that you can adjust to life in a different country, so you will certainly get over reverse culture shock just like you got over culture shock when you first began your life as an expat. Of course, certain aspects of repatriation will require effort, but there too, your attitude will help you.
Work at reconnecting: Just like you worked at building a network of friends abroad, you’ll now need to work at reconnecting with old friends and family in your own country. Don’t assume that these relationships will automatically return to where they once were. The closest, deepest ones probably will, but others will take a little more effort. While you were away, people back home will have moved on with their lives, and many of them will have changed considerably. Groups that you were a part of will have developed a new dynamic. This can be disappointing, but don’t let it discourage you.
Talk to people about the way you feel: Not everyone will want to hear about your expat experiences and perspectives, your comparisons, your insights, and your struggles. However, everyone has at least one friend who’s always there to listen to them, and if you’re lucky you’ll have several. It’s important to talk to them, in order to better process the past and the way you’re feeling at present, and also to simply get things off your chest. It will also help your friends understand how you’ve changed and will bring you closer together.
Keep in touch with the friends you made overseas: Maintain regular contact with your friends abroad. Many expats lose contact with their overseas friends, especially during the upheaval of the first few months back home. It is of course in itself important to sustain these relationships, but in addition, these friends will be a useful support network while you work at reconnecting with friends and family in your home country.
Embrace being an ex-expat: Don’t be apologetic or try to hide the ways in which you have changed since you last lived in your home country. It’s impossible to undo your expat experiences and how they have changed you, or even to compartmentalize them beyond a point. You may no longer be an expat, but you are also no longer who you were before you became an expat. Like many expats, you may never fully feel like a local again, either abroad or at home. Whatever the case may be, embrace the new you. Of course, it’s also important to be flexible and open to further change.
Get your organization to help: Ideally, organizations should have proper repatriation programs in order to help expat employees and their families when they return home. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations still don’t realize how important and helpful this can be. Find out about how your organization can support you – some organizations offer training courses on repatriation, for example. If they don’t currently have a plan in place, encourage them to develop one. The organization should also plan your job role keeping in mind your experiences, skills, and responsibilities as an expat. If this is not available, read up and talk to other expats who have returned home.
Look for opportunities to use your expat skills and experiences: If your organization is unable to provide you with the opportunities to use your skills and experiences, don’t be afraid to look for these elsewhere. This could be a new job of course, but it could also be entirely unrelated to work. For example, if you learned the local language, look for opportunities to continue speaking it and even to study it further. You may be able to work with native speakers who are now expats in your home country, who will appreciate your familiarity with both languages and cultures. Find out if you can contribute photographs and articles to expat websites or organizations. If nothing else, you can do something small-scale and personal, such as maintaining a blog about your experiences or cooking a meal from your expat destination for your friends and family.
Help your family to cope with repatriation too: Your family members will be going through their own challenges, which may vary in their specifics and intensity depending on various factors including their age and what they were doing while all of you were abroad. Often, partners and children struggle the most, because they don’t have the support of an organization or the distraction of work to help them settle into their new lives. The tips provided here will be useful to them too, and in addition, it’s important for family members to be supportive of and sensitive to each other’s needs.