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When Americans Come Home

We hear a lot about repatriation being just as difficult as re-locating in the first place. Usually I wonder how I would fare, moving back to England after twenty six years in the USA, but a comment on a friend’s Facebook page made me wonder what it’s like for Americans moving back to the States after years abroad.American writer Bill Bryson returned to the States after twenty years in the UK. He penned “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” chronicling his repatriation experience, and returned to the UK with his family eight years later. Hmmmm. Perhaps his most well-known reflection is “Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking up from a long coma. Time, you discover, has wrought changes that leave you feeling mildly foolish and out of touch. ”

American Kat Williamson repatriated to North Dakota eight months ago after seven years in England. Although her two daughters settled in very quickly (thanks to organized after school activities to avoid missing UK friends), Kat still doesn’t feel completely settled and describes herself as initially “…so overwhelmed by choice. I just don’t understand why you would need 15 types of Oreos. The size of the stores is also overwhelming. I walked into a big box craft store and had to leave after ten minutes because I went into sensory overload.”

Similarly, writer Kathy Flake still feels unsettled even though she returned two years ago after ten years in the UK. Kathy told me she’s “… still not settled, in some ways. Almost daily I discover something that’s changed, that I’d forgotten, or that didn’t exist when I lived here before. Moving to an entirely new place made it worse, probably. And I expect the DC area, where I live, is difficult for anyone to get used to.”

Repat surprises cover the gamut. Kat reflects “The biggest surprise was how hard it was to relate to other Americans again. I made a joke with a coworker once and it hurt her feelings because I was just used to taking the mick* with people in the UK (even people I didn’t know overly well) and it rolling off their backs. Also, you return, your friends have moved on, the things that you were used to doing are changed, even grocery shopping is different. You just have to be ready for it and almost treat it like you’re moving abroad again and not repatriating.”

For Kathy it was “…the difficulty of driving in the US. It took me a while to get up the courage to make a right turn at a red light—that felt so wicked! I also learned that, while I was a fearless driver in the UK, here in the US I’m scared to get on the interstate…. Every day I long for the familiar – and safe – roundabouts.”

Like Bill Bryson, she sometimes feels foolish in the country she grew up in. “Every time I ask for the “toilet” at a restaurant. When I ask for “tea” and receive iced tea instead of proper hot tea. When I forget what they call the motorways here. When I hear passersby speak and I think, “oh, they’re American too!” and then I have that moment where it hits me again: yes, I’m in America and most people here are American. I’m no longer the odd one with my flat American accent.”

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Kat and Kathy’s advice to repatriating Americans is –

Kat – do research beforehand about cell phone carriers and other “must haves” when you are still abroad. The cost of just phone service is double what I was paying in the UK and with fewer “perks”.

Kat – realize that nobody cares what it was like when you lived abroad. It’s a nice footnote, but unless they’ve lived abroad themselves it’s really not on their radar and they really could not care less.

Kathy adds – It helps if you have some passing knowledge of your new area. If you’re moving to an entirely new place, try to visit at least once, with a mind toward living there. I didn’t, and felt like I’d been plopped down on Mars. Also, find something you like about the new place, and focus on that.

For more repatriation tips, refer to this WSJ article by Elizabeth Vennekens-Kelly. Elizabeth advises that “Successful repatriation comes by acknowledging that you’re not returning to the same circumstances that existed when you left. We all change with time and experience. However, expats tend to change more dramatically than the people who remained back home. Patience, optimism, and good communication serve to smooth out the bumps of your journey.”

*taking the mick – British term for making fun of someone.

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