Carlie: Hey there. It’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.
One thing you don’t think too much about when you move overseas is what happens if or when you go back to your home country. Now, personally, I haven’t experienced this yet. I’ve just marked four years in the northern hemisphere. But plenty of friends who have moved back to Australia and other countries after time abroad tell me they found it hard to settle. They found it difficult to fit back in and relate to their old life. A few years ago, Naomi Hattaway wrote a piece for her blog called I Am A Triangle and Other Tips for Repatriation. You can find this piece at naomihattaway.com.
To say her article also resonated with other expats also struggling with the return home would be an understatement. This one piece spawned a whole community. Naomi joins me to chat about this triangle concept and the ongoing repatriation issues that are far more common than you might think. Naomi, welcome!
Naomi: Carlie, thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.
Carlie: Naomi, I was struggling with what to call you for this podcast actually. What do you refer to yourself as?
Naomi: [laughs] I refer to myself as a community-builder. And I think that goes into some of what I do – I call it my day job – as a real estate agent, and then into my 24X7 job as the steward of the community that you mentioned. But it really all comes down to building communities.
Carlie: And as I understand it, it did start from this article. But first tell me about your own experience living overseas and then coming home.
Naomi: Sure. I am married and we have three children. My husband had lived as an expat for years, with a commercial airline. And then when we met, I kind of felt as though he had gotten all of the amazing experiences, so quietly, to myself, I thought how wonderful it would be if one day we could also live abroad. And one day, sure enough, he came home and asked what I thought about India. And without missing a beat, I said, “Sure, why not?” And I think it shocked him. [laughs] I think he was expecting me to say, “Are you kidding? No!”
So off we went. We took our three kids to New Delhi and we lived there for three years. I find it interesting because Delhi is considered a hardship post, yet, because of that, I think it allowed us to find our people even quicker, because people just rallied around beside us. It was an amazing three years. But I contracted chikungunya, which is a mosquito-borne illness, and had a really hard time with that and the recovery, and so we moved to Singapore for one year, except my husband’s job didn’t follow us. So what should have been a long-term contract overseas ended up abruptly ending when we realized that it wasn’t healthy any longer for our family to live separately, and we found ourselves back in the United States.
And that lack of preparation for repatriation is what spawned the blog post.
Carlie: So what aspects of repatriation were more challenging for you than you expected them to be?
Naomi: Well, I think it’s interesting because I don’t think I thought about it at all. I think that because so much research and preparation went into the New Delhi move – because India was going to be hard, and there wasn’t proper shopping, and it was hot and humid, and poverty, and all of the things that I prepared for – I didn’t even assume that I needed to prepare to go back home.
And so, when we landed, the sudden realization, it almost hit me in the face, that I had changed so dramatically from the person I was when I left. And I literally didn’t feel as though I fit in.
So I think it’s that feeling that you don’t need to prepare to repatriate is something that I really am on a mission to help people understand that they do.
Carlie: So is this how you came to write your I Am A Triangle, infamous article?
Naomi: [laughs] Yeah, so my mom is a missionary in Kenya. And during a debrief at mission’s international training, this concept was shared with her, about the triangle. And she shared it with me in an effort, I think, to help me through the doom and gloom of my repatriation. And not until I wrote it out and sat down to create the blog post did I realize that it really did resonate.
And just quickly, for anyone who hasn’t read it, the basic premise is that in your home country you’re as if you’re with circle culture: everything is known to you – politics, food, celebrations, just the way of life is very known to you. And when you move abroad to wherever that may be, that’s as if it’s a square society, and everything is challenged. What you knew before is no longer what your existence is. You can’t stay a circle and you can’t become a square. So you actually meld into a shape that looks like a triangle – which is fine, except that when you go back home to your home country, which is circles, you don’t fit in.
So I wrote about it, and I had been blogging for years, with a couple of people commenting. And when I hit ‘Publish’ on that blog post, it resonated and it definitely hit a chord.
Carlie: So what aspects of repatriation do people not realize might be challenging?
Naomi: For those that have children, I think a lot of the common threads relate around moving from a culture inside of a school setting, that when they go back home, they don’t fit in with their peers.
Our daughter, in second grade, which I believe she was about nine, I had a phone call from her teacher. And she was a brilliant student, always very positive and did what she was told. And the teacher called one day to say that we needed a parent-teacher conference. And I was shocked because I didn’t know where that would be coming from. And it turns out my daughter had decided to not share the fact that we had lived overseas, and the teacher didn’t understand why she didn’t know US history, the US presidents, and didn’t know US currency, and thought that there must be some kind of [laughs] a learning delay.
Naomi: Yeah. And when I talked with my daughter, we realized that part of repatriation, if not dealt with, you start to stop telling your story, because you soon realize that really, people don’t know how to relate to you, and it comes across as though they don’t care. So I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s talked about in our community, is how to find people that are willing to listen to your stories and give some validation to your experiences.
Carlie: And I guess it can really affect your sense of belonging, when you don’t have those experiences in common with people back home.
Naomi: Absolutely. There are many studies – and this is something I’m very passionate about – the difference between belonging and fitting in, sometimes those are used interchangeably. Fitting in is actually the act of changing yourself so that you belong in another crowd or in a community or in a place. Belonging is when you aren’t asked to change yourself. And I think that that is so powerful.
When you live abroad, you find your people and you go about your day-to-day life, and you have your tribe. And when you come home and you don’t have those people with whom you can belong, it can be pretty devastating.
Carlie: Is it possible though to feel at home again, back in your home country, after you’ve had an experience abroad?
Naomi: I think so. I do think that you can. I think that it takes some measured tactics, and I think it takes some strategy and planning, almost a mindset of looking at that back-home trip as though it’s just another assignment. Because I think that when you go into a setting assuming something, you’re often disappointed.
One thing we talk about a lot when people approach me, about how to feel at home, I suggest first that they read the book This is Where You Belong, it’s by Melanie Warnick. And while very US-centric in her experiences, she goes through some really great, useful tips and tricks on how to settle back into your community. And one favorite that I have is to visit the same restaurant on repeat, so that they can start to get to know you, and so when you visit and go for lunch, you feel as though you belong – which I think is a really great tip.
Carlie: Because I guess that’s what you would do in a new community abroad, to feel at home, is you’d frequent the same places and try and become a regular, and have people that know you.
Naomi: Well, yes, and I think that part of where we kind of mess up in not preparing for repatriation is that when you go back home, you look the same as everyone else, you talk the same as everyone else, and the assumption is there that you should know what to do. And for many, when you’ve lived abroad, you’ve almost forgotten what normal is at home. So if you look at it as another assignment and you research with your kids, research with your partner, find some things that you can check out and things that can be exciting, instead of just waiting inside your house and hoping someone’s going to come and introduce themselves or invite you over for a drink.
Another good tip for people who are approaching or have already repatriated is that it’s not bad to seek out other like-minded people, for a time. So we always suggest in the community that people seek out other expats in their area. We actually have local groups in many cities around the world. Sometimes that’s all you need, also, to break back in, is to just sit for a spell, have a cup of tea, have someone that will listen to your stories. And then it kind of gives you a little bit of extra gas, or a little bit of extra juice, to then propel you out into your back-home community.
And find new friends – because when you go back, your friends definitely have moved on, either in physical spaces and no longer live in the same locations, or have had children or new jobs or any number of things.
Carlie: Back to your article, Naomi – one of the things that came out of that blog post was that you built an … you now manage an online community for global citizens. Tell me about how it differs from other expat groups.
Naomi: Sure. When I hit ‘Submit’ on the blog post, I didn’t envision anything happening. It was a release for me, it was an awareness that I had gathered after letting it sit. So I just hit ‘Submit’, and a few weeks later, I woke up one morning and had hundreds and hundreds of emails in my inbox from people who had seen the blog post. It resonated with them, and it was a virtual raise of their hand, for them to say “Me too.”
And the common thread in all of these emails was, first, that they thought they were alone in their struggles with repatriation, and second, that they finally felt heard. And the weight of those stories, the things that they were sharing, was too much for me to deal with on my own. So Facebook groups had been around for about a year or two, I believe, at that time. And I saw it as an opportunity to put everyone together in the same space to support each other. So early days, September 2014, I started a Facebook groups. I invited 30 of my closest friends and just said, “Can you help me provide engagement? And when I ask a question, can you help make it seem like it’s not just empty echo?”
Carlie: [Assure me] I have friends! [laughs]
Naomi: [laughs] Yes, yes. Because I knew that to build a community and to build engagement, I would need to show up everyday, but it gets lonely when you show up and no one’s responding …
Carlie: You’re talking to yourself, yeah. [laughs]
Naomi: Yeah. [laughs] Absolutely. So those 30 trusted tribe members at the beginning really did help get the ball rolling, and as of today, I think we’re at 15,600. So in just a few short years, we have grown by leaps and bounds.
Carlie: It is only a few years since you started. What have you learnt in this time, from growing and managing this community?
Naomi: Oh, my goodness! I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned so much not only about how human beings interact in social spaces, but about the psychology of that feeling, that need to belong. I’ve also learned quite a bit about, truly, that I think the only things that we need in this world are to show up and listen. Our members are extraordinarily amazing at listening to each other. And because we’re a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week group, because we’re international, someone can post a concern, a struggle, a success story, and within a matter of minutes, someone’s awake and able to respond and provide validation.
And you had asked how our group differs from others online. We’re told often that it’s the kindest space on the internet and that it’s like a warm hug, and I think that comes from our consistent push for a culture of listening first and seeking to understand the other. Because I think that’s missing … in our world today actually, is that two seconds of quiet to just let someone else tell their story.
Carlie: What advice have you seen shared on the group?
Naomi: Well, one of the things that comes up often is the importance of journaling and writing, not only to capture your feelings in a vulnerable and authentic way as they’re happening, but also to help capture the story, because all of our stories are from start to finish, it’s not just one piece of it. And I think that just by virtue of our members being in the community, that’s one of the biggest pieces of advice that comes up, is find a community where you can be heard, and where you can also give back – that’s a super important part. You, as an expat, as an immigrant, as a global citizen, you have so much to give to other people. But unless you’re inside of a community where you can give your value and give your advice, it just sits within you. So that’s one of our big topics, often, is volunteering, getting out there, sharing of yourself and giving back.
Carlie: Your Facebook community is really thriving, but interestingly, you’re about to move off Facebook completely. Can you tell me why the I Am A Triangle group is going to take this massive step?
Naomi: [laughs] So as you said that, I got a little bit of a panic. [laughs] It’s going to be a big move. Facebook is a place where studies are showing that we are addicted to, as a humankind … even little things, as silly as the three little dots that they recently introduced if you type something on Facebook …
Carlie: Oh, my gosh! So much anxiety! [laughs]
Naomi: Yes! Because you know someone’s about to say something, and it keeps you on Facebook longer and longer – which is not good for us. We need to say our piece, get our support, and then go out into the world and do something.
So we have chosen and amazing platform called Mighty Networks. It will enable us to do what I feel our community deserves, which is have more meaningful and impactful dialogue with each other. It allows us to create our own feeds that are important to us, not what Facebook engineers have determined we need to see for the day. It also allows a really great way of archiving all of the amazing expertise and advice and wisdom that has been captured in our community, so that we can share that with others down the road.
It also has a really great feature that I’m super excited about, that we are calling the Triangle Tracker, which will let people who have opted in with their profiles to literally find each other, no matter where we are in the world. And that means a layover in the Amsterdam airport, that means before someone arrives in Austin, Texas, that means when someone’s needing to ask questions about Doha, it just gives that real-time, in-person feeling that I think our community is going to be really excited about.
Carlie: Are you nervous, Naomi, about them following you? I’d be really nervous. [laughs]
Naomi: It’s been a journey for me. Because when I started the Facebook group, I didn’t know what it would become. I just started it because I knew people needed it, needed a space. And now, I’m confident that I know what’s right for the community for the future. And it’s not Facebook. Facebook has … if you almost imagine … 22-year-old engineers sitting in a room together, almost playing with what we tolerate and what they think we need, when actually, what we need is human connection. And I think that moving on to this new platform enables us to have better connection with each other.
And I am nervous, but I think that I’m going into this launch with the understanding that members who’ve been around for a long time have gotten great value from the community, and if it’s not the right fit for them to move on, they will be able to take with them a lot of lessons learned. And quite honestly, Facebook is keeping us as an exclusive group, and I’m ready for us to be truly inclusive and welcome even more members.
Carlie: Is I Am A Triangle just about repatriation or can you join this community if you’re still overseas or if you haven’t left yet?
Naomi: Oh, my goodness. So that’s been one of the really cool things about I Am A Triangle. When it started, it was focused on repatriation, and what’s it’s become is members from all walks of life, some who haven’t left yet but want to learn more about living overseas. It’s full of people who are currently in the middle of their life abroad. And it’s also full of members who are cross-country relocating. It’s not just about oceans and between your country borders.
We have missionaries, we have military, we have Peace Corps and Mercy Shippers, and spouses, and partners, we have LGBTQIA – we have everyone that runs the gamut. And it’s so cool, because everyone plays in the same sandbox together. So the short answer is no, it’s not about repatriation, it’s more about people that have experienced other cultures want to learn how to be better because of their experiences and want to give back to the community where other people are looking for support.
Carlie: And it all comes down to finding that sense of belonging, however you interpret it, and I think this community does an amazing job at providing that.
Naomi: I think so too. And it’s really … it’s not just about me and the name, it’s really about each individual community member that shows up on a regular basis to offer that. So yeah, I 100 per cent agree.
Carlie: Well, that’s it for today. If you’d like to discuss this episode, please head over to expatfocus.com. Follow the links to our forums or Facebook groups. Remember, you can read Naomi’s article at naomihattaway.com and you can check out our previous episodes of the Expat Focus Podcast – just go to expatfocus.com/podcast. You can also find them on iTunes. I’ll catch you next time.