Repatriation is the hardest move of all. Or so they say. Although I am currently still in the middle of expat life, I researched this subject recently for a presentation. The audience? A group of expats about to embark to the plane to their next destination. Their previous experience with repatriation had been challenging.
The Challenge of Change
What makes repatriation challenging? My conclusion is pretty obvious: change. An expat assignment changes you. And life and friends back home change too, sometimes in subtle ways that you perhaps hadn’t noticed during your annual leave. We come back and expect everything to be familiar, but it’s not. And even when it is, you are not the same person anymore.
It reminds me of coming back home after my fantastic gap year in Spain. Conversation at the dinner table with my parents was exactly the same. But as I sat there I felt how much I had changed- or grown up perhaps, I was 18 at the time. It wasn’t just my hair that looked different, interacting with so many different nationalities had changed my world view. It took me a few weeks lost in thought on my parent’s couch to process the transition before embarking on my next adventure: student life.
A friend concluded after her recent repatriation that her friends had stopped asking questions about China very quickly, and she had stopped sharing her experiences too. Her friends were happy for her that she had a wonderful time, but they just weren’t that interested in what expat life was like in the Middle Kingdom. Her husband had a reverse culture shock back in the boring office, after the excitement – and frustrations- of closing deals in China. They were happy to be back, but missed their Beijing buddies.
So, what to do to make repatriation easier?
- Grief is ok. First of all, realize that your move may involve grief- saying goodbye to friends and special places, like the park where your baby took his first steps, saying goodbye to work and colleagues. Even though you may be very happy to return home, it is the end of an era to put it dramatically. And if you’ve lived in several countries, is home still really home for you?
- Manage your expectations. You will not be able to do this move on autopilot just because you speak the language and know where the train station is. Friends may have moved on, older relatives passed away. And moving to the same country but to another city may also be a cultural shock.
- Find some other (former) expats. Sharing experiences helps apparently. I am truly grateful to have some Beijing buddies still in my life here in Brunei
Other experiences or tips? I’d love to hear read your comments and experiences below.
Here’s some links to experiences from returning expats:
- Repatriation Blues at the Wall Street Journal Blog
- Back to the USA after 5 years in Korea
- And one in Dutch- waar loop je als voormalig expat partner zoal tegenaan op de Nederlandse arbeidsmarkt?