When you are returning to your passport country after you’ve spent some time abroad you may not really feel “at home”. Expats generally learn to adapt to their host locations and in the most positive case, end up to behave and think like locals. Even if they had some troubles adapting to the host country, when they repatriate, they often experience a reverse culture shock also known as “re-entry shock” or “own culture shock”:
I wouldn’t say “any other place in the world”, maybe “any other place you’ve lived”? I definitely feel more foreign in my passport country than in the places I’ve lived in. The main reason, in my case, is that I’ve never lived in my passport country and feel more like a tourist who just happens to know the language and some people who live there (family and great friends!). I’m quite familiar with the culture and some habits of my passport country, but I don’t really feel connected to the place, the country.
Since I have children I feel more responsible to know as much as I can about my passport country, the culture, the traditions, the history. But as I described in another post, being an expat German is not that easy, at least not in the countries I’ve lived in. I’m wondering if this “feeling more foreign in the passport country” depends on our nationalities. Are there nationalities, expats or TCK’s feel more comfortable with or that makes it easier for them to (re)adjust once they repatriate? Or is it easier to repatriate from a country that is culturally closer to our passport country?
Returning to the passport country for someone who grew up abroad may depend on the moment the repatriation takes place. Personally I think that the easiest time to repatriate is before one turns 5 (!) but I don’t think that it’s easier for children in general. As soon as they attend school they usually prefer staying with their peers, especially when they hit the teens.
Everyone expects repatriates (i.e. those who come back to their passport country after some time abroad) to fit in almost immediately. They usually do know the language and have many rights that foreigners don’t have. People expect them to know everything about the culture, the life there: from finding a house, school to buying the right toothpaste…
But doesn’t all this put too much pressure on them and make repatriation even more difficult? Repatriates can easily feel misplaced: they feel like a foreigner in what is supposed to be their own country. They experience reverse culture shock, described as follows by Robin Pascoe, author of Homeward Bound:
“Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”
When you’ve lived abroad and had a deep international experience, you change. Of course, your whole life changes you wherever you live, you don’t have to be living abroad for this, but the experience living abroad may change you even more. “Old norms and values are viewed from a fresh perspective, and the expat and family see things in a new light; something like (…) going from black and white to Technicolor.” (cit. from Audrey Sykes article Reverse culture shock: What, when, and how to cope on Expatica.com)
Dean Foster, Founder and President of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions:
“By the time most traditional international assignments come to an end, several years may have passed, providing the international assignee a significant amount of time to learn new patterns of behavior and thought, necessary to fit into their host country. While not aware of these changes, expats are shocked into the realization that they have in fact changed substantially usually only when they encounter their home culture upon repatriating. Both they and the home culture have changed, and this is often the first time that expats have had the opportunity to experience any of these changes.”
Every time you go back home for visits, you experience this: things change. Shops are no longer where they used to be, friends have moved, streets changed, opening hours changed, even brands changed. And your friends and family did change too. You can feel frustrated or confused when your close friends and family are not curious or intrigued about your experiences. – Will this change once you’re back for good?
– No one wants to listen
– You can’t explain
– Reverse homesickness
– Relationships have changed
– People see “wrong” changes
– People misunderstand you
– Feelings of alienation
– Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
– Loss/compartmentalisation of experience
My personal advice on how to cope with repatriation is to share your experience with others. And if there is nobody to share the experience with because you did repatriate to a very monocultural and monolingual place, then try to maintain your style and stay international. This may also influence your decision on where to repatriate to! Choose a place where the probability is higher to meet like minded people! And stay connected: online and in real life. If your style is too exotic for locals and you’re having a really hard time to settle in again, ask for training – but what if you can’t find any help in loco? – I can help you via skype.
Dean Foster recommends a repatriation training for the entire family. He considers that “it needs to involve the HR department at least 6 months prior to the return, so that the company can insure a position for the repats that values their new skills. Repatriation training that helps not just the repat, but the entire family, adjust to the fact that they have all changed significantly while on international assignment, to assess and value those changes, and to see the ways that their home country has changed while they were abroad. This takes training.” – But are companies giving repatriates all this time to get prepared to the repatriation? And do they provide this service for the whole family (kids included)? Every repatriate should know that there are programs that “address the entire family’s issues, and that are combined with HR advising to insure a position that values the repat’s new global skills. The family issues that need to be addressed include helping children adjust to a home they may not remember, returning to unfamiliar “kid” culture (children may have in fact been born abroad, may come home with accents), partners who need support to re-enter a workforce they have been out of for several years, the loss and disinterest of expected family and friends, all of this requires training to anticipate and to manage successfully.”
I would like to end with two quotes from Global mum: A Memoir by Melissa Dalton-Bradford, where the author describes the reverse culture shock she and her family experienced when they had to repatriate after the events of 9/11:
“Misreading cultural cues, not knowing language signals, not knowing TV lingo or TV personages or TV jokes, feeling alien, foreign, and making up for it each in our individual way” (p.161)
“…we felt strangely alien, unable to share a great past of ourselves with others. One can expect to feel alien in a new or foreign country. But this? Feeling alien in what’s supposed to be your home country? I knew less about being a soccer mom than I did about buying fresh produce from loud vendors in an open market, less about American sports teams than about Norwegian arctic explorers, less about my native country than I did about ones that, in the end, no one seemed to want to hear much about” (p.162).