Expat Repatriation: you’ve changed!

You’re moving back home. You know the people. You speak the language. You understand the culture. You know how to get things done. This is where you belong. This will be a piece of cake!

And then you arrive, unpack…and begin experiencing…”weirdness.” People seem to have gotten along just fine without you. In fact, some hardly seem to have noticed you were gone. Even close friends have very little concept about what Shanghai, Bangkok or Tokyo is like–or even where it is. 

“That’s in China, right?” “Is that the same as Singapore?”

Who’s listening? 

And they have even less interest in hearing about where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced. You begin talking about life overseas and suddenly find the subject changing without warning. Or you find yourself talking and no one listening. People drifting away from you to join other conversations. Things really important to you are greeted by a blank stare or a barely-stifled yawn. After awhile you stop trying to talk about your expat experience.

You’re a small fish in a big pond. 

Your status at home may be lower than in Shanghai or Bangkok, and your standard of living may go down. Your job may have less responsibility. You discover how much you miss the maid and some of those other expat perks. Your spouse is lonely and your kids are complaining about their schools.

Everything looks familiar. 

But gradually you discover that things have changed while you’re away. And you don’t always understand what’s going on, why people feel the way they do, and how you fit into this changed reality, both at work and in your social networks.

You begin to discover that you’ve changed. You have some new insights, some new perspectives (prejudices?) on your home country, your home culture. You’ve learned to see your own country from an “outsider” point of view. And you find yourself being sometimes critical of certain things at home that everyone else takes for granted.

“That’s just the way we do things here!” Remember how hard it was to accept that when you went to life abroad? Now you’re finding that you need to begin accepting that ethno-centric mentality in your own home town.

It’s weird! You come home only to discover you’re a little bit of a stranger there.

Panic! Maybe I don’t belong anywhere anymore.

Relax! You’re normal.

You’re experiencing “re-entry shock or reverse culture shock.” If you thought it was difficult moving overseas, you may find returning home even more difficult. There may be loneliness, confusion, even depression. Many expatriates find the reverse culture shock of repatriation to be even more challenging than the culture shock they experienced when they moved to a new country.

There are similar stages to repatriation as to settling in abroad:
   Initial euphoria
   Irritability and hostility
   Gradual adjustment

Here are some pointers that will help you survive and thrive through repatriation.

1. Learn the soundbyte approach to talking about live overseas. 

Don’t try to share huge doses of your expat experience, even with your best friends. Less is more. A little bit here, a little bit there. Better to have friends asking for more details about your expat experience than to drive them away with your long-winded descriptions.

  • Keep it simple. Get to the point before your listener’s attention wonders.
  • Use names (rather than he or she). Paint word pictures that help TV-oriented listeners “see” what you’re talking about.
  • Tantalize, don’t overkill. Talk about expat life in ways that make people ask for more. One story at a time. Even if the listener asks for more, wait for another time.

2. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. 

We expect people to listen to us. But when we listen first, we earn the right to speak. Become a serious sleuth, investigating what happened at home while you were away. Be an active listener to others. Get inside their world. Unpack their feelings, their struggles. Your turn will come. Be as serious about re-engaging in your world at home as you were understanding and succeeding in overseas.

3. Rebuild relationships. 

You can’t expect to pick up exactly where you left off. People got along pretty well without you. Fair enough. You learned to survive without your close friends and family. (Were you actually a little bit glad to get away from home?) After all, you were the one who decided to leave. (You left them. They didn’t leave you.) And being missed doesn’t always show. It’s often heard between the lines of what people say after we return home. “It’s nice to have you back.” Believe it, and start rebuilding (and deepening) those relationships most important to you.

4. You’ve changed. 

That doesn’t mean other people have. You may find it hard to accept some of the differences that have developed between you and your friends. Differences in perspective, in values, in the way you look at the world and your home country. Can you accept your friends the way they are, without trying to change them? If you accept them, they may also be able to accept the new you.

5. They’ve changed

 Things at home may be different. Sometimes there have been subtle, or even significant changes. Do you like those changes? Prefer things the way they were? Try to understand those changes. How they happened. Why they happened. Learn the new lingo, the new technology, the new foods. Discover what’s in and what’s out. Accept rather than criticize. Give people at home the benefit of the doubt? like you did in the folks abroad did.

6. Describe, interpret, evaluate. 

It’s helpful during re-entry to analyze what you’re seeing and experiencing. If people are doing dumb things, describe what you see. Interpret their behavior, why they’re doing it that way. And then evaluate your feelings, your opinion about their behavior.

7. Hang out with other internationals. 

Sometimes you need to re-connect with folks from expat friends (or with other people who’ve lived abroad). You need to be with people who understand where you’ve been. People who understand who you are, how you’ve changed. It’s good medicine.

It takes time.

Be patient. Things will get better. You’ll get a handle on your new life at home (or wherever you are after Shanghai). You’ll adjust, adapt and gradually begin to feel at home. But it takes time. Just like it took time for you to adjust to Shanghai, it will take you about six months to get settled in your new home.

And you’ll be a stronger, wiser person for having lived through this transition.




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