As widely known amongst expats who have made the move back to their home countries, repatriating can be just as, if not more, difficult than moving overseas. When relocating overseas to a new and unfamiliar country, we expect a period of adjustment to new surroundings, a new culture, new foods, a new language and a new way and rhythm of daily life. We prepare for the move by reading up on the country, culture, climate and food; studying the language; and learning about new neighborhoods and schools. But when we repatriate—particularly when it is to the same city or town where we lived prior to expatriation—we think we know what to expect. After all, it is a place where we grew up, where we know the culture and the language, where we went to school, where our families and friends are, where we worked and lived and raised our children. It is our home.
But we couldn’t be more wrong.
Relationship Surprises upon Repatriation
When my family and I repatriated to the United States two years ago, we faced multiple obstacles and challenges from the moment of re-entry, inside the airport, to over a year later, when life finally felt more “normal” again. Everything—the climate and seasonal changes, the clean and wide streets, driving, the abundance of green spaces, grocery shopping, paying bills, the food, the languages we heard daily—felt foreign again. Our city also had changed quite a lot in the two years we were gone—buildings had been torn down or renovated, and new shopping and residential buildings had been built. Living in the Washington, D.C., metro area and re-entering the legal profession, I was also again bombarded by political news on a regular basis. This was quite a shock to my system, having returned from a country where I didn’t speak or understand the language and so was able to choose the level of exposure to news.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment that we had to make was the way we related to others at home, whether it was family members, friends, or strangers – non-expats. In the two years we lived overseas, the way we interacted with others, our values, and our perspectives all had changed. In this respect, we no longer understood the thinking of those at home, and many of our family members and friends at home no longer understood my thinking.
It began as we stepped off the plane and made our way through immigration, where the airport immigration staff tersely yelled for everyone to hurry up. Outside the airport, no one offered to help, smiled, or made eye contact, which was the opposite of what we had become used to in Thailand, even from strangers. My then-eight-year-old son observed, “No one smiles here; people seem very unfriendly in America.” Welcome home, son.
As the days and weeks passed and we met up with more friends and family members, it became increasingly obvious that we no longer connected with many people we know, particularly if they had never traveled or lived abroad.
First, no one understood the difficulties of the process of re-establishing ourselves in our home country; after all, we had lived there for decades. Despite having an excellent credit history, still owning a house, and being gainfully employed in the USA, we still had difficulties renting an apartment and getting car insurance, all because we had left the country for two years. It was as if we were immigrants stepping foot into the country for the first time.
Some of our family members and friends also took it personally when we voiced our desire to return overseas again and our thinking that there are other countries that offer a better quality of life than the United States. Some friends thought our time overseas was a temporary arrangement, an adventure that we had gotten out of our system, and we had returned home to stay. They would comment with respect to our repatriation, “This is your home; this is where you belong now,” or “You need to be with your family and we are your family.” Even members of my extended family, who are immigrants themselves, questioned why I would ever want to leave “America, the land of opportunities.” They would point out the negative aspects of living overseas to thwart my desire to move overseas again.
Then there were those who thought we were unpatriotic for criticizing the United States, its government, and its values. Many people couldn’t understand why we feel the country isn’t as great as Americans think it is or that the world doesn’t revolve around the United States, and didn’t believe us when we told them that most people we had met abroad agreed with us. They also seemed perplexed and surprised that we would make decisions to counter the American culture of materialism and consumerism, such as traveling to and exploring another country, instead of giving material gifts, for the Christmas holiday. A few people thought we were depriving our son by not heaping on the material gifts on special occasions.
It was also lonely for us to return home, after having experienced so many wondrous places, met so many fascinating people, and seen so many interesting things. Except for friends who were from another country, who had been expats themselves, or who have traveled internationally and extensively, no one could relate to our life overseas or wanted to hear about them. While there’s a scientific reason why this happens (No One Cares About Your Awesome Vacation), it was still pretty lonely and hurtful. We had to pretend that our expat life never existed.
Relationship Tips for Repatriates
Reconnecting with family and friends is probably one of the trickiest aspects of repatriation. Time has passed, you have changed, and they have changed. While relating to friends and family back home again may be a challenge, it is possible to find common ground with them and find your place in a country that no longer feels like home.
First, prior to repatriating, while you’re still in your host country, start re-familiarizing yourself with cultural and other developments and current events in your home country and city. By doing this, you’ll ease yourself back into your home country’s culture and society.
Once home, pause to process the reality of your former and current lives. Take time to enjoy all that you had missed while away, whether it’s the food, the culture, the environment, the conveniences or the shopping options.
Be selective about whom you spend time with. Seek out friends and family who understand, who are interested in your journey, who ask questions, who listen, who share in your joys and sorrows. Pick your battles when it comes to interactions with people and their perspectives.
Try to see things from the perspective of your friends and family. Remember, they haven’t had the broadening experiences you have; they have always lived the life they live. How they live is not wrong, but simply different from what you’re used to. They don’t know that there are others who do things differently than they do.
Stay connected with the expat life through international newspapers and foreign-language books, foods, cultural events or international volunteer organizations. Seek out communities and online social groups geared towards expats, such as I Am a Triangle (iamatriangle.com), where there are others who have gone through the same thing and understand your feelings. Share your story through a blog and with expat friends you made while overseas.
The repatriation process can be more challenging than the expatriation process. It is always helpful to hear about others’ repatriation experience.
What are some things you have done to help with your own repatriation process?
Author: Ann Kreske
As a Third Culture Kid, I was born in Taiwan, but raised in the United States, and have lived in over ten cities and towns in three different countries in my lifetime. In 2013, my husband and I decided to fulfill our lifelong dream of living abroad, and, together with our son, moved to and lived in Thailand for two years. I felt I had arrived “home” living abroad, and we were all bitten by the travel bug. Formally trained as an educator and lawyer, I have worked in the fields of education, editing, special education and disability rights advocacy, and veterans law.