Repatriation Blues: Why you might struggle and how to cope with it?
Expats are good at preparing for their next exciting post, whether it’s in Burundi or Boston, Nice or Nigeria. They’ll study the language, learn about the work ethics of doing business, find the best place to live, the best schools for their children, read up on the local culture, food, the climate. Whether you move individually, as a couple or with their families, you come prepared.
When people land in a new cultural environment, it is common to feel excitement, anticipation and, of course, some shock or disorientation. An optimal outcome is adapting, at least as far so we feel satisfied. Repatriation is just part of the expatriate cycle of global mobility but it works much differently. That’s why it is called the re-entry blues.
A much less known aspect of the expat experience is that repatriation can be much harder than leaving. Let’s take a closer look from the accompanying partner perspective.
“When you go abroad, you expect everything to be new and different,” says Tina Quick, author of “The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition.” And when you return home, you expect life to be basically the same. “But you have changed, things back home have changed since you’ve been gone and so has your company,” she says.
Many repatriated expats find it hard to connect at home for a number of reasons.
When living abroad the expat life draws people together: “You’re in a circle or tribe with other expats.” But back home, you’re only one in a sea of so many people. Most of them have never left. When sharing your experiences abroad people start looking at you with this blank gaze of indifferent unconnectedness because they cannot relate to your story and frankly speaking don’t have a clue what you are talking about. You cannot blame them. Only it makes you feel like a stranger at home.
Just take a moment to come with me on this imaginary trip to repat land, which is designed so beautifully by Naomi Hattaway
- Imagine a place called Circle Country. Everyone who lives inside of its borders are Circle Citizens. The Circle Country has very specific culture, holidays, celebrations, food preferences, a language that is unique to them as well as music, education and political categories.
Let’s also now talk about Square Society. Everyone who lives inside of its borders are Square Settlers. The Square Society also has the culture, holidays, celebrations, food preferences (and on and on) as the Circle Country, but they really are completely different.
- One day, a Circle Citizen got on a plane and flew to Square Society. That Circle landed squarely (pun intended) in the middle of the Square Settlers and their Square Culture.
- Circle Citizen now lives in the midst of Square Settlers, and he or she may adapt to a degree, but will never become a truly Square Settler. At the same time, this Circle Citizen will also start to lose a bit of his/her Circle culture. The normal circle things start to blend together with the new square culture. The major holidays in Circle Country might dissipate a bit to allow for the celebration of Square festivals. Favorite comfort foods that remind her of Circle Country give way to the acceptance of new Square foods. The Circle culture never quite gives way to the new Square norms and values and at the same time doesn’t go away completely either.
He or she slowly – and seemingly unconsciously – evolves into something completely different. The transformation to a Triangle Tenant begins. Being a Triangle means you have some of your original Circle culture mixed with some of your newly adopted Square culture.
You are no longer 100% Circle, but you’ll never again be 100% Square. You are left – almost hanging – somewhere in the middle.
- Now, imagine that after some time, this Triangle Tenant hops on yet another plane and returns to Circle Country.
- This Triangle doesn’t revert to the previous Circle status just because repatriation has happened and he has landed home. This Triangle remains forever a Triangle. And this is U.
So far, how is your triangle experience?
Some tiny tips:
- What helped me repatriating is pretending this would just be another expatriate destination. So, starting from scratch with tons of energy to explore the unknown and make new connections.
- As often times in live: the times we fail are when we learn most. What smoothened the transition was a very negative experience repatriating for the first time a number of years before. At that time, we rented a house in a city we didn’t have any intentions to live. Apart from not being able to adapt there, also we didn’t make an effort to join the local community because we already decided not to stay there for a longer time. It was only much later, by the time we bought a house in another city – off course – that we started to smoothen our transition of repatriating. The second time around my big lesson was to really go for the city and place we ideally would love to stay and get connected with for a longer time. This time we succeeded.
- How did I manage my career reinvention? While not having- just like you a linear career – what are all the values and skills you have collected during your years abroad? I was only able to raise awareness about my transferable skills when I really started to create my own portfolio of study, international voluntary work experience, education, certifications ect. It was only then that I started to connect all those dots of my past career which laid out the way for my current work.
- Feeling insecure, vulnerable and finding your career in the shadow of your partners career can lead you to a dark place. This is the place where you are at choice. You also might want to choose to re-invent yourself, honor your unique experiences and acknowledge your resilience.
- Being a triangle is unique, your experiences are unique. What will you do to have them work for you?
I would love to hear more about your triangle experience,
Some further reading tips:
Such a project, as an international repatriation, can be seen as an adventure equal in scope to the expeditions of great explorers. In this series of excerpts from a presentation, Anne Parker, co-author of The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere presents a unique approach to relocation that enables internationals to plan, manage and succeed in their mobile assignment. More info on ‘The Mobile Life’.
HEAR DEBRA BRUNO discuss this article in a BITTERSWEET LIFE PODCAST