Newcomers Network Repatriation and Returning Home
By Sue Ellson
The difficulties of returning home and reverse culture shock on re-entry from expatriate life
Repatriation, returning to a location or a country that you have lived in previously after life out of the country as either a migrant or an expatriate, is not always easy. Many people face reverse culture shock on their re-entry to their home country.
Various research concludes that up to 40% of people move again or return overseas within two years of their re-entry into their home country. Some people who have lived the expatriate life for many years decide to retire to an expatriate style location (for instance Spain), where they can mix and mingle with expatriates on a daily basis (and they only visit their original home location).
Your expectations about what it will be like will probably be a mix of both good and bad.
We have found that the people who adjust most effectively when they return to their home country and manage their relocation well are the ones who expect it to be challenging.
Whether you are an expatriate new to a country or a repatriate returning to your home country, we do recommend that you follow our Seven Best Settlement Strategies which apply when you are moving for the first time or for the 21st time!
This article will discuss:
- What are the challenges associated with repatriation?
- What options do you have available before you leave your current location?
- What options do you have available when you arrive at your home location?
- Other considerations associated with repatration
What are the challenges associated with repatriation?
The employment market will be different
The nature of work is constantly changing – the workplace culture, policies, procedures, duties and salary levels are now more likely to respond to global influences. If you have kept in regular contact whilst you have been away, you may be aware of these changes or you may need to spend some time with locals who can give you an up to date summary of the current environment.
After extensive research, you may find that there is no equivalent position anywhere in your home country that matches the salary, complexity and lifestyle that you had whilst working overseas. So if you can define success in terms of your family receiving a good education, regular holidays and an opportunity to explore a career you ‘always wanted to try,’ then this may be the time to re-train in a new field and transfer some of your skills into an entirely different direction. See the challenges as a reason to explore new options.
Your diverse and extensive experience may not be valued
Some recruiters, decision makers and even the general public are not generally aware of the value of international experience and how it can improve opportunities within the local community. They may view you as threatening because you ‘know more than them’ but what they are really saying is ‘I am fearful, I don’t understand, easier to say no.’ Remember to say ‘in the past’ rather than ‘in Singapore’ so that people do not feel as if you are constantly comparing their current practices with another location.
You are different – reverse culture shock
You have had a chance to be ‘you’ and now you are moving back to an environment where a ‘label’ may be waiting to be stuck on you because the people you know will remember the way you were and not be ready to see the ‘new’ you. Many people will not be interested in hearing your story, looking at your photographs or listening to you speaking another language.
Reverse culture shock is the feeling of suffering culture shock in your home country (which you would expect to be familiar). There may be a honeymoon period on your arrival and then you may experience the dramatic ups and downs before life regains equilibrium. Remember that the same tips you use for moving to a new location can be used for returning to a location.
Your values may have changed
You may now be seeking a new lifestyle with your family but find that you still need an intellectual challenge and comparative financial rewards. Your brain has had to cope with many interesting and complex issues and readjusting to a ‘simpler life’ is often harder than ‘speeding up.’ If you have been in a third world environment and are returning to a consumerist society, it may also be difficult to adjust and not be negative about the local culture and media..
The paperwork is overwhelming
Muddling through bureaucracy, completing forms, sorting out health, tax and finance issues in both the previous and current country can be incredibly frustrating and time consuming and you may find it difficult to get the quality of advice that you need. Perhaps you need to create some checklists for returning home or create a list of things you need to do now that you have arrived.
Pressures are different
As a capable and talented individual, you may not believe that ‘little problems’ are having such a soul destroying effect on you. If you are reading this article before you return, you must surely be wondering whether or not you should return!
What options do you have available before you leave your current location?
In our opinion, the best advice we can give is for you to ‘expect it to be challenging.’ Then perhaps you will be prepared and if it does become difficult, you will be ‘ready.’ Most people find it harder to return (66%) than to leave (34%) in the first place according to our website poll in April 2003.
But in practical terms, there are a number of effective techniques that you may like to consider.
Collect your details
Make sure you have collected, sorted and compiled all of your records whilst you have been away. Finalise accounts and records, provide forwarding details, collect full contact details of the people you would like to keep in touch with (especially email addresses and phone numbers, preferably in a database). Create a generic email address (like johnsmith1 [at] gmail.com) so that you can give this information to people before you leave. Start subscribing to your home country email newsletter mailing lists.
If you are moving back without a specific job to move into, make sure you have started re-establishing your networks, learning about the current employment market and scanning job advertisements. You may find that an equivalent position may not be available in your home country so you will need to work out the best ways to make use of your skills and abilities – and network your way to a new opportunity – starting before you leave. Some people have found a job in New York via a contact in London!
Perhaps it is time for a change in career or some additional training – research these options too. Sometimes other factors may be influencing your search – a weak business environment, the ‘wrong’ time of the year or even an oversupply of qualified professionals in that field.
Make sure you collect some recommendations and references before you leave and update your LinkedIn profile with as many new connections as possible.
To help with the ‘resume filtering process,’ try explaining the nature and size of enterprises you have worked for previously in terms of an ‘equivalent’ home country organisation so that the decision maker can attach a frame of reference to what you describe.
You may have become accustomed to a different lifestyle whilst living abroad. Pay rates may be much lower in your home country if you are no longer an expat. Be prepared for a change in generally accepted topics of discussion and the pace of life. If you have come from a ‘third world’ culture, you will probably find it even more difficult to adjust. Just notice the difference and then decide what to discuss with whom once you get to know more about them – you will be able to tell when they start ‘tuning out’ of the conversation.
Consider moving ‘close’ to your previous location but not necessarily exactly the same…it can be easier to readjust to a familiar but not identical environment. Pretend that you are moving to a new location rather than ‘back home.’.
It may be difficult to slot back in to old relationships or find and make new friends with people who have shared similar experiences. With the people you already know, be ready for a general lack of interest in your photos, do not expect a big party on arrival and remember that you will not know much about some general topics of discussion (politics, business changes, industry development etc).
Remember that even if you had stayed home and not gone overseas, you may or may not have maintained a close relationship with the people you knew before you left. You will probably find that there is a select group of people that you will want to ‘keep in touch’ with and it is perfectly alright to let the other friends continue with their existing circle of friends.
Work out ways to meet people that you will relate to – they are probably most likely to have had international experience, share a similar passion or interest, they may have a connection to a country where you have lived or they may just have an open mind! Find out where you will meet these people and go there! If you are a bit shy, telephone and ask if they can refer someone to you. You could start by just door-knocking in your local street….you never know who you might meet!
Know yourself (and others with you)
Understand that you have changed and whilst you were automatically on an upward learning curve when you left, there will still be a lot to learn on your return. The climate and seasons may be different, as will be the general everyday habits of transport, food and housing. Being accepted for who you are and what you can offer may not happen immediately.
Are you aware of what you need to keep you happy? Fun, intellectual stimulation, variety, financial rewards, respect, control, leadership opportunities, status, good relationships etc? If you can’t find these in your home location, how will you feel?
Are you returning with other people? How will they adjust and gain new networks? If you are coming with a partner from a different culture, remember that they will need you as a support but that they also need to make their own way in a new home, creating new networks, sharing their stories etc Men need to find men friends, women need to find women friends. Teenage children will be particularly vulnerable and may need additional time and resources to adjust.
What options do you have available when you arrive at your home location?
Get back in touch with the local environment
Make sure you find out ‘what has been happening.’ Who have the political leaders been whilst you were away, what major issues are regular topics of conversation? Tune in to some talk back radio, read the local paper. Watch the television news and current affairs programs. Watch one edition of some of the regular television programs (even if you don’t like them). And find out how the major sporting teams have been going whilst you were away.
Send all of your friends a brief ‘summary’ of what you have been up to, what you have missed most and what you are looking forward to in the future. They may be surprised to learn more about the ‘real you.’ Drive all over town and see ‘what has changed’ and ‘what is the same.’ Visit some of your old ‘haunts’ and reminisce and reflect on your past experiences.
Make new connections
If standard job advertisements in the newspaper or online do not appeal to you or you find that the large number of candidates makes it difficult to compete on an even field, then it may be time to explore new networks. You will need to allocate money to attend appropriate networking events (either industry based or networking style depending on the role you are seeking), with your own business card, and make it clear that you are seeking the next ‘career move’ rather than ‘a job, any job, as I have been looking for six months now.’
Try inviting carefully selected people out for 20 minutes and a cup of coffee (make sure you pay and let them know when the 20 minutes is up – invite them to continue if they wish) on the basis that you are ‘seeking market information.’ Stating up front that you can ‘work for free’ is not always successful as it means someone has an ‘obligation’ to help you and they may be overwhelmed with their own responsibilities to ‘fit you in.’ But an informal chat that leads to a direct referral could be just what you need, especially if the referrer can brief this person before you contact them. You may need to have any overseas qualifications recognised in your home country. A new mentor may also be helpful.
Watch what you say
You do need to talk about your time away and there will be a ‘transition’ time when you want to talk about it regularly and then as you gather new experiences in your home country, your conversation topics will probably change. Our view is that you remain a ‘newcomer’ for three years after arrival in a location…so don’t be surprised if it takes this long before you feel ‘settled’ again. There is no need to ‘remove’ your international experience from who you are. You are possibly part of several ‘places’ now – and in time, it is possible to feel that wherever you are right now is home (for now). After 10 years in a location, you will probably feel as if it is your ‘spiritual’ home as well as your ‘physical home.’
Start something new
The best way to keep the brain active and to meet new people is to get out and do something new. A night course, a sport or a recreation interest could help your mind stay off the constant comparisons you find yourself making with your previous location/s. Create new rituals, celebrations and regular activities to make sure that you re-connect with your location outside of your work identity.
Don’t expect too much from your friends and family
They have been living their own life and moved in a particular direction and they may or may not be aligned with your direction any more. It is important to accept that there have been changes and that the dynamics of these relationships is now different. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself spending less time with these people than you expected or worse still, find their conversation uninspiring. It is perfectly natural to feel this way.
Many repatriates find that they need to make new friends…but remember, even if you had stayed and not lived away, you may not have kept in constant contact with these people in any case – friendships do seem to go through a natural attrition process over time. How many of your school friends do you still keep in touch with?
Seek professional help
Do not be embarrassed about seeking professional help. There are often many free and low cost resources available and if you have the time, you may like to find and use these first. If you do pay for assistance, make sure you complete the necessary background checks. The most common queries we receive are related to employment, health insurance, tax, finance and superannuation. Counselling for work, relationships and family issues may also be needed.
The Pareto Principle (or the 80/20 rule) where 20% of your time is spent achieving 80% of your success is important. Capable repatriates accustomed to finding out information in hardship locations are able to source all kinds of information. But the best information is no substitute for knowledge and experience. It is important, before you make any commitments, to speak to people and ‘sound them out.’ Ask specific questions to find out if they can help you achieve what you want, and if not, move on. Do what you can over the phone and via email rather than via meetings as these take up far more time and money – and are likely to be harder to secure anyway.
Start job hunting immediately
It is essential for you to start the job hunt as soon as you have recovered from jet lag. Starting this process whilst you are re-acclimatising to the home country culture will give you the space, time and ability to find work. If you assume that it MAY take up to 12 months to find a position that you really like, then if it happens sooner than that, you will be happy. If you work madly for three months trying to find work and nothing happens, and you haven’t had a rest or breaks in between, then you may find you will be willing to do ‘anything’ and then come across as ‘desperate’ when you are job seeking.
I like to remind people, tell yourself it is ‘their loss’ if they don’t hire you! Your next opportunity could be just around the corner. Whilst you may have the ability to ‘do a job’ you may not have the skills to ‘get a job.’ I often say that if I had used professional advice, I would have decided upon my next career opportunity in three and a half days instead of three and a half years!
Many repatriates report that people in their home country do not always understand or value international work experience. You may need to explain how you have stayed up to date with what has been happening in your home country, what type of well known organisation would be similar to the one you have recently been working in and be open to the possibility of starting in a lower level position to showcase your abilities until you have gained recent home country experience. It is easier to move from a job to a better job than from no job to a great job…and in the meantime, your self esteem may be more positive if you view the interim role as a ‘stepping stone’ for the future.
Make an effort to mix with people who can provide you with opportunities to showcase your abilities and give you good quality referrals to decision makers. Start with small steps – don’t overwhelm people with your entire history all at once.
Go easy on yourself
Repatriates are often high achievers and extremely capable so when they find it difficult to adjust to life in their home country, it can be a big shock. Although there is a significant amount of research around the issue of expatriation, there is much less on repatriation and like many international human resources issues, the USA seems to have the most research on this topic. However, if there is one thing I have learnt over time, it is that we are all human. We have needs and wants that are intrinsic across all cultures. The process of living overseas will have changed you at some level.
Some repatriates become accustomed to living a life beyond their comparative home country wage. For instance, in Asia, a US dollar salary can go a long way. Also, the wage may have included a ‘hardship’ loading and when they return to their home country, their wage drops and living can be much more expensive. They may have also had a driver, a cook, cleaner and nanny.
Some people find returning to a more egalitarian community challenging. Their ‘status’ in their home country may be different. If they have returned without a job to go to (or are soon retrenched), their capital reserve starts disappearing quickly and the spare time waiting for recruitment decisions can be excruciating.
An expat life is typically fast paced. Single expatriates can end up with too much ‘think time’ and without someone to ‘debrief’ with, can quickly turn small problems into a life crisis.
No longer fitting into the stereotypical ‘box’ they had when they left, repatriates often find that they do not mix well with their ‘old’ friends and at the same time, find it hard to locate other repatriates who may wish to become friends. These clever people quickly become pre-occupied with criticisms of the status quo….why isn’t anyone interested in my photos, why didn’t they say ‘welcome back,’ don’t they know that football is NOT the most important topic in the world?
These are all valid concerns and because there is so little community awareness of the challenges of moving back to a location, many locals assume that because these people already ‘know where things are’ there is no need to provide support.
But things have changed. And not just in appearance. Repatriates gather new experiences, new values and a willingness to take risks…after all, they left in the first place didn’t they? Repatriates have expectations and these are rarely fulfilled on their return. Perhaps it is time to stop, reflect, and redefine success.
In my opinion, finding like minded individuals is the first step. Once you realise that you are not alone, that you can enjoy an ‘expatriate’ style conversation with another person with international experience, then you can start to re-validate your own interpretation of your experience and put it into perspective. You may also be able to make plans for a variety of other options.
Watch what you say
Telling people that you often spent the weekend in Paris may sound like grandstanding to a local person who has never lived in Europe. Before you start mentioning, well in London I used to…..it is better to say ‘in the past, I have…..’ This does not mean you need to ‘dumb down’ – it just means that you need to explain concepts in terms that others understand and do not feel threatened by. It is not a good idea to complain about how ‘old fashioned’ you find your home location or to share details of international experiences to someone you have just met unless they have asked for details. Make sure you still have an opportunity to ‘vent’ these concerns…just be selective about who you do it with.
Try new and innovative ways to achieve your work goals
If the standard job hunting approaches don’t work, think a bit harder. How can you meet the people you need to meet? How can you showcase your abilities? Voluntary work for an association that is related to your industry or previous location country could provide you with a title ‘Sue from the Special Interest Group of the XYZ Association’ is a lot less threatening than Sue from Hong Kong looking for an International Trade Marketing Position. This connection can remain after you have accepted a position. Also, you may like to offer an employer a ‘trial period’ at a reduced rate…say a short one month contract to complete a market assessment. This will give you some current home country experience and give you an opportunity to showcase your abilities in the work environment.
If you choose to set up your own business, try working for someone else in that field first…you may decide not to move forward. I have heard of people who want to start a coffee shop and cook for a few people each day – and they have never even worked in one. Before buying a business or making a big financial commitment, see if there are ways to try it out first – reduce your risk.
If you didn’t have something lined up before you left the previous location, or the new options are uninspiring or these strategies don’t provide the support you need, do not be embarrassed to seek professional help. There are often many free and low cost resources available and of course you can pay for assistance too.
Other considerations associated with repatriation
Where should I live?
Returning to the ‘family home’ because it is ‘rent free’ is probably not a good choice. If you are accustomed to a fast paced independent lifestyle, then returning to a home in the outer suburbs without a car to get you out will reduce your chances of re-exploring. You may be wanting to ‘escape’ the frantic pace of the past, enjoy that on the weekend. If you ease the transition and find that it is still not ‘quiet’ enough, then you can move to the country and really slow down some more. But a sudden stop for an active brain can be difficult.
Friendships – I am different – do I need new ones?
It will be great fun to catch up with old friends and see in a visual sense how you have all changed. The novelty may wear off in five minutes. When they suggest that you all sit down and watch a television program together, you may be shocked! I know that sitting through an entire episode of a sensationalist local current affairs television program is a real challenge for someone with an international perspective on life!
So try and organise ‘quick coffee’ visits (so you can escape without embarrassment and not sit through a three course meal) or see multiple people at once, and create a list of those people that you will choose to keep as an active part of your life. This doesn’t mean that you will abandon old friends and family, but you do need to find people that you relate to – because if you don’t you will be quietly frustrated throughout every visit.
You also have the opportunity to make some new friends – just like you did when you moved to a new location in the past. Ask yourself, where will I find the types of people I like to mix with? Then do what you can to find these people – and make sure you can reach them quickly and easily by car or public transport. There are many cognitively diverse people in every location – they may not always be within your existing network of contacts. Ask the people you know if they know anyone else who has lived in your previous location.
Why did I move – for my own reasons or someone else’s?
Look at the ‘real’ reasons for your move back to a past location – are they yours or someone else’s? And is this a way of avoiding issues that you must deal with? If you are returning to take care of elderly relatives, are you doing it out of guilt – something you wish you had done or didn’t do? Is it time to ‘mend fences’ and let people know more about you and what you want from life? If you feel you are being selfish travelling the world, ask yourself why?
Do you keep in touch whilst you are away? Some people who live close to their relatives and friends contact people less frequently than those who live thousands of kilometres away. Ask yourself what these relatives and friends want for you? If being away is the only way you can be happy, so be it. We all make choices in life…I find that they are easier to live with if you consciously know that they are YOUR choices and not someone else’s or what you perceive to be the ‘right thing to do.’
Do you have unfinished business in your past location?
Ask if you are ‘ready’ for change. Part of you, if you did not prepare, may still be ‘left’ in your previous location – especially if you either left quickly or were busy right up until your departure. It is important to ‘close’ that chapter before opening a new one. Not erase it, but accept it as ‘past’ and this as ‘present.’ Then each part of your life is part of you – you are not stuck in some other place.
There may be ways that you can bring your past with you. Perhaps there are little traditions that you would now like to include in your life – regular activities, rituals or celebrations. Enjoying similar foods can be a great comfort. Being able to share your stories is critical. I have often heard of people saying ‘it is like the last 10 years never happened.’ This is because if you don’t have an opportunity to share those stories, particularly if they also relate to a broken relationship or shared experiences, it can seem like a very lonely existence. If you can’t find a friend, find a counsellor. Not only will they listen, they can provide processes that will help you move on in life.
If your identity is closely tied with your occupation, it may be a double loss when you move. If you know what career you are seeking, find a good mentor and a good advocate. These people will refer you directly to people that can make use of your skills and experience. If you are unsure and are considering a career change, speak to a career advisor, again, to help you make choices that are right for you. Old friends may not have the best advice!
Time – a commodity we undervalue
Give yourself a reasonable transition time – I would suggest a minimum of six months, but most likely up to three years. When you return, you will probably want to do everything slowly and quickly both at the same time! Allow plenty of time to sort out your possessions, have fun and work/look for work. If you are only looking for work and it is not successful and you haven’t had any fun (even if you have to spend a little bit of money), then life will not be good – in any location. If you are feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable, that is a sure sign that you need something else or something extra or that you need to examine personal concerns more thoroughly. Ask yourself ‘what is it?’ and find a strategy that will help you get it.
Take risks – you did previously!
Take some risks. In your previous location, when you had a regular income, you probably just ‘did’ things, it is important to continue doing this, even if you are not sure about your future, it will keep your confidence levels high and inspire you in new ways. Be creative and find new ways to test your abilities and conquer your fears. You may also like to review some of the suggestions in our Savvy Settlement Kit.
Permission to be you – a gift you can give yourself
Give yourself permission to be who you are. We all reach an age and stage in life when it is time to be ‘you.’ Sure, some people will like it. Some won’t. Who cares? If you are not harming others, doing something illegal or putting yourself in danger, ask yourself if you can live with the consequences. If your behaviour offends someone you have known for a long time, ask yourself how you feel about that.
If you believe your behaviour is reasonable, then that automatically suggests they are ‘unreasonable’ (in your view) and you may find that you don’t really want to maintain regular contact with that person. Give yourself permission to audit your possessions as well as your ‘friends.’ Maybe this is the time you need to find new friends for this time in your life. Even if you remain in one location, work and life changes mean that different people are part of your life at different times.
Many of these ideas and questions probably seem a bit nebulous, a bit airy-fairy. You may be surprised by their potency. Take a few moments to reflect on where you have been and where you would like to go. Just like you did when you first moved away, there was a lot to do. It is no different when you return – and from an emotional sense, you may either have more or less ‘baggage’ with you.
Baggage in itself is not harmful. I rather like carrying my experience and past opportunities with me – because they give my current journey meaning and relevance. For some people, it is just not possible to return to a past location.
I trust that this article will grant you some peace. A realisation that it is perfectly okay to feel the way that you do. There is no need to conform to the ‘old you.’ But if you want to make a successful repatriation, there is quite a bit of work to be done…and if you need help, ask for it. It can be as exciting and exhilarating as any other location, particularly if you meet the right people to share it with. It can also be lonely and confronting and your immediate reaction may be to return. Sometimes this is also necessary – just remember that is also another repatriation experience and even if you return within a few short months, it will not be the same.
Homecoming after deployment – HMAS Anzac 22 November 2001
This is a copy of the information sent to sailors and their friends and family when it was publicly announced that Australia’s HMAS Anzac would be returning from the Persian Gulf after their support of American Warships at the time of the 11 September 2001 crisis.
Tips for reunion
Reunion is a part of the deployment cycle and is filled with joy and stress. The following tips can help you have the best possible reunion.
Tips for sailors
- Recognise and support good things your family has done
- Take time to listen to, and talk to, your spouse, family and loved ones
- Make time for individual children and your spouse
- Go slowly to find or re-establish your place in the family
- Be prepared to make some adjustments
- Romantic conversations first, can make re-entering love relations easier
- Be careful with money (don’t splurge too much)
- Go easy on the parties
Tips for spouses for reunion
- Avoid a busy schedule at first
- Go slow to making adjustments
- You and your spouse may need time for yourself
- Remind partners they are still needed in the family
- Discuss splitting up family responsibilities (don’t assume too much)
- Stick to your budget until you have had time to talk it over
- Along with time for the family, make individual time to talk
- Patience, understanding and communication are the keys to re-building a relationship
Tips for reunion with children
- Slowly adapt back to the old rules and routines
- Be available to you child, with time and emotion
- Let the child be first to re-new the bonds – don’t force them
- Expect some changes in your children while you’ve been away
- Focus on the childrens’ successes and limit all criticisms – especially at first
- Encourage your child to talk about what has happened while you were away
Dealing with changes and expectations
With deployments come changes. Knowing what to expect and how to deal with changes can make reunion more enjoyable and less stressful. Below are some hints you might want to think about before and discuss with your family, for a happy homecoming.
Expectations for sailors
- You may want to spend time talking about your experiences, however some family may not
- Roles may have changed to manage basic household jobs
- Face to face communication may be difficult at first, after separation
- Intimacy may also be awkward at first
- Children grow up during separations; they may seem different
- Spouses sometimes become more independent, and need more space
- You may have to change your outlook on priorities in the household
Expectations for spouses
- Returning partners may have changed
- Returning partners may feel closed in on some days and need ‘some space’
- Returning partners often feel overwhelmed by the everyday noise and routines of home life
- Allow partners to get back to their own sleeping patterns
- Partners often feel left out at first, needing time to adjust
- Partners may feel hurt when small children are slow to hug and show emotions
What children may feel
- Babies less than 1 year may cry when being held
- Toddlers may not known you at first and may hide
- Preschoolers 3-5 years may be scared to see you due to the separation
- School age 6-12 years may demand more of your time than other children do
- Teenagers may seem moody and appear as if they don’t care
- Some children may be anxious, and fear your expectations of them
- Children may be torn by loyalties to the spouse who remained
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