There are many unforeseen challenges when returning home after living abroad. These include practical difficulties, such as securing schooling for children, as well as unforeseen emotional issues relating to changes in British culture while they were away, changes to their social norms and values and the unexpected reactions of others towards them. The longer expatriates and partners have been overseas, the greater the challenges they face when they return home. Despite the scale of the problem, only one person I interviewed during an academic study was offered repatriation support. A common response was "They probably thought it wasn't applicable because we are Brits, but when you haven't lived in your country for 20 years, it is a shock."
1. Have realistic expectations
Reverse culture shock is very common; returning expatriates often underestimate the challenges of returning home or the emotional impact. “Going out, you are expecting different, you are expecting strange, you are expecting to have a bit of an adventure and coming home is like, right okay.” Expats can view home through “rose tinted spectacles” or confuse the holiday atmosphere and frantic social life during home visits with daily living.
Expect some difficulties, give yourself time to adjust and don’t be too hard on yourself. Repatriation can be at least as much of a rollercoaster ride as expatriation.
2. Be aware that you have changed and so have those who stayed behind
After many years overseas, cultural values can change without expats necessarily consciously realising it. Customs and rituals in their home country, drinking habits, how people socialise, how they interact with their neighbours etc., things an expat used to consider normal, they start to see differently; they start to look at their country and its culture the way a foreigner would. The world will not have stood still while they were away either. Family, friends and colleagues will also have changed; they will have had new experiences, have reached a different stage in their lives and will have adapted to a world the expat played no day to day part in. Returning expats may find they have little in common with people they may once have been close to and friends will have little understanding or interest in the expat’s former life overseas.
Look upon repatriation as another move; research clubs and new activities locally, and plan outings and trips to rediscover what the area has to offer. Don’t go on about or dwell on your expat experiences. Recognise that it will take time to break back into your old circle of friends; also seek some new ones.
3. Recognise repatriation will impact each family member differently
Expatriation can change family dynamics especially if one partner gave up work in order to expatriate. These changes and differences will influence how a couple individually view the expatriation experience and how they feel upon repatriation. In particular, non-working partners can find themselves different from their compatriots and perceive they are not valued or understood. Repatriation also affects children quite differently from adults. Well-meaning family and friends may ask children if they are enjoying being “back home” when in fact it may never have been their home or they can scarcely remember it. Third culture kids – those who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside their parent’s culture – tend to have a more global outlook than their peers. They are normally versatile and resilient but they can also feel like outsiders, make gaffs because they don’t know things they are expected to and can struggle with feelings of rootless and lack of identity.
Recognise that repatriation will create different issues and emotions for each family member. Help children with the transition by trying to see the world through their eyes and experiences, listen to their concerns throughout the repatriation process and make sure new teachers are aware of their international background. Look for opportunities for them to meet with other former expat children. Online forums such as https://thirdculturekidlife.com/tckchat/ can provide teenagers with an opportunity to talk to others who have had similar experiences.
4. Be proactive about managing your career
Studies have shown that a surprisingly large number of former expats leave their current employer within a year of repatriation. This may be because they are forced into a role because it happened to be open or they return to the role they were in before they went on assignment. Demotivation can follow as there is a feeling that newly acquired global skills are being wasted or not valued. Partners who put their careers on hold to accompany their spouses may struggle to find suitable roles upon repatriation.
Don’t sit back and wait for employers to take a lead. Think ahead and be proactive about career progression and future role identification. Keep in touch with colleagues; meet up with them and visit the office during home visits. Seek out former expats as mentors both in the lead up to and after repatriation. Accompanying partners should never lose sight of future career aspirations or direction; maintain contact with former colleagues and determine how to acquire skills perhaps through training or voluntary work that can be packaged in a way that supports future employment.
5. Don’t underestimate the practical difficulties
Practical issues vary greatly depending on personal circumstances. A frequent concern is children’s schooling. Expats may not realise that they cannot register their children at a state school if they are not currently resident even if they own property in the school catchment area. Without careful planning, expats who return to temporary housing and later move to a permanent address in a different neighbourhood can create the need for a second school move for their children. Whilst private schools avoid catchment area issues they often have waiting lists and their admission and streaming tests may be difficult to attend logistically and may be based on an unfamiliar curriculum. Another important consideration is access to credit. Those repatriating after many years may not have a credit rating; this can have a knock on impact on obtaining a mortgage, buying a car on credit or getting a credit card.
Start to plan and research your repatriation as early as possible. Develop a checklist of issues to consider; many will be the same as when you expatriated. Work out which ones are the most critical or need to be prioritised. Finally, see what repatriation support, if any, can be provided by your employer.
Jane Innes is the founder and director of Investing in Nomads Ltd, an Aberdeen based human resources consultancy which helps organisations and individuals to identify, understand, navigate and capitalise on global mobility challenges and opportunities. She has undertaken academic research into expatriation in the oil and gas industry and experienced first-hand the complex issues and often conflicting demands associated with international moves as a senior manager, as an employee, as one half of a dual career couple, as an accompanying partner and as a parent.
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