The Biggest Challenge of Repatriation – What You Thought You’d Never Need To Know

If you’re planning to go back to your home country after living abroad for any length of time, I bet you’re not madly skimming the Internet for information on how to make the most of your transition.

Why should you? You’re going back ‘home’!

No need for a language course.

No need for a cross-cultural training.

No need to apply for a visa.

You certainly don’t expect someone else, a stranger (!) possibly even a foreigner to tell you what to do. You know it better than anyone else: it’s your country.  

So, off you go. Confident that after a few weeks, you’ll feel like a fish in water.

As in all things human, there’s no set rule for repatriating. For some people, a smooth re-entry  may well be the case.

For others however — and I know because I’ve heard it so many times — going back to the home country is NOT what they expected.

And if you’re a ‘repat’, you may well experience any and all of the following:

You have problems connecting to others because people can’t relate to your experience. Even your loved ones. Your extended family, your siblings, your parents. Your friends!

You’re disappointed, hurt, shocked at their reactions when you try to share your expat experience and your feelings: they seem bored, they change topic, they become angry, impatient and sometimes even jealous and resentful.

In society at large, you’re met with indifference, ignorance, cynicism, incomprehension. Nobody seems to care about your life outside the homeland.

This leads you to repress your past and consequently part of your identity.

It makes you feel awkward, inadequate, out of place.

Having nowhere to turn, you start to think that YOU are the problem.

Know this: you’re not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you.

Today, I’d like to share with you Suzanna’s story. She’s a writer and a WordPress website wiz

Susanna Perkins

Susanna Perkins

I got to know her through Future Expats the site she set up to help others plan their life abroad. Suzanna is a wife, a mum and a grand-ma.

A few months ago, she and her husband decided to come back to the US to be geographically closer to her ageing inlaws. They repatriated, after three years spent in Panama.

She has been through the wringer. And while her story is unique, her valuable insights apply to us all.

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Anne: What’s the hardest thing you experienced when you repatriated?

Suzanna: Making friends!

What I loved about Panama was that it was so easy to meet people and make new friends, not only with other expats but with locals too.

One day, I got into a taxi and began to speak with the driver. My Spanish is pretty basic but we managed to communicate a little bit with each other. He was living in the same neighbourhood. I discovered that his daughter went to school in the US and spoke fluent English. This was the start of a life-long friendship. It was that simple.

In Panama, we had a rule. My husband and I decided that we would engage with anyone who spoke English. Thanks to his cycling passion, my husband developed lots of friendships that way.

In the US however, we found it very hard to make friends. People are afraid of strangers. It hit us especially hard when we came back because we didn’t return to the city we had lived in before. We moved to a totally different place where we only had family, but no acquaintances.

This isolation was so depressing that we decided to change location for the winter. Of course, we were also eager to escape the biting cold. But we made sure to go back to a place where we already had friends.  

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Anne: What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve had to deal with since you came back?

Suzanna: We came back to be closer to my in-laws, but so far we’ve spent less time with them than when we were living abroad!

The backstory is that my mother-in-law had a fit when we told her we were moving  to Panama. This really surprised us because she and her husband travelled extensively all over the world during their working life. But each time we called from Panama, she would always end up crying ‘I’m never going to see you again’. So in the end, my husband wanted to live geographically closer: his parents have just turned 90.

The move back to the US was only possible because I had developed a portable career for myself while we were overseas.

Three years ago we left because of the stress on our finances. During the global economic crisis in 2009, both my husband and I lost our jobs and we couldn’t afford to stay. Thanks to a positive turn of events — me recovering some serenity in Panama and setting up my website design business — I was approached by a Canadian company to work full time – location independent. This now gives me the opportunity to support our family, even back in the US.  

*****

Anne: What would be the tip you’d give to anyone repatriating?

Suzanna: Treat repatriation as another expat assignment!

You’ve changed. Your home country has changed. Don’t expect things to be the same.

*****

Now over to you: what’s your experience of repatriation? What would you recommend to fellow expats who are going back ‘home’?

Our next article delves into the similarities and differences of repatriation vs expat assignment. Make sure you don’t miss it. You can sign up for our free newsletter here.

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Comments

  1. Great story, Anne. After being away for years, it’s easy to idealize “home.” I was actually thinking the other day that when we eventually repatriate, I need to give myself the space to transition. Until recently, I always thought that reentry would be fast and easy. Timely article, thanks!

  2. This really resonates with me having just returned to UK six months ago from three years in California. I went back to the house I thought I’d said farewell to, to the job I thought I’d moved on from and to the friends I thought I knew. The familiarity of the place has helped the children enormously and is a huge comfort to them as they settle back in. However, that same familiarity has given me the sense that the last three years were irrelevant and like the article says, I seem to be repressing the past and not thinking about it. I have found it very difficult to settle and feel restless. The effort and energy I put into making life in the USA work so well now feel resigned to the past and I am left with that homesick feeling for the way of life I spent three years trying to get my head around! Thank you for all your great articles and insights. Bon continuation!

  3. Having had 30 international and national moves, returning HOME, was a question by itself – where is HOME. When I moved to the NL, having a NL passport since age 18, so it is not my native country, I had a hard time making friends with the Dutch, so instead I signed up with all kind of International clubs. Making friends from all around the world in this supposedly HOME country made me want to stay in this country I now consider home.

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