Repatriation – Easier Than Another Expat Assignment?

‘Honey, pack your suitcase. We’re going back home!’ shouts your partner as he walks through the front door.
‘Whaaaat? Really?’ Your jaw drops.

House of paper in handWhether you longed for this moment — without ever believing it would happen so soon — or you’re heartbroken to leave your host country (perhaps even resenting the idea to go back) one thing is sure: repatriation is another move.

Can you and should you then treat this re-entry as another expat assignment?

‘No way!’ you may be tempted to spontaneously answer, ‘I’m going back home, a place I know inside out, where I spent my childhood and more than 20 years of my life.’

But after reflection, reason takes over and you begin to see how things might be challenging.
You’ve changed, your friends and family have changed, and yes, even your country has changed. It won’t be the same.

If you’re prepared to put your expectations aside, to act as if you were on a new posting, in a country that sounds familiar but is somehow not the same, you’ll avoid bitter disappointment.
In deciding to embrace this new move with fresh eyes, you shift to a position of curiosity. A much more positive approach.

At least , this is how you prepare yourself. In the safety and confines of your house.

But wait until you’re in your home country and set foot outside in the real world. You’ll then face the reality of interacting with the ‘locals’, in this case your fellow compatriots.

Let’s take a closer look at how things might unfold…

When you go to enrol your children at the local school

You explain the situation and the principal frowns:
‘Excuse me, I don’t quite understand. You said the children are French but they never lived in France? They can speak fluently but they never learnt grammar and spelling? One is entering grade 7 and the other grade 9. We can’t really spend time on those gaps.
We do have some programs for foreigners (French as a foreign language) but you’re not in that category. I’m not sure your children can access this service.’

Reality check #1
Your children face some difficulty with their native language but you don’t find the same understanding and support as if you were a foreign family in another country. Hard in this case to picture yourself and your children as expats!
Moreover, if you consider an international school in your home country as the only solution for your kids not to be completely lost/disoriented, you may have to convince BOTH the local authorities (to accept this type of schooling for your kids) AND the international school (to accept your children as ‘native’ students).
You’re between a rock and a hard place.

 

When you apply for a job

If you haven’t had a paid job while abroad, there’s a gap in your CV.
How do you ‘sell’ to a potential employer the skills you’ve developed abroad? Adaptability, resourcefulness, cultural awareness and don’t forget your volunteer commitments.
Saying in France that you’ve manned the school uniform shop for 3 years once a week is like speaking Chinese. In your home country there’s no such thing as school uniforms.

If you worked abroad, how do you explain the complexity of your previous job? Depending on the country you lived in, this may prove to be almost impossible. Dealing with tribes in Africa or trading with corrupted officials may not impress your future recruiter. On the contrary, it’s more likely to scare them away!

Reality check #2
When repatriating you don’t have the hurdle of proving the value of your qualifications to your future employer. Neither do you need a working permit – a significant difference with being an expat. But for all intents and purposes you’re an alien to your potential employer and colleagues who don’t know where to place you in their frame of reference. You’re neither a local nor a complete foreigner.

When you speak to your close relatives that you now – supposedly – can see more often

‘Mum, I’ve tried everything. It’s so hard to fit in. I miss my previous country.’
‘What? You’re not happy to be back? You don’t like us anymore?’

Reality check #3
Every move involves loss and gain, but to first appreciate the gains, you need to grieve the losses.
Repatriation is no different. You’re missing the old place, the language, your friends, the food, the climate, the lifestyle. The difference though with a classic expatriate assignment is that hardly anyone ‘gets it’. There seems to be an unspoken rule in which missing your home country is obvious and well understood while missing another country isn’t. It’s definitely not met with the same degree of acceptance.

Is it because people who have never lived abroad can’t relate to your experience? Maybe.

When you try to make new friends

‘Where do you come from?’ is the question you dread because more often than not it’s the end of the conversation.
The locals can’t relate to your experience. You feel awkward, ignored, rejected.

In an attempt to ‘play the role of the expat in repatriation mode’, you try to connect with other expats but they don’t get it. They think you’re a local!

No accent, no physical difference, no need for a visa or a working permit. You’ve got it easy. You surely have your own circle of friends and if it’s not the case yet, you’ll blend with the local population in no time.

Reality check #4
You’re an alien in your own country, but not a true foreigner. Whatever role you try to adopt, you struggle to belong, not because you don’t want to but because others hardly let you in.

******

Finally there’s a funny paradox about being back in your home country. While it’s easier for you to access a job and a home, it deprives you of some freedom: the freedom to be who you are without the pressure of expectations.
Expectations from your extended family and friends to be the one they knew; expectation from society as a whole to conform to a well-defined model.
When you lived far away as an expat, this is something you didn’t have to factor in.

Have you ever repatriated? I’d love to hear about your experience.

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Comments

  1. Great article, Anne, with some important home truths. When I repatriated from Burkina Faso to Canada, even my friends and family couldn’t find ‘my’ second country on a map. And they didn’t care. And they wanted me to be just the same, but I was a transformed person. I went through culture shock, was completely lost in places like the supermarket. My friendship group had moved on and moved away. At first we had to stay with my mother. It was like being 16 again. I felt I had lost everything. So, to keep making my expat experience real, and to raise the awareness of others, I had to find any way I could to talk about my experience. Kids need to do this too. So part of leaving, or maybe living in a country where you know you won’t stay, should be building a ‘portfolio’ of memories…photos, above all, but perhaps also other kinds of treasures that capture life in your far away country. I’m sorry to say that the need to tell the story becomes less, but never really goes away, and the number of people who want to hear it are few. Connecting with the International Centre at your local university, and perhaps having homestay students from other countries, will help to build an ‘expat-at-home’ community for you and your family. Sometimes the international families are housed together, and this is a great place to meet and connect. At least that is what I found when I was back in Canada. And I volunteered in the International Students Centre. It did help, to be with other third-culture people.

  2. Yep, I can very much relate to that, in fact I’ve written about it several times, like here: http://www.joburgexpat.com/2012/10/repatriation.html.

    Our family lived in South Africa from 2010 to 2012, then came back to the U.S. (but to a new place, which in some ways helped). I’ve experienced all those things you mention, and our kids have experienced their share of it. Exotic but not exotic enough. Strangers, but ones who knew enough about this country to know what people were not saying, so you could never quite respond. 3 years onwards everyone has settled in nicely and embraced the life we have here, just how we embraced life there, but it hasn’t been as easy a ride as you would have thought.

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