If I am home now, why do I still feel like a foreigner?
Before becoming Language and Communications Manager at Wetzel Services, I taught English for three years in northeastern China. It may be hard to believe, but I found that coming home to America after living for three years in China taxed my mind and psyche more than the drastic adjustment to life in China.
“I’m going home to America!” I thought. I know America, and I know how to be an American. Besides, all my family and friends back home are going to be enthralled with my intriguing tales of life in the fascinating Middle Kingdom. They will chuckle at my stories about nosy taxi drivers, marvel at the strange and exotic foods I ate, and be wowed by my ability to wield the Chinese language to drive a bargain. They will sympathize with my anecdotes of lifestyle limitations–three years without a dishwasher or clothes dryer, routine power and water outages, reliance on three-wheeled mini-taxis and slam-packed buses.
But I found that most people had only shallow interest in hearing about my life in China. Instead, I heard lots of ill-informed stereotypes that only made me frustrated and fiercely defensive of my home-away-from-home and my dear friends there.
I didn’t realize that coming home would put me through the same classic stages of cultural adjustment as moving overseas. I went through the honeymoon, culture shock, recovery and adjustment stages all over again, but the challenges were compounded by the fact that I literally had no idea that repatriation was going to have the same ups and downs as expatriation.
Many expats find that returning home after their assignments is harder than moving abroad in the first place.
Sabine Friedel, formerly an intercultural trainer for Wetzel Services, is in the middle of a similar experience. She recently returned home to Germany when her husband’s three-year assignment in South Carolina came to an end.
Sabine agrees that the hardest part of “reverse culture shock” is that it is less expected. “I was sure that I would handle coming home easier,” she says, and that not being the case has been a bit frustrating to her.
“It was not as easy as expected,” she says. She misses her U.S. friends and has found it tough to catch up with old friends. “What I miss most, besides friends and weather, is customer orientation and courtesy,” she says. “Germany is so stressful, in traffic and stores. Many people are not as friendly as U.S. citizens.”
Katja Seeger, also a German native and former intercultural trainer for Wetzel, has returned to Germany with her family twice after two different U.S. assignments totalling seven years. She also has a master’s degree in intercultural communication and cooperation, and she wrote her master’s thesis on the topic of coping with repatriation.
Katja points out that an expat may struggle to readjust to his former workplace or to a new one, perhaps having a new status and different pace. Families may also face financial setback, after enjoying comfortable relocation packages during their international assignments.
Then there are the relationship matters. “Things and people do change after three or five years, as does the expat/spouse,” Katja points out. “But the assumption is, that you continue where you have left.
“People assume that you are still the same person that you were when you left. And most people are not interested in your ‘America Stories.’”
Furthermore, many companies do a good job of supporting their expats when they send them on assignment, but neglect to help them much with the return process.
“Reverse culture shock is definitely underestimated,” Katja says. “You get a lot of help finding schools, housing, and so on when you go. Coming back, most companies leave you pretty much alone, assuming you know what to do and where to go.“
All this might seem a little depressing, but the first step to solving a problem is identifying it, right? Next time I’ll post some tips for having a more successful return home.