(Read Part 1 here.)
Coming home after an extended international assignment turns out to be harder than most expats anticipate.
If you’ve been gone for a few months or years, everything has changed: your home country, your family and friends, your home and work situations, and yourself. Most returning expats (aka “repats”) find that there’s no such thing as picking up where they left off.
If you feel yourself to be a stranger in your own country upon repatriation, take heart: although it’s not a comfortable feeling, it is completely normal. And there are a few things you can do to ease your way through the reintegration process.
Identify what has changed.
Maybe you’ll be out-of-the-loop because of new laws and taxes, new advertising, new pop culture, new businesses that have opened in your community and others now defunct. You might feel out of touch because new jargon has caught on while you were gone, or some expressions that you picked up while living overseas are lost on the people back home. You’re left out of cultural allusions that everyone but you gets, because you just weren’t around.
While you were gone, life went on for your friends and family. You have missed some of their special occasions and major life changes. During the three years I was in China, two of my grandparents and an uncle passed away, and my brother got married.
And you have changed. Living in another country for an extended period of time changes a person’s tastes, values and perspectives. Spending $5 on a latte or $50 on a pair of shoes seemed incredibly indulgent and irresponsible to me when I returned to the U.S., after three years of $1.50 restaurant dinners and 25-cent bus rides. It was hard for me to pay American prices, and hard not to be repulsed by the throw-away and buy-more-stuff American culture. Although I was happy to get cheese and chocolate again, I still craved cold noodles and salty duck eggs. And for the first time, I saw the absurdity of driving everywhere instead of walking, eating too much meat and carbs and sugar, and then consequently having to spend time and money on a gym membership. Not cool.
There is a positive side to personal change, however. Katja Seeger, a two-time expat to South Carolina who is now back home in Germany, points out that new horizons open up when people live in countries not their own. “You can reinvent yourself, meet new people, get into new situations, and get a glimpse of another lifestyle,” she says. “You may question the way things are done in your own country. All that may not have been possible if you had stayed in your little village your whole life.”
Find people who care, and people who “get it.”
Many of your friends and family won’t really understand what you’re feeling as you struggle to settle back into your home country, but some will. Others will take the time to ask questions and listen, even if they can’t exactly empathize. Spend time with those people, and give back the interest they offer to you.
Keep in touch with your friends back in the country where you lived as an expat, and read news and stories about that country, which will always matter to you.
Maybe most helpful will be other expats who have returned slightly before you. Being a little farther down the road of readjustment, they have much to offer in terms of perspective and hope.
Focus on the positive.
Sabine Friedel, who returned to Germany recently after three years in the U.S., is still at the beginning of her repatriation process, but she is coming up with some coping strategies. Perhaps the most important is trying not to “compare the U.S. and Germany all day long.”
Think about it: you’re back to the place where your native tongue is king! You can understand the signs. You can pick up any book in a library or bookstore and read it. Making phone calls is no sweat. Start looking for things to be thankful for, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by them.
Katja: “You will need as much time to settle back in as you needed when going to the other country. Take your time!”
Be patient with your emotional adjustment and also with rebuilding your home. Depending on how much you took to and from the other country, you may be starting over in terms of possessions, and those purchases may take time.
Be open to even more change.
You’ll never go back to the exact life you had before your international assignment, and that’s a good thing. You’re probably a more open-minded, compassionate, perceptive, versatile person than you were before living overseas.
Back in your home country, seek out new relationships and opportunities. Befriend the foreigners. Brainstorm for how your experience has opened up new career and volunteering options. Find your new niche.
There and back again!
You can make it through the ups and downs of repatriation and finally settle into the adjustment stage. You’ll know you’re getting there when you can see the good and bad of both places and say, “Different is not bad. Different is just different.”
You’ve gone there and back again! You’ve lived internationally: an awesome experience that many people only dream of. Most repats would agree, the benefits of the experience are worth the challenges of adjusting and readjusting.
“Whatever the difficulties are coming back home,” Katja says, “I would always do it again and see it as a blessing to have had the possibility.”