In the first post of 2019, we're delighted to welcome one of our Members to the blog, sharing her experience and tips for navigating repatriation successfully. Lindy will be one of the speakers at FIGT's 2019 Conference in Bangkok, so if you haven't already checked out the brilliant lineup of speakers and registered to join us, you can find out more here!
Unless you've moved abroad and experienced the return "home," it's impossible to understand the challenges of repatriation. Re-entry is actually not that unlike moving to a foreign country. But why is going home often so hard?!
By Lindy Chapman
Much of this is due to expectations. When moving to another country, you expect to feel foreign, therefore are somewhat mentally prepared for the inevitable culture shock. It makes sense that leaving friends, family and all things familiar will be challenging.
And others tend to be sympathetic, giving you time to adjust. In addition, HR and relocation providers are well trained to recognize the challenges, and provide concierge services to facilitate the move long before you arrive as well as throughout the duration of the assignment--anything needed to help a family, especially the relocation spouse, transition successfully.
Yet when returning home, the (former) expat is often surprised to find themselves a stranger in their own country.
The expatriate finds the once familiar, unfamiliar. Things missed while living overseas are now overwhelming (like a visit to Costco after the limited choices offered at a local European market). Situations previously handled with ease are now a challenge to navigate (or impossible, such as getting a driver's permit for an 18-year old college student in order to teach them to drive before getting a driver's license--true story:).
Or the expat may simply miss the daily challenges of life in a foreign country (communicating in a foreign language, driving on the opposite side of the road, stores closed on Sundays, etc).
But often unlike the concierge service received upon arrival in a foreign land, the expatriate must find their own way with little 'hand-holding' as they choose new schools, navigate the DMV, connect utilities, purchase vehicles, identify service providers, find new friends, and discover the familiar is no longer the 'comfort zone' they remember.
In addition, there are often numerous extenuating circumstances that contributed to the move back such as the arrival of a new baby, kids leaving for college, health issues, divorce, aging parents or other major life events that create stress under normal circumstances.
The initial excitement turns to a surprising mix of sadness, alienation, disorientation...and a much slower than ever imagined readjustment to life back home. (And to make it worse, friends and co-workers who watched via social media the expats 'fabulous' international life experiencing the world will offer little sympathy!).
Finally, unlike the grace period often allowed to adjust to life and work in a new land, the employee and relocation spouse typically feel pressure (real or perceived) to immediately perform at full capacity.
So it's important to be prepared (knowledge is power!) and understand that repatriation typically ignites a rollercoaster of emotions. From the excitement to return home to family and friends--to a surprising mix of sadness, alienation, disorientation...and a much slower than ever imagined readjustment to life back home that can lead to loneliness, fear, depression, and anxiety if not anticipated.
8 Tips to Successfully Anticipate and Navigate the Return "Home"
1. Give yourself permission to adjust--and grieve--it’s part of the process
Don't try to instantly re-create and continue the life you left. You are no longer that same person! Give yourself permission to say 'no' to job or volunteer opportunities until fully ready. If you were the PTA president at your child's school when you left, wait at least a year before stepping back into a leadership role. You may even discover you no longer have the same passion for things you once enjoyed or felt like were your responsibility. Give yourself time to rediscover who you want to be in this next phase of life!
2. Find others who understand and give you grace
After arriving in Texas, I 'looked' like I belonged so most didn't realize how foreign I felt. Seek out people who have also lived somewhere else, even if simply another state. This is especially true when it comes to your real estate agent. You need someone who takes the time to get to know who you are and can help guide your search for neighborhoods, homes, schools, service providers and finding a place to 'belong.'
3. Stay in touch with friends made while abroad
Create a group text. Write letters (yes, with envelopes and stamps). Plan a reunion. Keeping in touch can serve as a reminder you are not alone!
4. Join an International Club or InterNations
If not one, find other expats and start one yourself. It was of the first and best things I did upon arriving in Southlake, TX--a seemingly homogeneous city until you look a little deeper!
5. Continue learning
One of the great things about moving is the opportunity to learn new skills. Find a cooking, photography, art or language class. Or create a class to teach others skills or passions developed while living abroad.
6. Don't fall back into old routines
What did you appreciate about where you lived? Seek to recreate it. I loved hiking in the forests, so was thrilled to find a beautiful wooded path near our Texas home that I walk regularly, especially on days when missing Germany.
Also, you are not the same person--or family--you were when you left. So take this into consideration before moving into your old neighborhood or buying your next home. (We left for Germany a family of 6, returned a family of 3--fortunately, we took this into consideration and downsized knowing we would rather spend money and time traveling especially as Texas is not 'home' to our kids!).
7. Find your purpose
Whether it's pursuing a job or volunteer opportunities, nothing creates gratitude more than service or work that utilizes your strengths and passions.
8. Protect your marriage / significant relationships
Recognize you are not the only person struggling with the return home. But unfortunately, divorce is not uncommon after the return home. So it is essential to be proactive and protect your relationship. (If you need a great international resource, check out www.thesignificantmarriage.com--it is faith-based but open for anyone to attend. The weekend provides a 'business plan' for marriage and helps couples find purpose in their stories in order to encourage and serve others).
If you've returned home, we'd love to hear about your experiences. What were the challenges? What made the return easier?
Lindy Chapman became a realtor in Dallas, TX, after numerous moves around the US and internationally. She is passionate about teaching consumers how to successfully navigate the disruption in the real estate industry, educating Realtors on the unique needs of the relocation client, providing career resources and connections for the trailing spouse, and is currently creating a relocation certification for realtors. Find her at www.lindychapman.com.