Repatriation and the reality of going home

House on the prairie

[The long summer holiday is a time when many expatriates are on the move, in line with the school year. This post originally appeared over at Your Expat Child but I’m re-posting it here ahead of the moving season.]

Having successfully moved a family abroad, the idea of the return journey can seem like a relatively straightforward one. It is common for those retuning home to think it will be easier to repatriate than it was to expatriate. After all, if you’ve lived there before, how hard can it be? However, unrealistic expectations about home and a lack of preparedness for the reality can in fact make repatriation more difficult that expatriation.

Some of the challenges of returning home are the same as those experienced when moving abroad in the first place. Accommodation needs to be found and prepared, jobs secured, schools vetted and packing and unpacking organised. Preparing for a return home as if for a new global assignment abroad can help repatriates make the practical and emotional adjustments needed. Yet, it can be easy to overlook the very real difficulties of setting up life in a new location because of the assumed familiarity of the destination on return. Even those who received support from an employer on expatriation may receive little support on repatriation. This might further lead families into a false sense of security.

Repatriation also brings its own unique challenges in addition to those accompanying any international relocation. Prior experience of life in home countries brings with it expectations about what it will be like to live there again. These are usually inaccurate, for two reasons. Firstly, home has changed while repatriates have been living abroad. Return visits during holidays, following the news and keeping in touch with friends and family help but do not reflect day-to-day life. Many returnees find they are not in tune with those around them and have to work hard to adjust to a new way of life. As a result, repatriates can experience reverse culture shock similar to the culture shock of moving to a new country. Old homes, social circles, workplaces neighbourhoods and habits are not as easy to slip back into as many people expect making them seem alien and unwelcoming rather than homely and familiar.

Secondly, repatriates themselves have changed as a result of living abroad and simply through the passage of time. Being an expatriate brings with it new world views, ways of life and expectations. These experiences can make it difficult to pick up old friendships and relate to family members. Some repatriates experience significant changes to their quality of life, perhaps finding their means and spending power reduced without the support of relocation packages or an advantageous local exchange rate. The possibility of settling for the longer term can be very liberating for some but can also seem less appealing than the daily thrill of living and working temporarily abroad in an exotic (or just different) location.

Change in returnees is nowhere more pronounced than in children and young people, whose experiences of living away from their home country may be even more formative in their identifies. If they have lived in their so-called home country before, they may have very little memory of it or their memories may be associated with a more childlike, younger self. Some children who might be considered to be repatriating have never lived in the country to which they are supposed to belong. This is even more significant if children have parents of different nationalities or themselves have dual nationality.

To make repatriations work, it is important to be open to the real challenges involved and to recognise the needs of all household members. This is just the same as on expatriation but can be harder to do because of rose-tinted glasses or, conversely, negative feelings about going backwards. The differences in the needs of household members can also be more acute. Moving abroad, households might be sharing in an adventure to an equally unknown location but each person will have very different experiences of their home country, which will further affect their return to it.

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