Coping with an unexpected repatriation

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Moving home during a pandemic

Every goodbye calls for preparation, but most times, life takes us by surprise. ~ Elisabetta Gnone

There hasn’t been much global movement in the past few months – compared to normal years – but, there have been many, many people making sudden, unexpected and often, unwanted moves back to their home countries due to Coronavirus.

Moving back home is harder than you’d expect. Moving back home when you aren’t ready or when you really don’t want to is incredibly difficult.

Global mobility and COVID

COVID-19 certainly has turned the world of relocation on its head. Nearly all international assignment postings are on hold for now. And with working from home proving so efficient in many cases, many firms are considering the future of global mobility altogether. It’s a really difficult time for all expats.

Instead, there have been many, many people making sudden, unexpected and often, unwanted moves back to their home countries.

  • Some had to leave very suddenly, leaving everything behind on emergency evacuation flights before lockdown. Many are staying in temporary accommodation until life returns to some kind of normal and they can get back to their overseas home.
  • Some families were split up, unable to see their partners or children while they wait for the flights to resume, and quarantine rules to relax.
  • Some were planning, but missed the boat (plane) and now don’t know when they can actually get home because the borders have been closed.
  • Some are staying put in their host country living a very different lockdown than their friends and family back home.
  • Some are reconsidering expat life altogether, focusing on making their unexpected repatriation more permanent, in order to be closer to family.
  • And ever increasing numbers of people have lost their jobs, meaning they have to leave their host country soon, due to visa cancellations.

Repatriation is hard

Repatriation is hard when you’re ready for it and planning for it.  It’s even harder when it’s unexpected unplanned and unwanted.

Leaving the country you’ve been enjoying living in without being able to say a proper goodbye is so supremely difficult. I know how it feels and how it affects you all.

Back in 2011 we were due to leave Tokyo in late April. We weren’t repatriating but we were moving to another country. Leaving parties had been arranged, end of school traditions had been planned. However, the big earthquake hit in March, and everything closed down instantly, and many expat friends relocated within days. We were unable to say goodbye. And this was very difficult indeed, particularly for my daughter who was about 10 years old at that point.

So, saying goodbye and having a proper ending to your stay in a country is really, really important – it gives you closure, it gives you a mental chance to move on.

Not being able to say goodbye, plus the stress of an emergency situation, makes it all so much harder for everyone.

People who cope best with repatriation are usually those who had a tough time overseas, suffered badly from homesickness and missed their families and home countries the most. And when you’re suddenly moving back due to a global pandemic it makes life even harder because you’re not returning to any form of normality whatsoever.

So why is repatriation so hard?

Mainly this is down to expectations and assumptions. We assume that because we’re moving back to a familiar country, everything will just carry on as normal, and we rapidly find out that this is not the case at all. We expect to simply slot back into our old life as if nothing happened. Wrong!

The person who returns home after living overseas is not the same person who went abroad in the first place. You’ve changed. The way you feel about things has changed. The way you view the world has changed. Not only that, your home country, friends and family at home have changed as well. Depending on how long you were away your home may have changed a lot. Politics may have changed – I think that’s highly likely – bureaucracy has changed, your neighbourhood has changed and of course your family has changed as well. Even food has changed!

When you live overseas you’re constantly processing new information, building new reference points. You’re learning new things every day and they’re all equally exciting and frustrating – but you can often shrug off the frustration as a cultural difference and enjoy it that way. You experience quite an adrenaline rush every single day. From driving on the wrong side of the road, to simply finding food you vaguely recognise. Dealing with utilities and new rules – how does the waste collection work? Can I wash my car here on a weekend? Why isn’t there any electricity? And the fun stuff – trying new foods, seeing new sights, experiencing different cultures, visiting temples, beaches, mountains – everything is new and fun. And you’re not on holiday! This is your life.

And then you’re back home.

Which can be a shock, to say the least. A ‘reverse culture shock‘, to be precise – yeah, it’s a thing.

Expect repatriation to be tough at the best of times; and I think we can safely say we are NOT living in the best of times right now. Deal with one day at a time and try to see repatriation as just another overseas assignment. I have no answers on the COVID situation, apart to reiterate that we are all experiencing it, wherever we are in the world. You are not alone.

And there are several articles here on ExpatChild which can help you work through the different issues you may be experiencing right now:

And many more here in the Repatriation Archives.

Listen to my Expatability Chat Podcast

Repatriation Blues

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  1. Thank you for this article. Any tips for the suddenly repatriated family on tips/tricks for when closure seems impossible?
    My family of 4 has lived overseas in Asia for 10yrs. We found ourselves unable to return to our home, our school, and friends while visiting for a two week trip to the USA in January.
    Our teen girls, ages 15 & 17, now find themselves living in a country that they only ever remember visiting.
    Most likely they will not see their community in Asia again.

    1. Ah, it’s a rough one, I’m sorry. We’ve been there
      You’ll probably find they take a great interest in aspects of that culture – pop culture, at their age. They will find like-minded teens in their home country, I’m sure! I’ve asked my daughter and she wisely says, try to look forward and not back too much. Social media is truly excellent at this age. They haven’t lost friends, they’re just in a different time zone. They’ll make it work.
      Something that may be cool = gather all photos into an album of ‘those years’ – a great Christmas gift, I think.
      Good luck, you’ll get there.

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