Repatriation struggles

Which is harder: moving abroad or coming home?

I asked the question above on my Facebook Page, exactly one year after my repatriation to the UK having lived overseas for 12 years.

I have to admit, I was struggling with that final move – still am, to be frank, and I was so relieved to discover that almost everyone who answered expressed the same response I was feeling…

Coming home is so much harder than moving abroad in the first place.

Here are just a few of the comments from that original question, with identities protected:

“After ten years away, coming home has been the toughest emotionally. Feel like I am coming out the other side now thank goodness!” (LDS)

“Coming home was so much harder than I anticipated. We moved back in 2015 and I am still not fully settled into life back home…heart is always abroad.” (SM)

“Definitely coming home, almost 4 years and still not settled.” (AC)

I was surprised to see just how long this feeling lasted for many – four years! And even longer for some people.

Others are still in the midst of it all. Is it simply reverse culture shock? Or are these feelings caused by other reasons?

What kind of things do people find most difficult about repatriation?

“My old life doesn’t exist, everything has changed and me included. We returned to a different area so don’t have the benefit of being ‘home’, but we don’t want to be here so it’s hard to settle and make roots.” (CT)

“It’s so much more stressful and busier here. People don’t have the time, or want to make the time, for socializing, especially on a whim. I loved being removed from the all-day long barrage of politics and media – and now we’re in the thick of it, but times 1000. I’m practically counting the days until my youngest is done with school so we can move on.” (JMS)

“If one hasn’t lived across cultures, it’s hard to explain how it changes a person, all while the entirety of people, place and circumstances when you come back have changed as well. It’s a little like trying to live in a fun house mirror.” (LJ)

“You’re not the same person and your home country has changed too. The good news is it gets better as soon as our kids feel at home.” (MJN)

The UK has certainly changed a lot since we left in 2006, some changes are subtle – nothing tastes quite the same because salt and sugar has been removed from everything! Some changes are the total opposite of subtle – the outspoken xenophobia is shocking.

The following comment also resonates strongly with me;

“Coming home has been 8 months of ‘finding our footing’ and having much less excitement and adrenaline.” (LH)

Yes! Everything is familiar; too familiar. There’s nothing to surprise me here. No interesting and exotic birds or wildlife (everywhere, but especially South Africa), no Storm Troopers walking up the road (Tokyo), no unusual cultural differences to observe (casual nakedness in Germany!).

While there’s less daily stress when everything is familiar, and you know how everything works in your home country, somehow we become accustomed to living life on the edge while abroad; happily never knowing quite what will happen next. While the UK I have returned to is very different in many ways from the UK I left in 2006, I had spent enough years as an adult here that day-to-day life can be quite dull.

“Going back. The expat world is built to create connections and/or friends in the matter of days (everyone is in the same boat). Home does not need new friends, home does not need to complain to each other how hard it is to find a good “insert item here”, home never had to restart… it kept going… you did not.” (ADD)

This is generally true of countries/ cities with a large expat community where you can be swept up and looked after by the expat welcome committees, not so much in other countries/cities.

Other viewpoints to note:

Another point I completely sympathise with, but won’t go into here for various reasons:

“So far, moving abroad and then another location has been painful, but at least when we return, with no visas or company involvement to upset me, so it should be physically easier.” (SS)

When you move abroad with company involvement, you tend to be ‘in a system’ of  a kind; ie, they know you’re there, even if you don’t need their help – or their ‘help’ is more hindrance than help; they may have events and such you could go to if you wish; they may have some kind of welfare assistance, making sure you’re OK. When you move back home, you are dropped out of that system completely. I’m referring to the accompanying partner here, of course, not the worker. The accompanying partner has to, once again, make their own way in life with no safety net. It may be a more familiar way of life, but it’s still different from when you left.

“I’m so relieved to see these answers. Coming ‘home’ has definitely been the hardest move. We’ve just returned to the UK (only 5 months ago) after being away for 8 years and living in 3 different, diverse countries and with children who have never lived here. Still finding trying to find my feet, helping my children settle in and trying not to talk too much about my expat adventures abroad (SB)”

“I had to view “home” as a foreign country with cultural differences to get used to and lean to love-a new adventure. Once I changed my approach my expectations fell into sync and it was much easier. Mind you I moved to my passport country not my home town, which this would not have been possible to do!” (KW)

“I wonder if the problem is that the older you get, the harder is to adapt to big changes? (ALA)”

In response to the comment above, in my case it’s not a matter of  finding it harder to adapt to a big change (and yes, I am ‘older‘!) – I first moved overseas when I was 41 and adapted perfectly well, more that I simply don’t like it here. Unfortunately, I cannot move.

“It helps to consider ‘back’, or wherever you land, as a new assignment (or new move abroad). You have to truly commit to building a new life.” (LJ)

And some excellent advice;

“Do give yourselves up to 2 years to re-adjust. Kids can take longer than the adults. Don’t dismiss that you’ve changed & so has your home city or country while you were away. Friends have moved on from you even if they’ve not left the country. Seek out other internationals as you may find their energy more positive. Locals will expect you to know everything so asks newcomer for help. Family will want your presence more frequently can also take some adjusting to as you’ve been a smaller unit away for some time. If time allows choose short getaways, 3-4 days with just your immediate family & explore somewhere new in your home country. Treat being back like an adventure that may help. Give yourself grace to be sad, depressed and all the emotions you & your family members might feel, and at completely different times. Good luck!” (PR)

Sadly, though, not all areas have ‘other internationals’ or ex-expats to mingle with.

I’m sure it would also be much easier to repatriate if you want to repatriate; have been homesick; have friends and family around; like the place you have moved back to… (me!)

Moan over! Normal service will be resumed… soon 😉

Expatability Chat Podcast

Repatriation Blues

Repatriation after an expat assignment is hard for everyone – unless you really, really wanted to move home!

It’s incredibly difficult when your move back home is unexpected, unplanned, and unwanted.

The first episode of my Expatability Chat Podcast was published in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, when many expats were repatriated unexpectedly.

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  1. I am moving back to Canada with my British husband. I have lived in the UK for 18 years and my husband has never lived abroad. I have worried about how he will adjust but I am starting to realise I should be just as worried about myself. When I left Canada I was 35 and still had some energy of youth. Now at 53, I have no idea where I will get the energy…:)

  2. We moved back to Australia 3 years ago, after 9 years in the Philippines. It’s taken all this time to adjust. My kids did not remember ever living here, and could not relate to country-town kids, after international schooling. I totally agree with the part about family wanting to have frequent catch ups. We were a tight unit of four and that’s hard to let go. It’s been much more challenging than our move to Manila, but things are starting to settle down now.

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