The trials of repatriation

By Sascha Matuszak



At first glance, repatriation from a foreign placement back to a home country may seem like a return to familiar waters. But more often than not, people returning “home” from abroad find that almost everything has changed, including one’s own outlook on what home truly is.  Culture shock is a two-way street and can affect everyone – from the seasoned expat to the child born into a nomad family – and it’s important to understand the symptoms of reverse culture shock in order to make the transition from one life to another easier for all.


A Tucked-in Tail

There are several telltale signs of repatriation-related stress, including excessive anger toward the home country and peers, a lack of motivation and energy, and elitism toward old and new friends. Most of these feelings arise from uncertainty about new career and life directions, fear of isolation, and the nagging worry that a return from abroad means a “step down” on the social ladder.

For some expats, going home may be perceived as “failure abroad,” resulting in one now scurrying back to the old ways with a tucked-in tail. For adults and professionals, this set of feelings can quickly become overblown and lead to dissatisfaction and even depression. On the flipside, old friends and family may have an “I told you so” attitude towards the “expat phase” that is now over with: it’s time to come back to the real world and real life back home. Repatriating expats might feel that the people back home cannot possibly understand the expat experience or relate to a life abroad, which may lead to negative views of both the home country and its people.


Closure for kids

Children face a different set of issues, depending on age. Smaller children crave stability and routine, so for toddlers and children under five, a big move to a different country with a different set of routines can be stressful. But even if the transition phase can be difficult, young children usually recover quickly as long as new routines lead to a new sense of stability. To help young children prepare and understand the move as a positive thing, experts suggest having a goodbye party before leaving. Taking a short family vacation before the big move may also help, conditioning kids traveling and the exciting prospect of a new life.

“What brings stress to older children is the social aspect. Will they be able to find new friends and to get used to a new school? Most of them have forgotten their first days when they arrived in China and they had to make friends so they feel they will never be able to create what they have here,” says Sophie de Fauconval, a counselor with the Community Center Shanghai. Children who have spent time in school abroad may face problems adjusting to a school system unaccustomed to “foreigners”, where both teachers and students lack experience with the expat life. Some children may revel in being the new kid, but others will feel isolated and miss their old friends and their accumulated status in their old community.

Communication is the underlying key to preparing older children for repatriation. Speak with your children about the move and urge them to speak candidly about how they feel. Try and explain why the family is moving, what your long-term goals are and how the move helps fulfill those goals. Encourage your children to maintain contact with friends abroad and facilitate it as much as possible. As with young children, throw a going away party, but let older children create the guest list, letting them choose the people who are most important to them. They might also benefit from giving each person on that list a gift, or a token, before leaving.


What is ‘real life’?

According to counselor Sophie de Fauconval, adults suffer from the repatriation blues for more than just social reasons. “One thing I feel that stresses adults out is to lose the advantages which go with expatriation: maid, driver, schools’ fees paid, home rent paid, and holidays,” she observes. But while the obvious benefits are difficult to part with, there are more profound reasons for missing the expat life.

That being said, some trailing spouses may actually feel better about returning home to “real life”. Foreign assignments can leave trailing spouses feeling lost, lonely and rudderless, and repatriation puts them back in familiar waters. But on the other hand, some trailing spouses love life abroad – the freedom, the singular lifestyle, a new identity – and find it very hard to return to a mundane life back home. It’s really important to understand that life abroad irrevocably changes one’s outlook. One way to describe life after living abroad is to compare it to life after having children. Sure, you still love the things you loved when it was “just you”, but you also need friends who also have children and much of your daily routine revolves around a new concept in your life.

For working spouses, a job in a foreign country tends to provide constant challenges and excitement, whereas work back in the home country may seem boring, unfulfilling and, again, a step down from the foreign assignment. Counselor Simona Renzoni suggests that repatriates make personal attempts for a e-socialization, and try to stay informed about changes, and contact previous repatriates to observe them as role models who know possible negative experiences upon return.


You are a different person

The main keys to managing repatriation are community and communication. Try to combine the two – or more – different communities in your life by focusing on the positive aspects of both. Don’t worry if you feel slightly isolated from your old friends, because you have changed and you are a different person than you were before you lived abroad. Be patient and flexible during the period of adjustment and try to relate your experience to your friends, while at the same time seek out people with similar experiences to your own. This advice goes for all people affected by a big move – children, trailing spouse and working spouse.



It’s good to read up on repatriation before making the big move. Below is a brief list of resources that discuss expat-repat issues. • “Third Culture Kids” by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken • “Homeward Bound” by Robin Pascoe • “The Art of Coming Home” by Craig Storti • “Missionary Kids’ Repatriation Narratives” by Amy Collier • “Repatriation: A How-To Guide for Returning Wisely” by Elizabeth     Perelstein and Jill Kristal • “The Impact of a Foreign Assignment and Subsequent Repatriation Experiences  on Eight Returned Expatriates Personal and Professional Lives” By Robert D.   Linhares




This article first appeared in the CARE magazine published by Community Center Shanghai, and permission was given to ShanghaiMamas to reprint.