A few days ago I read a blog post on the Wall Street Journal titled ‘Repatriation Blues: Expats struggle with the dark side of coming home’ by Debra Bruno.
Some of the things Bruno talks about really hit home and thought it would make for a nice discussion on the blog.
Lots of resources will tell you about what expat life is like, how to prepare for a new destination, how to settle in, but very few talk about repatriation, the return journey. What’s there to discuss in repatriation? you might ask. You’re coming back home. You know everything about home. You were probably born there. You’ve lived there. You probably have family there. Probably childhood friends too. Lots, I’d say. Sometimes the transition back home can be even more challenging than the expat shift. I can relate because I’ve been there.
I found Bruno’s article interesting because it’s the first piece I’ve come across that focuses on the return journey. Her narrative uses the experiences of several expats returning home who found the journey challenging, as support. It’s not something that most people talk about. To hear it made me feel normal. I’m not the only one, I thought. So did many others who read the article, I’m sure.
So what challenges exactly is she talking about. The crux of it is that when you move abroad you expect things to be different. Whereas when you’re returning you expect everything to be the same, which is not always the case. Just like your life has changed, so has the life of people you left behind. Your friends may have a new social circle new best friends, your siblings may have moved to other cities, countries, married, have had kids. Dynamics at home may have changed. And if you retune not expecting these changes, the transition may become even harder.
Bruno discusses how the hardest transitions happen with expats who didn’t especially want to leave. Many companies limit the amount of time employees can spend in a particular posting. “They may say you have to go home or go somewhere else. But you might say, I actually like living here.”
When A announced that we were moving to the UAE after 4 years in Malaysia, I wasn’t too ecstatic. And my gut feel was telling me something was wrong. So as I packed my ‘first home together’ in cartons and labelled them with a black marker, I wasn’t sure if I’d be seeing the contents ever again. This wasn’t too normal a feeling because A’s negotiations with his new employers were almost final and the idea was that till the paperwork was complete we would return home to Pakistan and then take it from there.
Finally after three months of dragging and paper work and more paperwork, A decided to pass on the offer and here we were ‘back home’ but not in the most ideal circumstances. That’s when I understood what my gut was trying to tell me all along.
I was now the ‘reluctant repatriate’, who had never wanted to ‘come back home’. What followed were the most challenging few months of my life. A tried to look for work from scratch. We both knew it could take long. Dynamics at home had changed. People had gone, new ones had come. Most of all I struggled with a constant feeling of being displaced. A refugee in my own home.
Lois Bushong, who grew up abroad as the child of missionaries and spent much of her own life abroad, became a therapist to help other expats deal with this transition. Bushong talks about instances where a trailing spouse might refuse to set down roots because she knows her spouse’s career might take her away again. Ms. Bushong had one client who refused to unpack, buy furniture, or make friends for two years after the repatriation. “She kept waiting for him to come home and say, ‘We’re moving again,’” she says.
The months I spent back home, I tried to assimilate into my environment as much as I could at the time. I took up a university teaching position, the same one I had left when we moved initially. Reconnected with my childhood friends. But at the back of my head, I knew this was a temporary arrangement. We would move soon. There was more hope in that notion than conviction because that was what I wanted. I wanted the expat life. Being home made me feel ordinary. One in a sea of millions. Now that I look back, my attempts at resettling may have been half hearted because I didn’t want to ‘resettle’. I never took up our bedroom, for one, preferring the guest room. I never unpacked. I lived eight months out of two suitcases.
I can look back at the situation more objectively today and I realize that in the grand scheme of things, the transition from Malaysia to Tanzania, may have never happened, if not for those few months of reluctant repatriation. As they say, there is always a method to the madness. Well, mostly.
Posting a link to Bruno’s article below: