Repatriation Blues: Is There a Curve to Overcome Them?

    This has been called “reverse culture shock”

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    Experienced expats know that culture shock and homesickness are not just a problem when moving to a foreign country, they also occur when you return to your home country. This has been called “reverse culture shock”: returning and finding a home that has changed or, conversely, has remained too similar or static. How can you deal with overcoming the repatriation blues?

    Prepare for the possibility of repatriation early on

    The wisest thing to do is to be prepared from the beginning. This is especially important if you know for sure that your expatriate adventure will last only a few years (for example, for the duration of a permanent employment contract).

    But even if you don’t have a definite plan to return, it’s still good to have a contingency plan. The pandemic, for example, forced many unplanned repatriations. Other situations may lead you to repatriate: the illness of a family member, abrupt changes in immigration, your financial situation or the decision to have children, among others.

    Housing is one of the first things to consider in a repatriation plan. If you own property in your home country, it may be a good idea not to sell it. You could rent it out and generate passive income while abroad, at least as long as currency conversion rates and taxes don’t put you at a disadvantage. If you need to return home, you can go back and live there.

    On the forums, several French expats have asked about the process of returning home. Other forum users recommended that they make the administrative aspects of returning as easy as possible. Keeping a home in France, for example, makes it much easier to maintain proof of domicile (“justificatif de domicile”) and even apply for a health insurance card (“carte vitale”) upon return.

    Other returning expatriates who no longer own a home in their home country have sometimes been forced to return to their families, at least for a few months, until they can find a place to rent. That can cause problems in some situations: loss of independence, meddling relatives, interpersonal conflicts, lack of a quiet space to work from home. These problems can make the readjustment process more difficult than it should be.

    Also have tentative plans for possible jobs, education (if you have children), medical care and hobbies in case you need to return home. These plans could save you from experiencing a difficult and stressful readjustment curve.

    The “W-Curve” of Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock

    The W-curve model, a variant of the “U-curve,” was first proposed by American sociologists John and Jeanne Gullahorn in 1963 to describe the culture shock experienced by college freshmen moving away from home for the first time. Since then, it has been used to describe culture shock in general.

    In this model, the first U in the W-shape refers to expatriation, and the second U refers to repatriation. When expatriates first arrive in a foreign country, they experience culture shock (a fall) before they begin to adapt (rise). In the first stage of repatriation, things are fine because they are enjoying things like meeting their relatives and eating the local food again (to which they probably have a childhood attachment).

    However, this is often unfortunately followed by a sharp drop-off, when their loved ones realize that they have changed, or when they realize that their country has evolved (or alternatively, that it has remained too much unchanged). Fortunately, a period of recovery and reacculturation will follow, although this could take months or years for some returnees.

    A combination of cultural and emotional issues can make recovery difficult for some returning expatriates. Some of these issues are the level of cultural difference between their home country and their previous country of expatriation; how long they were abroad; their gender and sexual orientation; their level of education and political beliefs.

    For example, if a woman lived in a foreign country with more progressive gender norms than those in her own country, readjusting to conservative gender norms at home might take some time. When interviewed, an expatriate from Mauritius who returned home after living in China spoke about the difficulty of readjusting to a lower level of street safety for women at home. Not being able to walk outside alone after dark was a reverse culture shock for her, and it took her a few months to feel that it was “normal” to stay inside after dark or drive alone at night. At first, she felt claustrophobic.

    On the forum, another expat talks about an unexpected repatriation sadness he faced: feeling like an “ordinary guy” (“monsieur tout le monde”) at home instead of someone exceptional abroad. This expatriate returned to France after living for a few years in the UK and Spain. He thought life would be better in his home country, so he was not prepared for the sense of loss of power that came with feeling like “employee #2345” instead of a unique expat.

    Another expat at the forum commented that returnees may be better suited to work for multinationals at home than for local companies or the government. This could ease the transition home because they are now used to working in a highly international environment. The transition to a more local work culture might be difficult for them, at least at first.

    When interviewed, a British expatriate formerly living in Argentina said that the most unexpectedly difficult part of the repatriation blues for her was missing the friends she had made in South America. With the distance between the two countries, it is difficult for them to travel to see each other. The time difference also makes it difficult to make unplanned phone calls. He spent the formative years of his twenties in Argentina, so leaving these friendships still feels difficult even 5 years after returning to the UK. She has improved over the years, but is still getting over her sadness about repatriation.

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