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Expats Returning Home

The End of Expatriate Life Can Lead to Re-Entry Shock

When I worked here, I met dozens of people who moved to Spain, but for one reason or another later chose to return to the UK. I was surprised to find that repatriating expats often find that going home is harder than they expected. These tips for avoiding reverse culture shock may make readjusting easier:

A move overseas sometimes leaves expatriates grappling with culture shock as they attempt to come to terms with their new cultural environment. The intensity of culture shock can be lessened by planning ahead and devising strategies for managing this. The same is true of re-entry shock (also known as reverse culture shock): the unsettling feeling of alienation from the culture of origin, that affects people when they repatriate. Laying the groundwork before returning home can limit the severity of re-entry shock.

Repatriation is Easier With a Plan

Understanding the nature of reverse culture shock and creating a plan for tackling it, are among the first steps to a successful homecoming. According to researchers Susan MacDonald and Nancy Arthur of the University of Calgary, there is a positive association between preparing for re-entry and ease of subsequent reintegration.

In “Employees’ Perceptions of Repatriation,” MacDonald and Arthur suggest that expats begin the process by making a firm commitment to managing their repatriation in a proactive manner. They write that “it is empowering for individuals to make the transition of re-entry a purposeful and meaningful endeavour, by creating the future and determining one’s destiny.” To this end, it is important for expats to set manageable goals to guide the course of re-entry, and to evaluate their progress at regular intervals.

Pre-departure Strategies for Expats Returning Home

Mentally preparing oneself for repatriation before heading home is crucial. “Reverse homesickness” and feelings of dissatisfaction with the culture of origin, are extremely common on re-entry and returning expats usually progress through the stages of culture shock as they readjust. Anticipating these stages allows expats to develop strategies for dealing with them effectively.

Establishing realistic expectations is essential to the success of the re-entry experience. The United Nations, in its “End of Assignment Handbook for UN Volunteers,” recommends that returnees spend some time before departure, reflecting on their life abroad, taking stock of their feelings about leaving the expat community, and preparing themselves for the resulting sense of loss.

One method for keeping expectations manageable is to approach repatriation as if it were just another overseas relocation. In “Re-entry: Coming ‘Home’ to the Unfamiliar,” Sheila J. Ramsey and Barbara Schaetti suggest thinking of home as a foreign country; replete with ambiguities and confusing cultural norms. By researching the “new” destination, the expat is able to acquire up-to-date information about the culture and lifestyle, paying particular attention to any changes that have occurred in the home community since the initial move abroad.
Reframing re-entry in this way reduces the pressure to be fully functional in the home culture immediately on arrival. “Repatriates need to be dispelled of the notion that a great adventure has ended and that a unique time in their lives is over,” write Ramsey and Schaetti. “They are, once again, entering a new and ever-changing cultural and physical environment, no matter how familiar it may indeed appear.”

The UN advises returning expats to critically examine the vision they have of their future by asking, “Based on my assumptions, are my expectations of arriving home realistic?” This process also involves an honest appraisal of how living as an expat has affected the individual, and how these changes will impact relationships with friends and family.

Expats frequently find themselves withdrawing from people and activities during the final weeks of an assignment, but leave-taking is a significant step in the transition from one community to another and shouldn’t be omitted. It’s important to acknowledge; in whatever manner is appropriate; the people, places, and rituals, that gave the expatriate’s time in the host country some meaning. This is also a good time to collect contact information of friends and co-workers, as well as mementoes of the host culture. These touchstones will provide an invaluable connection to the expatriate’s former life, in the months and years ahead.

If the newly repatriated has incorporated the psychological strategies outlined above; settling into the home culture is likely to be less stressful. Of all the tactics expatriates can employ to lessen re-entry shock; or evade it entirely; the best preparation is a change of perspective. Instead of seeing repatriation as the return to a previous life, it should perhaps be re-imagined as a fresh start. After all, as Ramsey and Schaetti write, “people only move forward; ‘back’ exists only in memory.”

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