Defining repatriation

Defining repatriation

“Class, repeat after me….”

“Don’t assume,” the saying goes. “It makes an ASS of U and ME.”

Well I don’t know about U, but ME is feeling pretty ASS-like at the moment.

I’ve been ploughing through the results of my repatriation survey, and it’s with a sinking heart that I realize I neglected to do something important. It’s the first thing you learn in Creating Surveys 101: define your terms.

Okay, you got me — I never took the course. But in my defence, it never even crossed my mind that my definition of repatriation would be different from anyone else’s. After all, the word comes from the Latin repatriare, which means “to go home again.” It’s made up of two Latin elements:

re, meaning “again”
patria, meaning “native country”

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of repatriation for the past 500 years has been this:

To return to the country of origin,
allegiance, or citizenship

Note the multiple interpretations of the original Latin patria. The dictionary definition offers three different qualifications for repatriation, which makes the job of creating a working definition for the purposes of my book a little harder.

My country of origin, for example, is England — a nation I left at the age of four. I haven’t spent more than two months there in the decades since. If I were to move to England, it would be an exciting experience, but a huge adjustment. It most definitely would not be a homecoming.

Citizenship as a qualification is tricky, too. I’ve met numerous people who were born abroad and hold the citizenship of their parents’ passport country, yet have never lived there. If you were born of American parents in Singapore and lived there for twenty years, would your move to the US be repatriation or expatriation? I’m sure there are legal opinions about this, but according to the definition above, if there’s no return, there’s no repatriation.

The third option — allegiance — provides a lot of wiggle room. Essentially, “returning to your country of allegiance” means you get to choose your home country. This makes sense for TCKs and other highly mobile people who haven’t lived in one place for more than a few years at a stretch. What would the criteria be? The country where you went to high school? Where you met your best friend? Where you felt safe?

There’s nothing new about any of this; it’s a debate that’s been going on forever. What I find interesting (yet makes me rue skipping Creating Surveys 101) is that a number of survey respondents define repatriation in a different way: something along the lines of “to leave one country in order to move to another.” Thus I’ve had several responses like this:

“I’m an Australian who has repatriated three times:
from Thailand to Denmark, from Denmark to Japan,
and finally from Japan to Australia.”

 I see only one repatriation here. Even if this person has a strong allegiance to Thailand, Denmark, or Japan, there’s no return to any of those countries. There has to be a return.

I discussed this with several repats on Facebook, and although there were minor differences, the consensus was something like this:

 Repatriation means returning to a country you call
home/once considered your permanent home.

What do you think?

If you haven’t taken my repatriation survey yet, don’t fret — there’s still time! Better be quick, though. The survey closes November 30 at midnight Eastern Standard Time.

Posted in My Repatriation Book, Repatriation | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Re-entry: expectations vs. reality

Re-entry: expectations vs. reality Re-entry: expectations and reality don't always matchWhen I decided to write a book about overcoming the challenges of repatriation, I knew I’d have to talk to repats about their experiences. I wanted to get an accurate picture of re-entry — the good, the bad, and the ugly. I wanted to pick the brains of the men and women who left their expat lives behind and lived to tell the tale.

Since I’m not much of a networker, this meant putting out a survey and crossing fingers and toes in the hopes people would respond. I was aiming for 100 responses, but clearly, I underestimated the power of the expat/repat community. I was shocked to get 235 responses the first day, a number that has more than tripled over the past couple of weeks.

To say I’m overwhelmed is putting it mildly. The support I’ve received has been incredible, from the many people who posted the survey link on their blogs and Facebook pages, to the people who wrote me encouraging notes along the lines of, “This book needs to be written,” to the 840 kind souls who took the time to fill out my survey and share their knowledge with me. Thank you all for your generosity.

I’ve started looking at the data, and already some interesting patterns are starting to emerge. One of the questions I had when I started this project is how our expectations of re-entry affect the process of readjustment. Another was whether subsequent re-entries become easier or harder. Let’s take a quick look at the responses to two questions in the survey about expectations and reality.

Of the 544 repats who responded to these questions, 269 repatriated twice, and 140 repatriated three times. I wish I’d included an option for a fourth re-entry, just to see if the pattern would hold. [Note that the figures on the charts are percentages of the total number of responses.]

Expectations

Re-entry ExpectationsI love this chart. It’s almost poetic, how expectations change from one re-entry to the next. The first time they repatriate, 68% of respondents have the classic “how hard can it be?” outlook on returning to their passport countries. The second time around, that optimism is dramatically curtailed. By the third re-entry, respondents are much less likely to expect readjustment to be a walk in the park.

 Reality

Re-entry: the realityThose 68% of first-time repats who thought re-entry would be easy were in for a big shock, as evidenced by the mirror images of their experiences in the two charts — expectations and actual experiences are exact opposites. While it’s encouraging to see that re-entry does get easier, it’s disheartening just how small those gains are: 33% said their first repatriation was easy, only 6% more labelled their third that way. The interesting thing is that by the third re-entry, expectations and reality are almost in sync. Experience obviously counts for something when it comes to understanding the ups and down of repatriation.

With so many responses to work through, I’ve only been able to take a cursory glance at one small sliver of the information I’ve received so far. I’m looking forward to diving into the rest of the data and seeing what it tells us about repatriation. I’ll be keeping the survey open for another few weeks, so please continue to let your repat friends know it’s available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/IWasAnExpatWife

Thanks again for all your help.

Posted in My Repatriation Book, Repatriation | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Help me write my book!

Help me write my book

This is not me. But I feel her pain.

I’m not much of a multitasker. When I decided to write a book on overcoming the challenges of repatriation, I told myself I’d continue to post regular updates on my blog. Ha! Who am I kidding? I can’t even walk and chew gum at the same time.

So apologies for not being very present lately. I’ve been hard at work reading what feels like every single word ever published on the subject of repatriation. Now I’d like to pick the brains of the accompanying spouses who have gone through re-entry and lived to tell the tale.

So please, if you’re a repat, won’t you take my survey? I designed it myself, and it’s really quite lovely. You can access it at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/IWasAnExpatWife or, if you don’t like the idea of doing an online survey, you can download a Word version and email your responses to me.

Feel free to pass the URL along to any repatriate spouses you know — the more, the merrier. I’ll share the survey results on the blog and in the book. Stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

An expat teacher’s story

An expat teacher's storyHow was your summer? Mine was spent housetraining my new puppy Max, cleaning up puppy puddles, taking shoes out of Max’s mouth, keeping the two dogs from killing each other, and wondering what the hell I was thinking when I agreed to adopt the damn puppy in the first place.

During those heavenly moments when Max slept, I dipped into the (virtual) stack of expat memoirs on my iPad. The first one I read was Here We Are & There We Go: Teaching and Travelling With Kids in Tow by Jill Dobbe.

Jill and her husband Dan were looking for a little excitement when they headed off to teach in Guam back in 1991. They soon became hooked on international life, and over the next two decades they and their two kids moved to a new country every couple of years.

Here We Are & There We Go covers their time in Guam, Singapore, Ghana, Guadalajara, Egypt, India, and Honduras. Jill has a lot of great material to work with, and it’s an entertaining read. Not entirely light-hearted — the family’s adoption experience is an unexpected note of grief  — but there’s humour there, too. And shopping — lots and lots of shopping.

Seven countries’ worth of stories are a lot to cram into a single book, and at times it was a little unsatisfying, like being served a sliver of cake when what you really want is to eat the whole thing, calories be damned. More than once I was disappointed to find we were moving on to the next destination before I was ready to leave the current one. I’m greedy, I know, but I wanted more.

As much as I love reading about people’s experiences in other places (especially lines like this: “Isaac held the hole up to his mouth and with one quick, hard blow blew out the dart, making a direct hit to the cobra’s head”), I have to admit I always perk up when they share their repatriation stories.

Jill and Dan moved back to the US after their Guadalajara sojourn. They soon found out that re-entry wasn’t quite as easy as they thought. “Repatriation was actually quite tough,” Jill told me in an email. “For one, I had so many conflicting feelings going on inside my brain. I was unsure if I really wanted to move back, and I didn’t feel ready to give up our lifestyle of traveling around the world. Everything we had experienced during our 10 years overseas was still such a big part of us. Then when we moved back we found that no one was really interested and people were more concerned about the new reality show, Survivor, and what the weather was going to be like the next day.” They lasted six years before the lure of expat life became too strong to ignore.

These days Jill works at the American School of Tegucigalpa in Honduras. She has no regrets about the decision to become serial expats. “It seems to me that what our kids experienced living in different countries and cultures far outweighed what they missed if they lived in the US during that time,” she says. The apples certainly haven’t fallen far from the tree: her daughter is a teacher in Honduras, and her son is in medical school in Granada.

It’s not surprising that after two decades of international moves, Jill’s concept of home has undergone a slight shift. “In my memoir I write that for us, home was wherever we were all together in one place chatting, laughing, and relaxing together,” she says. “Now that my kids have grown into adults, I think home is wherever mom and dad are living. I also think that home is wherever my ‘stuff’ is — the stuff that makes me happy, safe, and secure.”

Jill’s book, Here We Are & There We Go: Teaching and Travelling With Kids in Tow is available on Amazon.

And this is Max:

Max

Posted in Book review | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Expats by the numbers

Another great infographic from the folks at Feedbacq, this time on the world’s expat population — 230 million strong.

Expats by the numbers

Source: Feedbacq.com

Posted in About | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Even spacemen struggle with re-entry

Even spacemen struggle with re-entry

Commander Chris Hadfield

I read an article a few days ago about astronaut Chris Hadfield, who became the first Canadian to command the International Space Station this past December. Although he’s been to space twice before, this latest mission was his longest ever: nearly five months.

Commander Hadfield has been under the microscope since his return on the Soyuz spacecraft on May 13, as NASA scientists assess how his body is readapting to life on earth. What struck me in the interview with the Globe and Mail are the similarities between this interplanetary repatriate and those of us whose to-do lists on re-entry didn’t include “become reacquainted with gravity.”

For example, the accepted wisdom in the repatriation world is that expats who adjust well to their host culture and become more fully integrated often have the hardest time readjusting when they return home. This is something Commander Hadfield is experiencing.

“It’s very different this time,” he acknowledged. “I think that’s because … I was truly adapted to being a creature living in weightlessness, and that never happened on my previous two flights. This time the physical toll [on return] is much higher. The re-adaptation of my balance system is taking time.”

Stop me if I’m stretching here, but I know what he means; I felt off-balance most of my first year as a repat. Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same thing — I was able to stand up without my blood pressure crashing and my stomach lurching, after all — but emotional and cognitive disorientation is a big issue on re-entry, even without the added complication of gravitational problems. And although I’ve never been to space, I can certainly relate when he says he’s constantly groggy, “like I’ve just stepped off a roller coaster at the CNE [Canadian National Exhibition, an annual fair in Toronto].

One more thing before I let the man readjust in peace: just before leaving the International Space Station last week, the multitalented Chris Hadfield released his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, shot entirely in space. It’s beautiful — check it out.

And welcome home, Commander.

Posted in Repatriation | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The case of the woman who loved international crime fiction

The case of the woman who loved international crime fictionI’ve written before about my love of mystery fiction set in exotic places, an obsession that began in childhood. Some things never change, and these days my iPad is bursting with books written about people whose names I can’t pronounce, doing unsavoury things in places I’ve never heard of.

I’m a law-abiding person, and I like crime fiction because it takes me to a different world. International crime fiction does that and more. It’s the details that draw me in: those everyday asides about food, attitudes, history, and values that are even more compelling than the plots themselves. Reading outside my home culture is teaching me about other cultures, one bloodied corpse at a time.

Here are some of my favourite authors:

THAILAND: John Burdett, featuring Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police

Burdett, a Brit who lives in Thailand, has written several police procedurals about the underbelly of its craziest city. Bangkok 8 is the first — and best — book in the series. I’m going to tell you right up front that the plots are lurid and more than a bit out-there, but like I said, I don’t really read these books for the crime and punishment.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is half American, which is both a blessing and a curse. He’s also a devout Buddhist whose ongoing search for Enlightenment colours everything he does, sometimes clashing with his job requirements. He’s the most fully-realized character; the others — his corrupt superior, Colonel Vikorn, and his transsexual colleague Lek — are more one-dimensional, but that doesn’t detract from their entertainment value. His mother Nong, for example, is a former prostitute who owns a go-go bar. From her I learned more than I ever wanted about the Thai sex industry.

Sonchai has an endearing habit of addressing the reader directly. It’s a nice touch; I quite like being called farang (foreigner) and chided for my restrictive thinking. “Does it surprise you, farang, that a good ten per cent of the entities you see walking around in human form are not human at all?” he asks at one point. It actually surprises me very much, which is why I need Sonchai in my life.

IRELAND: Tana French, featuring the members of the Dublin Murder Squad

French is an Irish author who writes awesome psychological mysteries. No one-dimensional characters here; everyone who makes an appearance in her books is full of human complexity that’s revealed one layer at a time. The main protagonist is a Dublin homicide detective; the twist is that it’s a different one in every book. This not only keeps the series fresh, it forces us to constantly readjust our perceptions of each detective.

My favourite book in the series is Faithful Place, in which a cold case involving Detective Frank Mackey’s missing girlfriend suddenly warms up with the discovery of her suitcase, 20 years after she disappeared. Mackey’s life is turned upside down, throwing him back into the bosom of the dysfunctional family he fled many years ago. Good stuff.

SWEDEN: Camilla Läckberg, featuring Detective Patrik Hedström and his wife Erica Falck

Although I’ve dabbled in the works of Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, and of course, Stieg Larsson, Läckberg is my favourite among the Scandinavian mystery writers that seem to be multiplying like rabbits these days. She’s like a rock star in Sweden, where she’s sold more books than Mr. Larsson himself.

Her novels are set in the small fishing village of Fjällbacka, which suffers from a bad case of Murder She Wrote syndrome: it has a shockingly high murder rate for such a sleepy place. Despite all the killing and detecting, the heart of these books for me is the intimate look at the characters’ domestic lives. My favourites are The Ice Princess and The Stonecutter.

CHINA: Qui Xiaolong, featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao

I think the crime angle in the Inspector Chen books is just an excuse for Qui to write about his real love: China. The title of his 8th book in the series is The Enigma of China, but that could be the subtitle of any of these novels. The pace is a bit slow, and the politics bore me, but I love the insider’s view of a culture that’s evolving at breakneck speed.

That’s a small sampling of what’s on my virtual bookshelf. What’s on yours?

Posted in Book review | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

What the missionary sector can teach us about handling re-entry

What the missionary sector can teach us about handling re-entryWouldn’t it be nice if the corporate world took care of its repatriates the way missionary folk do?

My family was lucky when we moved abroad: Chef Boyardee’s employer sent us to Singapore for a look-see visit, provided cross-cultural training and Mandarin lessons for the entire family, and arranged settling-in services once we’d arrived. It was wonderful.

When we returned home, however, the silence was deafening.

When Missionary Kids come home
My friend Heather, an adult MK (Missionary Kid), tells me that this is not the case in her ministry. Over fifteen years ago, the Assemblies of God realized that returning missionary families were sorely in need of guidance as they struggled to readjust to American life. They set up a fabulous programme (two actually: one for adults, another for children) to address that need.

For the past five years, Heather has been serving as one of the Re-Entry Youth Coordinators for returning MKs. The children descend on AOG’s Missouri headquarters for a three-day session, and… well, I’ll let Heather tell you the rest:

“We talk about leaving, transition, and entering: going from being settled, to chaos, to that place where the new normal starts to happen and you’re settled again. We let them know that whatever emotions they’re feeling — anger, arguing with parents, bursting into tears for no reason — it’s all normal.

The first day we talk about leaving: what is home, the RAFT cycle, that sort of thing. Days two and three are transition and entering, respectively. We talk about our memories by doing an exercise with backpacks. When you unpack your bags, what do you find: trash or treasure? Do you refill it, recycle it, or do you repack it?

We split them into small groups of 3-5 kids with a counsellor*. That’s really key. It gives them a safe space to express themselves, to vent if they need to. And we talk about expectations constantly, because it’s so important for a good re-entry. We do an exercise with elastic bands to illustrate that the further expectations are from reality, the more it hurts when reality snaps. I know it sounds awful [she laughs as she says this] but making it concrete like that really helps them get it.”

It’s all about the kids
Doesn’t that sound freakin’ awesome? Every aspect of the program is tailored to the ages of the children, with great care taken to use language and examples they understand — including Bible stories. “Ruth left everything she knew to go away with Naomi,” Heather says. “What was Ruth feeling? What was she thinking? The kids need to realize they’re not alone in this.”

Some of the children Heather works with have been in the field so long they don’t remember much about their homeland. For the ones who have been living in developing areas, the busy, hyper-commercialized society they return to is an assault on the senses. “The US is a foreign culture for them, so that’s the way we treat it,” she says. “We take them to an all-you-can-eat buffet, for example. There’s so much food, it’s overwhelming — especially for kids who’ve been living in places where food isn’t as abundant. They ask interesting questions: “Is the buffet timed? Is there a plate limit?” Most of them walk around in a daze — it’s a huge culture shock for them, and it’s fascinating to watch them process it.”

Paying it forward
Heather has a lot of empathy for these children, because she’s been there herself. She was a teenager living in Austria when repatriation turned her happy world upside down. Especially disturbing for her was the speed with which it all happened: her family was given just six weeks notice. “I was in the middle of my tenth grade year, and it was traumatic,” she says. “I wish I’d been able to go through a program like this. It would have been helpful to have those tools. That’s why I think it means so much to me to work with these kids, because I had such a difficult re-entry.”

The great reward for Heather is seeing her young charges give themselves over to the process and come out the other side whole and well-adjusted. Because she keeps in touch with many of them on Facebook, she’s able to watch their re-entry experiences unfold in real time. Last summer, she read something by a former attendee that made her day:

“I’m happy in both places, but of course I can’t live in two places at one time. No matter where I go, I’ll be happy, but I know I’ll never be 100% happy.”

“She’s accepted that weird dichotomy of wanting to be in the host country and the home country at the same time,” Heather says. “She’s made her peace with it. That’s why programs like this are so important.”

Like I said: Wouldn’t it be nice?

.

Heather introduced me to this rap video, made by and about MKs (and PKs: Preachers’ Kids). Enjoy!

* Note from Heather: Most of the counsellors are MKs themselves. It is truly a special place to be and be a part of!

* Note from Maria: For more information on the programme, check out the website of the International Society of Missionary Kids.

Posted in Repatriation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Moving back home after living overseas

Moving back home after living overseas

As expatriate life draws to a close and the final phase in the expat cycle is about to begin, it’s normal to struggle with mixed feelings. Some expats dread the return to a “normal” life, while others are relieved their itinerant days will soon be behind them. Both groups are at risk for reverse culture shock: the disorienting feeling of being a foreigner in your homeland. The good news? You can lessen the effects of reverse culture shock with a two-pronged line of attack: preparing for re-entry while still in your host country, and following up with some practical steps once you’re back home.

The first few weeks back can feel like a typical home leave, especially if you’re not yet able to settle into a house of your own: the days may pass in a whirlwind of visiting, shopping, and fighting jetlag. But watch out — once this period of frantic activity passes, the reality of re-entry will start to sink in. It’s at this stage that you may begin to notice differences between the idealized “home” of memory and the not-so-ideal real life you’re actually living.

The lull before your household goods shipment arrives is the perfect time to begin the process of relearning your home culture. While you’re in this state of limbo — before the establishment of a permanent home makes the repatriation seem “official” — it’s also a good idea to revisit the strategies for re-entry you worked out before leaving your host country. (You did come up with a plan, didn’t you?)

Feathering your nest
Once your house is ready and your shipment has arrived, the hard work of creating a home can begin. Feathering the family nest is the first step in making everyone feel settled in the home culture. It signals that you’re starting to put down roots — a major change from the sometimes nomadic existence of many expat families.

Setting up a new home is an overwhelming job that can drag on for weeks (or longer.) According to Graebel International, however, faster is definitely better. In a 2005 Study of How to Help International Transferees Relocate, the international removals company reported that completing certain tasks made repats happier, faster.

Those who hung family photos early in the relocation process, for example,

“felt more settled, settled more quickly, and felt less stressed. Displaying photos seems to be an important component of feeling settled (along with the rather nuts and bolts tasks of unpacking boxes and arranging the furniture and kitchen.)”

Having visitors and engaging in hobbies soon after moving were also related to positive outcomes.

How to reintegrate into your home culture
A few more simple ideas for settling in:

  • Don’t rush. Are you a stay-at-home mom who’s considering returning to the workforce? Did you have to put your own career on hold while you were out there supporting your spouse’s? You might want to allow some time — at least a month or two — before jumping into a job search. Depending on the length of your career hiatus, you may need retraining, career counselling, or job search support. If you’re lucky, these services will be provided as part of your  organization’s relocation assistance policy. If not, consider them an investment in your future.
  • Keep well. The stress of re-entry can take a toll on your family’s wellbeing. Maintaining healthy habits — eating properly, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly — are especially critical at this time.
  • Help the little ones. Kids need guidance throughout their reintegration journey. Establishing routines early in the process is particularly important for young children. Because school-aged kids face their own challenges, I recommend having a little chat with teachers and school administrators about your child’s expat history. A brief discussion about the issues surrounding Third Culture Kids should ensure everyone involved has realistic expectations, but you might want to follow up a few weeks down the road just to make sure the message got through. I tell you this from experience: all the good intentions in the world don’t amount to much if the information doesn’t trickle down to the people who need it.
  • Get engaged. If you’re not feeling as “at home” as you thought you would, get out into the community and see what transpires. Encourage everyone in your family to choose a leisure activity or hobby that connects them to your home culture in some way. Many returnees get so caught up in the logistics of settling in that they forget to make time for fun.

Maintaining ties with your former host culture
Reintegrating into your home culture and actively honouring the memory of your former host culture(s) are not mutually exclusive. Just because no-one wants to hear about your life abroad (sorry, but it’s true) doesn’t mean you have to erase all traces of it from your memory. Embracing your overseas experience adds richness to your life, and it’s easily done:

  • Stay connected. Eating food, watching movies, celebrating festivals, and above all, socializing with people from the host culture keeps it relevant.
  • Keep learning. Continuing to study the local language (or engaging in another activity that reflects your host culture) will keep that association alive.
  • Don’t forget to write. Making the effort to stay in touch with the friends you left behind strengthens those relationships and reinforces happy memories of expatriate life.

Rediscovering the culture of home — and your place in it — isn’t as effortless as you may expect. It’s a process, and like so many things in life, it can’t be rushed. You may not believe me, but I swear it’s true: if you give it time, there really is such a thing as a happy post-expat life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Suite101.com on May 11, 2010 © Maria Foley.
Posted in Adjustment, Repatriation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

7 tips on surviving home leave

7 tips on surviving home leaveIt’s almost that time again: the start of the annual expat migration back home. Some of you will be going home to stay… but we’ll talk about that another day. Today I’d like to focus on home leave instead.

Home leave is a divisive topic in the expat community. Some people love going back home; others hate it. My best friend Deb lived in Belfast for seven years, and relished the intensity of her visits back to Toronto. “I packed in everything I could,” she says. “Everybody wants to see you, and it’s vibrant and exciting, because you’re cramming all the visiting and running around into three weeks. I never felt like it was too much.”

Another friend, Alyson, simply can’t relate. She confesses to being overwhelmed by her hectic home leave routine, which involves “sixteen flights in three weeks (most in the US), sleeping on relatives’ and friends’ couches, [and] getting the kids over jet lag twice (Asia to US, then East to West coast).” Organizing each year’s expedition is a Herculean task she would rather avoid.

Avoiding home leave disaster is all in the planning. Here are four do’s and three don’ts for ensuring a more satisfying and relaxing trip back home:

Book a hotel room. Home leave isn’t cheap, and staying with family or friends may seem like an attractive alternative to the added expense of a hotel room. But oh, how this strategy can backfire, especially if children are involved. Fatigue and overexcitement lead to meltdowns, jetlag leads to erratic sleep schedules, and sharing living quarters may very well lead to damaged relationships. At some point in the trip, every expat needs a little space; the privacy afforded by a room of your own is well worth the hotel bill.

Spend quality time with loved ones. Expats often feel that they’ve “moved on” while everyone back home has “stayed still.” Simply asking friends and relatives about their lives will reveal that this isn’t true. Yeah, there might be some initial awkwardness as people figure out how to relate to you, but taking the time to nurture significant relationships is too important to skip.

Treat home leave as a family vacation. “There is no balance of everyone’s needs,” says Alyson. “We have to see everyone or our parents complain that we don’t love them enough.” Trying to please everybody has been the undoing of many an expat. When stress levels starts to mount, you’re better off withdrawing from the fray until things cool down again. Hang out with your spouse and kids and enjoy your holiday, just like normal families do.

Reconnect with your home culture. Doing things that can’t be done in your host country — whether it’s eating certain foods, playing popular sports, or some other culture-specific activity — is a big part of what home leave is all about. Cultivating that bond with your home culture is important in maintaining a strong cultural identity, especially for the kids. Alyson leapt at the chance to put her sons in a baseball day camp in Washington, DC; not only did it give her some precious time to herself, but “the kids had a great time doing something they can’t do in Singapore.”

Don’t do too much. Many expats spend their entire home leave running themselves ragged. “It’s insane,” agrees Alyson, who spends three weeks criss-crossing the country, trying to fit everybody in. “I’m not that keen on my relatives, so wasting my summer holiday shuttling around visiting them is not my idea of fun.” (I’m not sure if she’s kidding about her relatives, but she makes a good point.)

A less stressful alternative is throwing a party (or several) to reduce the number of visits and cut down on the amount of travelling. Even better is planning these gatherings before arriving back home. Alyson has opted to start skipping some family members altogether, noting (tongue firmly in cheek) that she doesn’t want to “add another stop to the Pain Train.”

Don’t be a braggart. Relocating overseas is a life-changing experience, and every expat has stories to share. Too bad not everyone wants to hear them. Returning expats often don’t realize that their enthusiasm for their new lifestyle can sound like bragging — especially if that new lifestyle involves exotic travel. The list of things to avoid includes showing endless photos of you riding elephants, dancing the Flamenco, or doing anything else that smacks of privilege; using expat-speak; and starting sentences with “As I said to the ambassador down at the club….”

But don’t complain, either. If life abroad is less than ideal, any complaints are best saved for the therapist’s couch. Friends and family likely won’t sympathize about your hassles with the maid — they’ll be too busy thinking how pretentious you’ve become.

A version of this article originally appeared on Suite101.com on April 30, 2010 © Maria Foley.
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