Living overseas is a big deal. As life transitions go, it’s HUGE. So it’s not surprising that expats who have settled into their new domestic situation live thoroughly “in the moment” — even when the moment lasts years and years. One of the side effects of that laser-like focus on expat life is a devilish mixture of amnesia and denial that pops up whenever the conversation turns to repatriation.
Ask a happy trailing/accompanying spouse/partner about her pre-pat life, and watch closely for her reaction. It only lasts a moment — blink and you might miss it — but the cognitive shift is perceptible. It’s as though her brain has to dig around in the archives to retrieve a file that’s no longer relevant. (“Life before this? Oh, it was just, I don’t know, ordinary, I suppose….)
If you really want to watch her squirm, ask her thoughts about repatriation. That whooshing noise you’ll hear — just before the sound of crickets chirping — is the mental equivalent of flushing something distasteful down the toilet. Nobody wants to think about it, let alone discuss about it.
Most of the expats I’ve talked to who are in the thick of their international stay have a vague mental image of the trajectory their lives are following. (Those who are happy with their expat lives, that is. The unhappy ones follow a different route.) There are 3½ stages:
1. Prepat Fog. Yes, there was life before expatriation, but somehow the memory isn’t as sharp as it once was. It’s still there, of course, just a little fuzzy around the edges — and it’ll become even fuzzier the longer the expat stays away.
1½. Adjustment. I consider this half a stage, because it’s relatively short-lived and usually challenging. The diagram portrays adjustment as a little dip, but it can be wider and deeper, depending on the circumstances (and the skill of the diagram artist.) Moods and satisfaction levels can swing violently during this time, but for most of us, they do level out eventually.
2. Happy Happy Fun Time. New experiences, new people, lots of mistakes, adjustment, growth, feeling alive. Good stuff.
3. Repat Gloom. Life. Is. OVER. It’s all downhill from here. Cue the sad music, and fade to black….
There is a fourth stage. I don’t have a snappy name for it; for the purpose of this discussion, we can simply call it “life.” It involves another adjustment, but after that the direction it takes is wide open. Sad music and fading gently away are certainly possibilities. It’s also conceivable that this stage can involve new experiences, new people, lots of mistakes, adjustment, growth, and feeling alive. Which one sounds better to you?