How long after repatriating will I start to feel “at home” again?

Repatriation takes timeThe burning question asked by every expat facing re-entry (and every repat in its throes) is this: “How long does it take?”

It’s a good question, but it’s tough to answer definitively, for a couple of reasons. First, every expat (and therefore, every re-entry) is different. Second, repatriation isn’t an event. It’s a process.

Yes, it can be quick. In fact, some lucky souls re-integrate almost immediately. Of the 539 repats who answered this question on my repatriation survey last year, 11% of first-time returnees said they started to feel at home right away.

I’ll confess to gnashing my teeth with envy when I read that. My experience was quite different. For me, it took about two years and involved a lot of dancing, of the one-step-forwardtwo-steps-back variety. Eight years later, I still have occasional relapses. But again, everyone’s journey is unique.

Based on my research, I’d say the majority of repats (43%) start to feel at home within their first year back. That doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing after that; it just means the choppiest waters are behind them by that point.

How long did it take you?

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Reinvention and adaptation

Reinvention and adaptationWell, hello there.

I know it’s been a while, and I owe you an apology for walking out on you with no explanation. It wasn’t my intention to stay away for so long. But you know how it is — stuff happened.

I’m here to tell you why I haven’t been around. My story touches on two themes familiar to expats and repats: reinvention and adaptation.

About two years ago, I finally found the courage to admit that I wasn’t happy with the direction my life was taking. I realized I had a choice to make: continue on the path of least resistance (even though it was clearly no longer working for me), or set a new course.

I opted for change.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Change is messy. It rarely occurs in isolation, tending instead to seep into places you hadn’t intended it to go. Even with the best of intentions, family and friends sometimes become collateral damage. And once you set things in motion, there’s no telling where you’ll end up, because change begets more change.

That’s what happened to me. What began as a midlife tune-up took on a life of its own, knocking over everything in its path. This was a good thing, a necessary thing… but it was absolutely gruelling.

With my usual rotten timing, the need to upend my life came just days after launching the survey for my long-planned book on repatriation. I managed to continue reading through the responses of the hundreds of generous souls who shared their repat experiences with me. But reinvention is a resource-hungry endeavour, and with my attention focused on the heavy lifting of transition, my neglected book soon withered on the vine.

It was actually blogging that became the first casualty — I ran out of both time and things to say. Some months later, when I returned to school full time, it became painfully obvious that juggling work, studies, and family life was overtaxing my energy reserves. I simply had nothing left for anything outside those three priorities.

A week ago, I graduated with High Honours. The rest of my life is settling into a new normal, and although I expect to be feeling the ripples of change for some time, I’ve adapted. I’m proud of that. Now the universe is sending me signs that it’s time for me to reclaim some of the flotsam and jetsam of my previous life. In April, for example, I slipped out of class one afternoon to be interviewed by Debra Bruno, who writes for the Wall Street Journal’s Expat section. Debra’s article, “Repatriation Blues: Expats Struggle With the Dark Side of Coming Home,” perfectly captures the difficulties of re-entry, and got me thinking about my repatriation book project, gathering dust in the basement.

Two weeks ago I was interviewed by Katy Sewall, the NPR journalist who, along with her partner Tiffany Parks, explores expat and repat issues on The BitterSweet Life podcast. Reading over the notes for my book before our talk, I fell in love with the project all over again. I was so fired up that once our call was over, I opened the book file on my laptop, and picked up where I left off.

So I guess what I’m really trying to tell you is this: I’m back.

Posted in Repatriation | Tagged , , | 31 Comments

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 , , , , | 9 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.]


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.


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

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 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:


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


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