Surviving repatriation: There is no magic bullet

Surviving repatriation: there is no magic bullet

Repatriation doesn’t always go as smoothly as expected.

“What can I do to make repatriation easier?”

The woman behind the question was an American expatriate — a friend of a friend of a friend  — who was about to return home after three years in Canada. We’d been chatting about Thanksgiving traditions when the conversation took this unexpected turn, catching me completely off guard.

“I keep hearing it’s going to be tough,” she went on, looking worried. “How did you handle it?”

She gazed at me expectantly, waiting for the magic bullet that would help her avoid re-entry shock and slip seamlessly back into her former existence. “Well, this is awkward,” I thought. It’s not that I didn’t have any ideas; I actually had loads of suggestions for easing into life as a repat. The problem was that the prospect of giving advice on the subject made me feel like a fraud.

See, I don’t exactly consider myself a poster child for graceful repatriation. I landed back in Canada with a jolt and proceeded to ignore all the excellent advice I’d been given about managing the transition, with predictable results. I was angry or depressed for most of the first two years, and it pains me to admit that I spent more time than was healthy wallowing in a black hole of self-pity. Definitely not my finest moment!

A few days after that conversation, I spoke with Jo Parfitt about her new novel, Sunshine Soup. Many of you know Jo as an indefatigable expert on all things expat, but this time I was more interested in hearing about her experiences as a repatriate. As usual, she didn’t disappoint. The first thing she mentioned was her certainty, when she moved back to England after a decade overseas, that her expat adventures had come to an end.

“My seven-year itch started after about year three,” she admitted with her customary humour. “By the time it got to seven years, there was nothing left to scratch it with apart from going away again.”

Did she curl up into a ball and brood over the loss of her expatriate lifestyle? Are you nuts? She jumped in with both feet and immediately set about recreating what she calls “the expat bubble” right there in her native land.

“I actively recognized the fact that I needed an international flavour — particularly, international people — in my life. I travelled a lot, went to a ton of expatriate conferences, and was involved in various expat groups. I also tried to find people living near me who either were foreign or had lived abroad. My best friends ended up being those people.”

Jo went even further, deciding to combine her two great loves: expat life and writing. It was during this period that she wrote A Career in Your Suitcase and the first edition of Forced to Fly. [Edited to add: I have a story in the second edition, Forced to Fly 2.] “I was determined to work in this expat niche, since that was what fed my soul,” she told me.

I love hearing repatriate success stories like Jo’s, because I’ve noticed that while reinvention and discovering one’s passion are common themes among expatriate women, all too often that adventurous spirit wanes when the once-intrepid explorer returns to her home shores. Why is it that so many of us neglect to pack our new and improved selves when we prepare to make this final expat journey? Why do we fall back into our old patterns, reverting to who we were instead of embracing who we’ve become?

Why does the end of expat life sometimes feel like the end of life itself?

“I think the key to repatriating successfully is to be proactive,” Jo said. “Know what you love to do and where your passions lie — and don’t be frightened to admit it.” Jo practices what she preaches, making a point of finding a writers’ circle wherever she lives — including, for those seven years, back “home” in England. “I am passionate about writing, and writers’ circles have always helped me find people who are soulmates on that level. That’s been hugely helpful.”

In the end, I told that American repat-to-be that repatriation, like all major life transitions, can be messy and confusing. I told her that grief and doubt are perfectly normal reactions, and that a little guilt over those perfectly normal reactions is likewise perfectly normal. And I told her my own story, as a cautionary tale, because knowing what not to do can come in awfully handy on occasion.

A body in motion will stay in motion; I believe the same can be said of souls. Keep moving forward, I advised her. Continue to explore, and grow, and pursue what brings you joy. I can only hope she’s better at following advice than I was.

What advice would you give someone on the eve of their repatriation?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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17 Responses to Surviving repatriation: There is no magic bullet

  1. Hi Maria,
    As usual, your post hit home. I actually got a physical feeling reading it akin to panic. How crazy is that? I have no plans to repatriate any time soon… BUT… the thought of it scares the heck out of me. Believe me, when it does happen I’ll be knocking on your door!
    Anne 🙂

    • Maria says:

      Oh Anne, you’re not crazy, and you’re certainly not alone — so many expats I’ve spoken to about repatriation are either in denial or full-blown panic mode. And of course you can knock on my door… once your jetlag has subsided and you’re back on Toronto time, of course!

  2. Excellent post, Maria. I’ve been an expat most of my adult life and never lived in my native Holland again after I left at 22 to marry my American husband in Kenya. I’ve lived in the US for several stretches in between years in other foreign countries. I feel a bit foreign in my own country now and probably wouldn’t fit in easily again, but I probably will never try.

    Now that I also have an American passport, the US is technically home (as well). It is easy to settle back in the US and in it’s lifestyle, practically speaking, but I think I am a global soul now and the last time I lived in the US it was difficult to find an international/expat circle of friends. Partly because we lived in a rural area, and partly because I was basically hanging in there until we could leave overseas again.

    Once you’ve lived an international life, and loved it, you’ve changed. I’d love to find a more permanent place eventually where I could make a life with other international types as my community.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks, Miss F! I was struck by your comment about “hanging around until we could leave again.” I’ve often wondered if that situation is harder or easier than knowing you’re back for good. If I knew from the outset that my repatriation was only temporary, I honestly don’t think I would’ve been able to make much of a mental effort to readjust.

      • Judy says:

        Having been in that situation twice, I can say it depends on how long it lasts. For a short while (less than a year) it’s OK, but the first time it happened we were back for almost 18 months and that is too long to put your life on hold.

  3. Sarah Koblow says:

    Love your honesty, we can get there it just sometimes takes time.

    • Maria says:

      Very impatient people (like me) don’t want to wait for Time to work its magic — we want to feel better NOW. 🙂 But yes, Time is a great healer, and I’ve come to appreciate the journey as much as the outcome.

  4. Thanks for writing an insightful piece that will certainly help many. While I haven’t repatriated, I’ve no doubt that it would be challenging and full of bumpy spots. Sometimes I think that we forget that not only have WE changed based on our experiences, but so have the people and places we’ve left behind. We don’t fit neatly into how it used to be, nor do we necessarily make a nice fit into what it’s like now, and vice versa. As always Jo is a fount of expat knowledge and experience: I understand my ATCK husband so much more now, and can’t imagine living anywhere that doesn’t include a good share of internationally focused people.

    • Maria says:

      I don’t think we ever do fit in completely anymore. Nine times out of ten, I’ll think or do or say exactly what I’d always thought or done or said in my pre-expat days. The tenth time, though, I’ll see that slightly perplexed look on the face of someone I’m talking to, and I realize my expat slip is showing.

      • “I realize my expat slip is showing.” Thank you for the laugh! I think my expat slip is permanently down to my ankles. I gave up hoisting it up 😉 Fortunately I now live abroad again (Moldova) and it’s the fashion here.

      • Maria says:

        Ha! After I posted that comment, it occurred to me that perhaps you’d have to be a certain age to understand the reference. I’m glad to know the Moldovians out there get it, at least!

  5. Judy says:

    You are SO right about there being no magic bullet. I too knew what I SHOULD be doing when we repatriated, but I still did exactly the wrong things for months (stayed home, spent too much time online .. hmm I STILL do that, lol!). I think Jo, you and I have all adopted the “complete denial” strategy to repatriation. As she puts it we’ve stayed in the expat “bubble” by writing about it, hanging around the expat water-cooler of social media and, for me, volunteering with expat organizations (Families in Global Transition). Being an expat is very much like joining an exclusive club, it makes us feel special. Who would want to give that up?

  6. Louise says:

    Great article Maria – Your Advice “Continue to explore, and grow, and pursue what brings you joy” – is spot on! Also draw on the great experience and lessons learned whilst abroad and use them for the future. I think everyone who has commented here does this through their writing, expat clubs, blogs and books. A great community for people to draw on, share in and learn from.
    I have such mixed thoughts about returning home one day …I did it once, took a year to settle and then loved it- Did I fit? Most of the times – yes, but then there were times when I realised only those who have experienced living abroad can ever really understand the allure. I remember when we decided to move on again for my husbands job – a friends said ” but i don’t understand – I appreciate he wants something new but why abroad there are jobs here you know”. And of course there were but we had caught the bug! Something I just could not describe to my home loving friend.

    • Maria says:

      I find the longer I stay here, the more mixed my feelings become. There are a lot of good things about living in a culture I understand, and I’m feeling quite comfortable these days. I worry that if I become too settled, I’ll pass on any future opportunities to move abroad out of sheer inertia. (Of course, I also worry that I’ll never get another opportunity to move abroad — I can’t win!)

  7. I wish I had Robin Pascoe’s book “Homeward Bound” the first time we repatriated. It would have given me comfort to know what I was going through was perfectly normal. Our second repatriation many years later was much easier to adjust to, having chosen a place to live back home which is so much like an expatriate community. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, just about everyone has moved here to retire from somewhere else. I also keep connected with my Expat life through FAUSA and regular trips back to Asia to work with the charity Tabitha-Cambodia.

    • Maria says:

      My favourite line from Robin’s book is the one that draws parallels between repatriation and having your contact lenses in the wrong eyes: everything looks almost — but not quite — the same. I’ve yet to find a better way of explaining it.

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