Many expatriates, living in far-flung corners of the globe, long for home. Paralyzed by culture shock and reeling from homesickness, they imagine how wonderful it would be to return to the familiar comforts of the life they once had. Even those who adjusted well to the host culture and are happy with expatriate life assume that repatriation will be a breeze.
Yet a strange thing happens when they finally leave their peripatetic existence behind. Once the excitement of homecoming recedes and the steady stream of well-wishers tapers off, the expatriate — now, suddenly, a repatriate — finds herself exhibiting all the symptoms of culture shock she thought were behind her.
It’s a common assumption that this final move will be the smoothest of all expatriate transitions. After all, what could be simpler than going home? Yet as Sheila J. Ramsey and Barbara Schaetti write in “Reentry: Coming ‘Home’ to the Unfamiliar,” the reality is painfully different.
“Re-entry into one’s culture of origin is more stressful, with more unexpected consequences, than a transition into the unfamiliar,” they claim. This reverse culture shock (also known as re-entry shock) is all the more devastating because no one sees it coming: expats fully expect to be confused and frustrated in a new cultural environment, but not in the home culture they know so well.
The better you adjusted, the harder you fall
A few months after her return to Vancouver, my friend Kat began to miss her life in Bangkok. “I was completely unprepared for reverse culture shock,” she told me. “Life lost that excitement, the zing and joyfulness I experienced living abroad. It took every ounce of willpower to not buy a plane ticket and go back.”
Expats who, like Kat, successfully adjusted to their host culture, are most at risk for a difficult re-entry. The authors of a 2007 study on repatriation explain that these expats “experience changes in their values, attitudes, behaviors, ideas and perceptions, and must subsequently integrate these changes with their home culture behavior and attitudes.”
The experience of living as an expat changes people in ways they sometimes don’t fully appreciate until they return home. They may have undergone a fundamental shift in perspective, and are disturbed to discover that in many respects they just don’t “fit in” any more. Expressing this disconnect has its own difficulties: some experiences are hard to explain to those outside the expat community, and many friends and relatives are simply not receptive to hearing about life abroad.
The longer you’re away, the more difficult the re-adjustment process will be. Kat, who spent five happy years in Asia, struggled for a year before feeling comfortable back home. She hadn’t expected to feel homesick for her host country: “Life in Canada was predictable, sterile and boring. There weren’t opportunities to ride sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike down a hot, dusty road or to watch the sun set from the top of an ancient temple. And there was no street food! The adventure was gone, and it hit me hard.”
Grieving for the life you’ve lost
The end of expat life means many losses: relationships, travel opportunities, enhanced lifestyle, and social status, to name a few. Sometimes what’s lost is the feeling of being special, as my friend Deb discovered. “Everybody makes the effort to come see you [when you’re on home leave]” she said on the phone one day. “Now that I’ve been home for a couple of years, I’m just a part of everyday life again. I’m not an event any more. Nobody’s dropping everything to have coffee with me.”
It’s natural to mourn these losses. Grief is a significant element of culture shock, and researchers Susan MacDonald and Nancy Arthur found that expatriates’ feelings of loss play a big role in the extent to which they experience re-entry shock. “The greater the perception of loss,” they write, “the greater the repatriation difficulties.”
The transformations experienced by repatriates may affect relationships with those closest to them, who don’t necessarily comprehend the subtle changes that have taken place and may not always accept them. The need to grieve the losses caused by re-entry can also intensify the lack of understanding and patience exhibited by family and friends. You can see why repatriation can be as isolating an experience as the initial move overseas. Yet once you learn how to cope with reverse culture shock and re-settle into the home culture, you’ll realize that it is possible to go home again — as long as you accept that home has changed, too.