The sharp shock of returning home

The sharp shock of returning homeMany 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.

This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on April 26, 2010 © Maria Foley.
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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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39 Responses to The sharp shock of returning home

  1. Judy says:

    OMG you’ve brought it all back to me. I guess I was like Kat, the well adjusted expat who loved her life overseas who then crashed and burned when she returned home (even thought it wasn’t the first time and I should have expected it). Grief and loss is exactly what it is, mixed with unexpected culture shock. No wonder it’s pretty much a taboo subject amongst those still living overseas. However if you do hang in, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

    • Maria says:

      There is light indeed, although it still surprises me that I managed to get to that stage. By the way, Kat never made it back to Thailand, but she’s still in Texas with her husband and super-cute baby boy.

  2. I’ve been in the U.S. (NY) since 1989 and go back to Canada 2-5 times a year. I am always glad to see family and friends and familiar spots, but I also keep up with political and economic changes through my friends, and reading Canadian papers. I was always more American than Canadian (aggressive, in a hurry, whatever) and feel it more and more when I visit. I also have tremendous frustration any time I try to do business with Canadians — the endless hand-wringing and foot-shuffling and risk aversion. Gah! It’s why I have not returned and may never do so. I didn’t like it before I left and like it even less now.

    I do miss a feeling of community. I am glad for a few Canadian friends here who have also been here a long time.

    • Maria says:

      Your comments are even more interesting because of the perception of similarity between Canada and the US. I’m working (well, not really working — more like staring at the screen) on a post about the difficulties of moving to a “similar” culture, and this is a perfect illustration of that. More to the point, though, it does sound as though you’re going to suffer if you ever do come back here to live. Call me if that happens and we’ll go for coffee. (Although I suspect we’d be on opposite sides of the country — we might have to meet in Calgary.)

  3. Sine says:

    I can SO see this coming for me in about a month. Yep, down to a month now. Okay, I shouldn’t really be reading this at all but rather pack and sort before packers arrive tomorrow…

  4. aubrilata says:

    This happened to me not too long ago. 5 years ago, I started my studies again in New Zealand and embraced the idea of a new life and started building my life from there. I finished studying and worked for a year in a job that wasn’t related to my diploma and found out I had to leave because of immigration issues (not being able to renew my work visa because of that issue – the downside of being Asian).

    I’m 29, Filipino, born in Singapore, raised in Papua New Guinea, went to boarding school in Australia, and came back to the Philippines last year with only a month to prepare to come back. I lived a total of 6 years in the Philippines (2 years when I was a kid and 4 years when I went to college) before coming back here and it is still a shock. I can’t help but compare the lifestyle and how easy it was to be independent. The lifestyle and culture is so different here. I’ve embraced some aspect of it but these days, I’ve been “home sick” for NZ. I still can’t shake it off to this day, after nearly 2 years of being away.

    • Maria says:

      Having spent just 6 years in the Philippines, you’ve probably been hit more with culture shock than reverse culture shock. It must have been like moving to a foreign country for you. I do understand that feeling of homesickness for a place where you were happy. I settled into life back home within 2 years, but it took me almost 5 years to recover completely. Hang in there.

  5. naomihattaway says:

    Oy. That sounds scary. I dove into our two overseas homes with gusto. Does that mean that whenever we repatriate, I’m in for a shock? YIKES!

  6. Josy says:

    OMG! thank you for defining how I feel. After 5 years of expat living to return ‘home’ has been a huge adjustment. These feelings were confusing to me (and no one that understands) I was not prepared for it at all. I’m so happy to know that I am not alone and weird. Its been less than a year of leaving the expat life behind, its also taking all I’ve got to not buy a one way ticket out of here.

    • Maria says:

      I had plenty of fantasies about the one-way ticket myself when I first moved back. I still do from time to time, but it did get easier (although it took about two years before I felt normal again.) You’re definitely not alone in what you’re feeling. I found the best thing to do was connect with another repat — they’re the only people who understand how you feel.

  7. Marivic says:

    Oh dear, I thought its me who has the problem and so greatful to read your blog. After 13 years. abroad coming back to my home land is worst than a stranger to your own country , family and friends. I am suffering from reverse culture shock that no one would understand me in my family except of course my husband and my daughter. Closest friends are becoming aloof while family are not helping anyway…Oh goodness, I am giving myself at least a year and will buy a ticket to leave outside the country . Thank you for the lights you shed.

    • Maria says:

      It’s not just you! I felt awful coming back after just five years — I can’t imagine what 13 would be like. I also considered buying a one-way ticket to anywhere many times, but my family situation meant I had to stay put (for now, at least). Things do settle down after a while as everyone gets used to the new circumstances. It might take longer than a year, though. I wish you luck, and I hope it all gets better for you soon.

  8. Trinity says:

    Hi all,
    So I have been living in Prague for a year now, and the realization that I may be going back home to Canada soon has really been weighing upon my mind. I came here with the intention of really ‘living’ here, I didn’t want that temporary lifestyle feel that many expats here adopt, I wanted to live a normal life in another city. It was scary and exciting and everything I asked for and more. I got a good job, apartment, friends, all this with the extras of living in a historic beautiful, lively european city. It has been great and I honestly have no complaints (ok maybe the weather, its awful here). But now suddenly this feeling has crept over me, telling me it’s time to go soon and that I’m ‘done’ here, like I’ve accomplished and experienced more than I hoped for, so go home, you’re done. And now that this feeling is here, it does not wanna fade, its just always there and won’t die. I can’t imagine being home again, just like I couldnt imagine being here before I came, but I feel even more nervous about the return home. I guess it’s comforting to hear that everyone seems to feel this. Sometimes I can’t help but think ‘fuck going home!’ I have a good life here and nothing is really waiting for me at home (besides family and dogs), so why won’t my brain switch off from going home mode?? am I doomed to go home and forever dream of Prague? wtf

  9. Trinity says:

    and one last thing, is there a city in Canada that captures the excitement and old world charm of Europe, has a strong cultural identity/community, and maintains the comforts of home that we all long for??
    give me an option, please, help me out

    • Maria says:

      It’s a tough decision and it’s not made any easier by the conflicting emotions. The “what ifs?” once you get back suck as well. I do find it gets easier, though. I thought I’d be doomed to remember my good times in Singapore, but all it took was one trip back to banish the longing. Time heals. As for that Canadian city you’re looking for, the only one I can think of that comes close is Montreal. I haven’t travelled too much domestically though, so if anyone has any more suggestions, I’m all ears.

  10. Jeanette says:

    I am a 54 year old Australian who has lived/worked in Dubai for the last 9 years along with my 62 year old husband. We came here for 2 1/2 years and I counted every day wanting to return home. Somehow we are still here, but we do go home twice a year for a few weeks and I keep in regular contact with all our friends and family and also try to see as many of them as possible on our 2 trips home. I am planning to give up work next March and become a housewife who commutes home whenever I chose (mainly to see my Mother who until recently was in great health). My husband may join me in June 2014, but I have said if he choses, he can stay til June 2015 but then it’s time to head home and jointly share our friends and family. But inwardly I am concerned. I think moving home is one thing, but moving home to potential retirement at our age. We hope to travel north every 2 years for 3 months to visit all our friends we have made – BUT I am heading out to buy the book of Reverse Culture Shock for as many tips that I can get!

    • Maria says:

      You have lots going on, Jeanette: giving up work, retirement planning, parental health concerns, a split household. And repatriation, of course! If you have a good support network in place, it will be easier for you to handle all those changes at once. I think having a definite date for your husband to move back will also help — it’s the uncertainty that makes situations like yours stressful. With so many transitions happening at the same time, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of taking things slowly and remembering to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Even though this move is something you’ve wanted for some time, things can get pretty overwhelming once you’re actually home. Don’t forget to breathe.

  11. Deb says:

    I am so thankful I found this. My daughter has been living in Beijing for almost 3 yrs. She teaches English but for all intents and purposes, doesn’t really like the job……it was just something different to do with her life. Now at age 29 I think her ambivalence to coming home has another name: FEAR. She exhibited some of the classic re-entry signs when she came home for Christmas after her first year there. She was arrogant, rude, and constantly complaining about how much money is wasted here and how she could live for a month on what we throw away in a day. I have been hurt with her off handed remarks about not wanting to come home for the birth of our first grandchild, her future niece/nephew. After reading your story and all the comments, I have a bit more understanding. Now to get her to understand it’s perfectly normal and she is not alone.

    • Maria says:

      I think your daughter is very lucky to have such an understanding parent. It’s going to be tough for her if/when she moves back home, even worse if she doesn’t understand why she’s feeling this way. The support of family and friends does help, but I hope she’ll also consider some of the tips I’ve posted on ways to ease re-adjustment. Good luck.

  12. Signe Zink says:

    Hi, I lived in Dubai for 8 months, and were really sad that we had to go back to Denmark again this summer, due to my husbands work. I had absolutely no idea that I was going to go through all of these emotions – after all it was only 8 months…. Just praying it goes away soon. I’m so grateful to read your blog and knowing I’m not alone. Thanks!

    • Maria says:

      You’re definitely not alone! It will go away, but you might find the winter especially difficult this year. The first winter’s the hardest though. Good luck!

    • Hi, this is our 7th year in Dubai – I am scared to go back ‘home’!

      • signemzink says:

        Hi Grace, don’t do it, unless you have a very good reason! No, off course it’s possible to be happy elsewhere, but I would have liked to know that it’s harder to return than to leave my country! I guess Dubai gets to you – I miss the easy way of life, the climate and the all over “everything is possible”-attitude.
        Good luck, and happy new year

  13. Charlotte says:

    I just want to say thank you…l dont feel so alone. 3 yrs back in the US and I still day dream about living in London again. It gets easier but a girl can dream

  14. Maureen says:

    Thank you for your very clearly written post: it’s all true!
    But I’d like to just mention that another reason it’s hard to readjust when we come “home” is that the home culture has changed also from when we left. It’s like two streams flowing in different directions. We went away and changed, and our fellow countrymen stayed and changed. When we come back to what we expected, we find we don’t fit in because unconsciously our definition for that is already outdated. We have to adjust by speeding up as well. It is very hard work catching up! This is in addition to all the things you mentioned about changes in our viewpoints and so on.
    So, will we ever be able to fit in again? Not as well as when we left originally…we just have to get used to that and deal with it.

    • Maria says:

      You’re so right, and it always surprises me when repats (or expats on home leave) complain that nothing has changed back home. That’s because the changes to the expat/repat are so profound, but nothing ever stays the same and sometimes we just have to look a little closer to appreciate that. Thanks for commenting.

  15. Steph says:

    I’m glad to see that I am not alone like so many others. After living in Asia for 8 years (5 in Hong Kong), it’s been tough getting back to some sort of routine. I think about and look for jobs overseas constantly and think about the next adventure, yet when I was living overseas I constantly thought about home. My shock was the expense of everything and the high cost of living. I have been home for 6 months and in that time I have found a job, an apartment and bought my first new car. It has been incredibly stressful, especially starting a new job. Even though I live in the city I love, I still get bored and want to run away somewhere. I think the toughest part is not having a close group of friends to hang out with because they are either consumed with their own lives here at home or they are back in Asia. It’s been lonely and isolating, but I am pushing through.

  16. Jason says:

    Thank you for your post. It really hits home with me.

    There are so many mixed emotions with re-entry, but for me “fear” is the biggest. I’m coming home to the US in 3 months and am terrified. What’s worse is that I have to take care of my wife and 1 year old son. There is a lot of pressure. I’ve been abroad (Korean and now Japan) for 12 of the last 14 years. The two years back were for graduate school and a job that led to more expat life. This time I don’t have any job or school lined up, yet (working on it!!). The reason we’re coming back is to try and further my career, so it has to be done. I keep telling myself that in a couple years I might be able to get a better job in Asia after “doing time” in the US.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the “loss of excitement” being one of the major losses. I can go to Shibuya and stand in the busiest intersection in the world surrounded by a sea of humanity and love it, but in the US I will feel depressed waiting for the light to change at the offramp as the panhandlers hold their cardboard sign asking for money. Don’t even get me started about walking into a Walmart. Soul crushing. I might have to turn off Facebook when I do move since I’ll have to see my old friends enjoying their life while I’m in Boringville.

    The other thing is that most of my US friends have moved on without me after 14 years, so really I have far more friends in Asia than I do at “home”. I truly feel like a stranger in a strange land when I’m “home”. Thanks for letting me rant.

    • Maria says:

      You’re welcome to rant, Jason! One of the problems when we repatriate is that it’s hard to find someone who understands what it’s all about. If you can talk things over with another repat, that helps a lot. Your expat friends won’t be able to help, mostly because they don’t want to think about it. Feel free to write any time.

      • Helen says:

        I second what Maria say, Jason!! I have been in Europe since 1984 except for a brief one-year stint back in the US, and my European husband and I will be moving to the States next summer. It is already freaking me out!! But I am trying to calm myself by saying: we have to look at this as an adventure, just like living abroad has been. No matter where you live in the US, you don’t HAVE to shop at Walmart. Find the fun, funky local coffee shops and bizarre markets, explore the national parks, drive even if it is a couple hours to explore a new city. Check out travel sites to find out what is close by. That is what I am trying to tell myself anyway….. while I am also terrified of the boredom, the McMansions, the strip malls and the gun culture…. I guess the most important thing is that those feelings are normal!!!!

  17. Christopher says:

    Excellent post!

    I have been living in Asia for 5 years, 1 in Japan and 4 in China, having to go home one day is my nightmare, I just don’t want to. I feel completely disconnected from my relatives and family there, I don’t understand their thoughts or views and they don’t understand me. We don’t have the same idea of priorities in life, they can’t seem to think outside the cultural box that surrounds them, not that my native culture is closed minded but no culture in this world is as open as we expatriates become through our unique experience of life.

    I even had nightmares about it, of me heading home for holidays, missing the plane to come back here and not being able to buy another ticket, then being forced to go back to the boring and unadventurous life that I had before.

    I love living in another country, I love the unexpected, the weird things, the curious locals. I love the dirtiness and chaos of China far more than the cleanliness and the harmony in my home country.

  18. Cristen says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who is terrified of moving back home. I’ve been in Asia for over 10 years now and most of my experiences have been wonderful. I now have a 3 year old boy who is the love of my life! But I decided to leave my job on a whim (the company was experiencing difficulties but it was still a great job) and figured I’d pack it all in and head back (it was Christmastime as well so I was feeling vulnerable and lonely when I decided all of this). But a few months have passed since I quit my job and I can’t seem to bring myself to buy a plane ticket for my son and I (I am a single mom and making all of these decisions on my own has been real tough). I really thought I wanted to repatriate, I really did, but now I just feel more confused than ever. The ‘should I stay or should I go’ thing. I’m sure I could find another job if I stayed but I also feel that would just be ‘postponing change.’ Anyways, I needed to rant a bit, thanks for listening and good luck to all of those repats, including myself!

  19. twinshores says:

    I am so glad I found this blog. As a newly minted repat, it helps to know that what I am feeling is normal and I don’t have crazy voices in my head 🙂
    I recently moved back to India after 15+ years in the United States. Even with a smooth re-entry wrt logistics (house, car, domestic help, school for my daughter), there are times I feel absolutely lost. My husband is still is in the US and he is not able to understand why I am feeling lost when I have family and old friends around.
    I’ve found that what helps is exercising, doing a little bit of work/blogging/research, and getting out of the house.
    Interestingly, I need to go back for 2 weeks to the States for some work. I am curious to see how I will feel visiting my old haunts in NYC and more importantly, how I will feel when I come back to India..
    Good luck to all the repats.. I’ve heard from others that it gets better in a year or two.. In the meantime, one day at a time is my motto!

    • Maria says:

      It’s a good motto! I think you’re on the right track with your strategies. I’d love to hear how your US visit went. Returning to Singapore was eye-opening for me, and gave me a great deal of peace. I’d been gone for several years by the time I visited, though.

  20. Deschutes says:

    I googled ‘expats moving back challenges’ and ended up here. Thank you for sharing such an insightful essay on this theme. I’m sure many people are are surprised to find the many hidden challenges to returning to their home country. To be honest what I miss most about the USA is the beautiful nature and outdoors opportunities (was in Seattle and Portland), the work-obsessed culture and all-dominating corporate everything not so much. God it sounds horrible returning to USA…gonna do my best to stay abroad, oh yeah!

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