Your move overseas probably came with a generous helping of culture shock as you tried to come to terms with your new environment. Fortunately, the intensity of culture shock can be lessened by planning ahead and devising strategies for managing it.
The same is true of re-entry shock (also known as reverse culture shock: that unsettling feeling of alienation from the home culture that affects people when they repatriate.) The bad news is that you’ll probably go through the stages of culture shock (again!) as you readjust. The good news? Now that you’re aware of it, you can prepare for repatriation before you head home — maybe making the transition a little less shocking. Knowledge, my friends, is power.
What do you expect?
Establishing realistic expectations is essential to re-entry success. The United Nations offers this great advice to its returning volunteers:
- Spend some time before departure reflecting on your life abroad.
- Take stock of your feelings about leaving the expat community, and prepare yourself for the resulting sense of loss.
- Ask yourself, “Based on my assumptions, are my expectations of arriving home realistic?”
This process involves an honest appraisal of how living as an expat has affected you, and how these changes will impact your relationships with friends and family.
A common suggestion for keeping expectations manageable is to approach repatriation as if it were just another overseas relocation, complete with ambiguities and confusing cultural norms. Research this “new” destination to find up-to-date information about the culture and lifestyle, paying particular attention to any changes that have occurred in your home community while you’ve been away.
“Repatriates need to be dispelled of the notion that a great adventure has ended and that a unique time in their lives is over,” write researchers Sheila J. Ramsey and Barbara F. Schaetti. “They are, once again, entering a new and ever-changing cultural and physical environment, no matter how familiar it may indeed appear.”
A graceful exit
You may find yourself withdrawing from activities and friends during your final weeks abroad. Not to worry: that’s just your brain starting to make the switch from one location to the next. A little detachment is normal, but please don’t disappear entirely. You need to end this chapter of your life with a proper (that is, mindful) leave-taking by acknowledging the people, places, and rituals that gave your life in the host country meaning.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to collect contact information of friends and coworkers, as well as mementos of your host culture. These touchstones will provide an invaluable connection to your former life in the months and years ahead.
Of all the tactics you can employ to lessen re-entry shock — or evade it entirely — the most useful is a change of perspective. Instead of seeing repatriation as the return to a previous life, perhaps it’s better to reframe it as a fresh start. As Ramsey and Schaetti write, “people only move forward; ‘back’ exists in memory.”