As expatriate life draws to a close and the final phase in the expat cycle is about to begin, it’s normal to struggle with mixed feelings. Some expats dread the return to a “normal” life, while others are relieved their itinerant days will soon be behind them. Both groups are at risk for reverse culture shock: the disorienting feeling of being a foreigner in your homeland. The good news? You can lessen the effects of reverse culture shock with a two-pronged line of attack: preparing for re-entry while still in your host country, and following up with some practical steps once you’re back home.
The first few weeks back can feel like a typical home leave, especially if you’re not yet able to settle into a house of your own: the days may pass in a whirlwind of visiting, shopping, and fighting jetlag. But watch out — once this period of frantic activity passes, the reality of re-entry will start to sink in. It’s at this stage that you may begin to notice differences between the idealized “home” of memory and the not-so-ideal real life you’re actually living.
The lull before your household goods shipment arrives is the perfect time to begin the process of relearning your home culture. While you’re in this state of limbo — before the establishment of a permanent home makes the repatriation seem “official” — it’s also a good idea to revisit the strategies for re-entry you worked out before leaving your host country. (You did come up with a plan, didn’t you?)
Feathering your nest
Once your house is ready and your shipment has arrived, the hard work of creating a home can begin. Feathering the family nest is the first step in making everyone feel settled in the home culture. It signals that you’re starting to put down roots — a major change from the sometimes nomadic existence of many expat families.
Setting up a new home is an overwhelming job that can drag on for weeks (or longer.) According to Graebel International, however, faster is definitely better. In a 2005 Study of How to Help International Transferees Relocate, the international removals company reported that completing certain tasks made repats happier, faster.
Those who hung family photos early in the relocation process, for example,
“felt more settled, settled more quickly, and felt less stressed. Displaying photos seems to be an important component of feeling settled (along with the rather nuts and bolts tasks of unpacking boxes and arranging the furniture and kitchen.)”
Having visitors and engaging in hobbies soon after moving were also related to positive outcomes.
How to reintegrate into your home culture
A few more simple ideas for settling in:
- Don’t rush. Are you a stay-at-home mom who’s considering returning to the workforce? Did you have to put your own career on hold while you were out there supporting your spouse’s? You might want to allow some time — at least a month or two — before jumping into a job search. Depending on the length of your career hiatus, you may need retraining, career counselling, or job search support. If you’re lucky, these services will be provided as part of your organization’s relocation assistance policy. If not, consider them an investment in your future.
- Keep well. The stress of re-entry can take a toll on your family’s wellbeing. Maintaining healthy habits — eating properly, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly — are especially critical at this time.
- Help the little ones. Kids need guidance throughout their reintegration journey. Establishing routines early in the process is particularly important for young children. Because school-aged kids face their own challenges, I recommend having a little chat with teachers and school administrators about your child’s expat history. A brief discussion about the issues surrounding Third Culture Kids should ensure everyone involved has realistic expectations, but you might want to follow up a few weeks down the road just to make sure the message got through. I tell you this from experience: all the good intentions in the world don’t amount to much if the information doesn’t trickle down to the people who need it.
- Get engaged. If you’re not feeling as “at home” as you thought you would, get out into the community and see what transpires. Encourage everyone in your family to choose a leisure activity or hobby that connects them to your home culture in some way. Many returnees get so caught up in the logistics of settling in that they forget to make time for fun.
Maintaining ties with your former host culture
Reintegrating into your home culture and actively honouring the memory of your former host culture(s) are not mutually exclusive. Just because no-one wants to hear about your life abroad (sorry, but it’s true) doesn’t mean you have to erase all traces of it from your memory. Embracing your overseas experience adds richness to your life, and it’s easily done:
- Stay connected. Eating food, watching movies, celebrating festivals, and above all, socializing with people from the host culture keeps it relevant.
- Keep learning. Continuing to study the local language (or engaging in another activity that reflects your host culture) will keep that association alive.
- Don’t forget to write. Making the effort to stay in touch with the friends you left behind strengthens those relationships and reinforces happy memories of expatriate life.
Rediscovering the culture of home — and your place in it — isn’t as effortless as you may expect. It’s a process, and like so many things in life, it can’t be rushed. You may not believe me, but I swear it’s true: if you give it time, there really is such a thing as a happy post-expat life.