Defining repatriation

Defining repatriation

“Class, repeat after me….”

“Don’t assume,” the saying goes. “It makes an ASS of U and ME.”

Well I don’t know about U, but ME is feeling pretty ASS-like at the moment.

I’ve been ploughing through the results of my repatriation survey, and it’s with a sinking heart that I realize I neglected to do something important. It’s the first thing you learn in Creating Surveys 101: define your terms.

Okay, you got me — I never took the course. But in my defence, it never even crossed my mind that my definition of repatriation would be different from anyone else’s. After all, the word comes from the Latin repatriare, which means “to go home again.” It’s made up of two Latin elements:

re, meaning “again”
patria, meaning “native country”

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of repatriation for the past 500 years has been this:

To return to the country of origin,
allegiance, or citizenship

Note the multiple interpretations of the original Latin patria. The dictionary definition offers three different qualifications for repatriation, which makes the job of creating a working definition for the purposes of my book a little harder.

My country of origin, for example, is England — a nation I left at the age of four. I haven’t spent more than two months there in the decades since. If I were to move to England, it would be an exciting experience, but a huge adjustment. It most definitely would not be a homecoming.

Citizenship as a qualification is tricky, too. I’ve met numerous people who were born abroad and hold the citizenship of their parents’ passport country, yet have never lived there. If you were born of American parents in Singapore and lived there for twenty years, would your move to the US be repatriation or expatriation? I’m sure there are legal opinions about this, but according to the definition above, if there’s no return, there’s no repatriation.

The third option — allegiance — provides a lot of wiggle room. Essentially, “returning to your country of allegiance” means you get to choose your home country. This makes sense for TCKs and other highly mobile people who haven’t lived in one place for more than a few years at a stretch. What would the criteria be? The country where you went to high school? Where you met your best friend? Where you felt safe?

There’s nothing new about any of this; it’s a debate that’s been going on forever. What I find interesting (yet makes me rue skipping Creating Surveys 101) is that a number of survey respondents define repatriation in a different way: something along the lines of “to leave one country in order to move to another.” Thus I’ve had several responses like this:

“I’m an Australian who has repatriated three times:
from Thailand to Denmark, from Denmark to Japan,
and finally from Japan to Australia.”

 I see only one repatriation here. Even if this person has a strong allegiance to Thailand, Denmark, or Japan, there’s no return to any of those countries. There has to be a return.

I discussed this with several repats on Facebook, and although there were minor differences, the consensus was something like this:

 Repatriation means returning to a country you call
home/once considered your permanent home.

What do you think?

If you haven’t taken my repatriation survey yet, don’t fret — there’s still time! Better be quick, though. The survey closes November 30 at midnight Eastern Standard Time.


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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9 Responses to Defining repatriation

  1. Elementary, Maria! And yes, I’d concur with your committee definition. I didn’t do your survey because I’m not an accompanying spouse, not that that makes my re-entry any less difficult which, strangely, is the most difficult of my three repatriations to Australia over the years. I’m not quite sure why, yet, though I suspect it has something to do with returning to retire, not to a ‘normal’ working situation. Good luck with your research. 🙂

  2. Evelyn says:

    Great point Maria. I’ve never repatriated and the only time I’ve gone back to the same country (the US) I lived in a completely different area. Interestingly, almost every American we met the second time asked us if we were happy to be “Home” (despite our accents indicating otherwise). Anyway that’s a divergence from my real point which is that I’m British and my husbands an Aussie, I’ve never lived in Australia, he’s never lived in the UK. Our kids are both but have lived in neither. Repatriation would mean quite different things for all of us. I like your definition though, as we definitely feel that some of the places we’ve lived are home in some way and I wonder for our children, with no real allegiance to either of our home countries, if that feeling would be even stronger.

  3. Judy says:

    I think you’ve defined it very nicely. You’ve captured the difference between you and I, both born in the UK and now calling Canada our home. You left at the age of 4, so never had the sense/memory of the UK being home. I left at the age of 25, so for me the UK was definitely home at that point and a return would be a repatriation. However, because I had also lived in Canada for 17 years, had taken up Canadian citizenship and decided it was my new, permanent home, I consider my returns to Canada also to be repatriations. As you say, it is far more complicated for many of us than it appears at first sight.

  4. Ah, Maria, what to do! I left my native Holland when I was 23 and married my American husband. I have never lived in Holland again, so I never repatriated there. I lived in the US for a long time, several times, now have US citizenship (as well). Have lived in half a dozen countries since, and “going home” in many ways means going back to the US. I raised kids there, owned houses there, know how it all works, and nobody considers me a foreigner or expat. In many ways it will be “repatriating” but not really, because no matter how familiar I am with the place, it is still not the place where I grew up.

    Basically, since I am not going to go back to live in Holland, I will never be repatriating, so I cannot take your survey. Yet getting back into the swing of things in the US has been very difficult, and I’m now in France, where I might enjoy living as an expat again. It is complicated!

  5. Sine says:

    I agree with you, Maria. There has to be a return element. In my case, I grew up in Germany, then moved to the US in my 20s, then moved to South Africa, then returned i.e. repatriated to the US recently. I would have called it repatriation even if I wasn’t a US citizen, but I am one now. I’d also call it repatriation if I returned to Germany one day, because I spent all of my youth there. So, there are two potential repatriation candidates in my case. But if I moved to South Africa again, I wouldn’t really call it repatriation. Because I never called it my real home. Although I totally loved it there.

  6. Kirsty Rice says:

    Relocating is moving on to another country. Repatriation is returning home. I’ve never thought of it as any other way?

  7. Cassandra says:

    I am very happy to find your blog! I am an expat who is still moving, up until now I always have moved. I too was born in the UK and left when I was four and have never spent more than 2 months in a row there ever since, so reading that above made me smile! Now that I have children who were born in Spain but live in Japan, I have been thinking more about identity and where is “home”. It was great to read this and nice to feel like there are more people out there who don’t have a “home” and are therefore left with a task to discover, find or create one!

    • Maria says:

      Thanks Cassandra! I’ve taken a sabbatical from blogging while I work on a book about repatriation, but I hope to return soon. Identity and home are two things I think about a lot, so you can expect to read more about those subjects in the coming months.

  8. Hi Maria, this is awesome! You’ve given me much to think about here. Similarly, I’ve struggled with figuring out where my “home” is, especially because since I left America to move to Germany my parents left the state I spent most of my childhood in. So now when I go “home” to visit them, I am going to a place that’s also pretty foreign to me!

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