It’s almost May.
The expats among my readers will know that we are approaching peak moving season for this year…
Except that this year it seems like the moving has been constant with a goodbye for every month that passes. It’s almost unprecedented but with COVID and the struggles in the global economy, people have been leaving in the middle of the school year, in the middle of term, in the middle of the week, even.
Since last March, families have been relocating all over the globe in what can only be described as the worst expat moving conditions ever. I’m not collecting the statistics, but I’m willing to bet that most families aren’t just moving, they’re repatriating. And, given the circumstances, I’m also willing to bet that they aren’t repatriating well.
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But do we even know how to repatriate well?
I’ve had a number of friends and followers contact me over the past eighteen months about repatriation and I’ve seen some themes emerging. Themes of redundancy or pay cuts so severe that they make an expat position untenable and certainly not worth being so far away from home. Others have elected to return, disillusioned by the disparity in how locals are treated vs foreigners or scared by the reality of what would happen to their kids if they were taken to quarantine. More still have gone back, unable to accept the reality of not being able to get home if they need to.
It’s no secret that we have repatriated once as a family (I’ve done it more times as a child and young adult) and it’s certainly no secret that we found it to be the hardest move. I learnt a lot of lessons that year on how to repatriate well and it’s about time I shared them here so here’s my advice.
Ok, I’m sure this wasn’t what you were expecting right off the bat but hear with me here Wanderlusters. Repatriating might be the thing you’ve been waiting for and hoping for, for years. It might be something that you suddenly, in this weird COVID world, decided you needed. Or you might have been living your best expat life, happy as a clam and it might have come smack out of the blue and left you reeling.
Whatever your circumstances, your reality is that you’re repatriating, so start with the right mindset! Think about all the reasons why moving home is going to be super awesome. Think of everything from the big stuff like moving back to the family home instead of being in rented accommodation, to the tiny stuff like enjoying that flower shop across the street.
Getting excited will help set the tone for how you feel about this move and the sooner you can do it, the better.
Right after getting excited? Really? Can this be a part of how to repatriate well?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what order you do these things in, as long as they make sense to you.
Getting excited is super important from a mindset perspective, but if you don’t acknowledge what you’re leaving then that will have just as big of an impact.
You might be grieving for any number of things with a repatriation move. You might grieve the end of your expat life or an assignment that has been cut short. The move might signal the end of an era so you might be grieving that too. You might be grieving lost friendships, a part of yourself, the perfect job, or a lifestyle. Your kids will, no doubt, be feeling similar feelings of loss so it’s important to go through this as a family and to show them that these feelings are okay.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the busy-ness of leaving and moving that you don’t give yourself time for this part. Whatever it is you’re going to miss, let yourself feel it all. Bottling it up never helps anyone.
Psych yourself up
This is probably more what you had in mind as my starting point!
Think of this move like you would any new international assignment. The mistake people often make is to assume that because it’s a move home, it will be easy. Underestimating the impact of your time away, how things have changed at home, and, indeed, how you have changed, is a recipe for disaster.
Just because you come from a place, doesn’t mean moving back will be easy.
Whether you chose to repatriate or it’s a forced move, whether you have been in one country for a year or in five countries for the last 15, when you get back things will be different. Things there may (or may not – that’s just as hard!) have changed at home. You certainly will have changed.
Knowing this can seem as daunting as moving to a country sight unseen so prepare yourself and your family mentally and emotionally for what’s to come and it will feel much easier.
Get ahead of the admin
You know how, when you hear about a move, you immediately start researching?
Do that now.
It might be overwhelming – the mental load of moving is huge!
Find that lovely local school and start the application process. Know what your local supermarkets are. Research your local doctors, dentists, and hospitals. Figure out the logistics of public transport and if you’ll need a car. Look up clubs and gyms and anything else you think you’ll need to know when you get there so you can hit the ground running.
Preparation is key here Wanderlusters. When you arrive home, you’ll be busy sorting the house, setting up new bills and seeing all the people you’ve not seen in ages. Anything you can do ahead of time will pay dividends in the long run.
The concept of RAFT was developed by David C. Pollock and Ruth van Reken in their book Third Culture Kids and represents an important process when it comes to leaving a place. It stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells, and Think Destination.
Leaving properly is a must, and this has been made incredibly hard in times of lockdown. Expats across the world have struggled this year, missing rituals that are critical for us to get closure. It is important to do whatever you can to leave well, as it is critical to arriving in the next place well. Say goodbye to the people and places that made your time memorable. Take photos of everything—the mundane and the familiar (one day you will wish you had them) and consider doing a photo shoot. Have a bucket list of all the places you want to go and things you want to do, and tick of as many as you can. Consider writing a goodbye letter to the country you are leaving – it is so therapeutic and a great way to help to repatriate well.
Reconciliation – refers to really acknowledging all the emotions that go along with any move, including repatriation. Taking the time to lean into these feelings won’t make them go away but it is the first step in reconciling them and reducing the stressful impacts that they can have on our minds and bodies. It is tempting to assume that leaving will make the problem go away but the reality is that this is rarely the case.
Affirmation – is taking the time to acknowledge all that you are grateful and thankful for. This could be the people you will miss or the places that meant something to you. It can be helpful to personally thank the people who made your lives better while you were there, while you still can. Making people feel appreciated is a great thing that you can do and will also help them as they transition their own lives without you in them.
Farewell – Pollock and van Reken believe that leaving properly is vital to the success of the next place and they recommend saying goodbye to everything from people and places to rituals and routines to lifestyles and dreams. Getting “closure” has become a bit of a cliche in recent years but saying farewell can help bring closure before and during your move. In this I would include a process by which you can say goodbye to the places you love most – with many countries in varying stages of lockdown this could be hard but even a drive by could help. Some schools might also be able to let your children in one last time to look around and say goodbye. If you haven’t already, collect photos of the most mundane of daily activities – the school, your house, your street… trust me, one day you’ll wish you had them.
Think destination – looking to the future is a critical part of leaving. It can be a very hopeful phase as it is all about the new adventure but it can also bring anxiety and fear about the unknown. We have found it helpful to talk about and research what it will be like to help with the transition process.
The word home is a confusing concept for many expats. We go home at the end of the day. We have dinner at home and we invite friends to our homes. Then we go home for the summer and return home at the end of it.
Even more confusingly, our third culture kid children may not even think of home as home! They may have no memories of it or never even have lived there! Where is home for them?
The easiest way I’ve found to get around this is to think of home as a concept rather than a place. Instead of thinking about where home is, think about what home means to you and your family. Think about how it makes you feel and what things make it home.
How you approach all this will really depend on how old your kids are: younger children might respond better to having familiar things around them as soon as possible while older kids might be completely fine with calling multiple places home, particularly if they have spent a large part of their lives in international schools, moving around and/or finding themselves having to answer that ever trick expat question: “Where are you from?”
Bridge the gap
It’s so easy to think of two places in terms of the things that divide them, the things that make them different. And yet there are many things that they will have in common – starting with you!
Want to repatriate well? Think about if there is a way that you can make your new home feel like the old one? Quickly making a place look familiar is a great way to get settled more quickly. We took the liberty of buying Thing 2 almost all new furniture for her new room in Singapore and oh boy, was that a mistake. She’s still not settled in it whereas Thing 1 almost visibly relaxed when he walked into his new room which looked remarkably like his old one. So, hang old pictures on the walls, keep the old furniture and have familiar ornaments around the place to make it feel more like, well, home.
That’s not to say you should completely forget about your old life, though. Think about what you would like from your expat life in your new home. We’ve collected all sorts of things over the years – from lamps, to furniture, to pieces of art. It all helps to tell our story in our house and makes it feel like a little piece of everywhere we have been is right there with us.
Reverse culture shock
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Just because you come from a place, doesn’t mean moving back will be easy. Noone expects to suffer culture shock in their own country. It is where you are from, so, surely, acclimatising should be smooth and uncomplicated?
Unfortunately, that is often not the case.
Reverse culture shock is a very real thing when it comes to repatriating.
Don’t underestimate it. Going home, for many years, has been a thing of holidays and reunions, not routines and day to day life. You’ve probably forgotten how vile the weather can be in winter or how to get used to life without a car/public transport/(insert anything that one country has and the other doesn’t). You might not realise how little all your old friends actually get together (only when you come back, for example), or you might feel excluded as they’ve all got closer in the time that you’ve been away.
Feeling like a stranger in your own home country can really blindside you, even if you’re expecting it. I can tell you that it gets easier with time so hang in there!
While I’m repeating myself, remember that just because you are from a place, doesn’t mean your whole family will feel the same way about it. You might be suffering from reverse culture shock but if your kids have never lived there, they might be suffering from plain old culture shock! Not knowing how things work in a country is one of the hard things about moving so anticipate this for them
Not only that but consider that how they look physically might be deceptive for those around them, including you.
Dave Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken developed four cultural types to describe third culture kids. They are:
- Mirror – looks and thinks alike
- Hidden immigrant – looks the same but thinks differently
- Adopted – looks different but thinks alike
- Foreigner – looks and thinks differently
Your kids may well look like they should fit in but they don’t share the same background as you or as their peers. This is disorientating and confusing for them especially as many will want to fit in straight away and be “normal”.
It’s important to be aware of this concept so you can talk openly with your kids about any difficulties they have transitioning to your home country. This is critical to repatriating well.
Work on new friendships
When we move to a new place, most of us throw ourselves into establishing new friendships and a supportive network.
Moving home is a bit different since old friendships may have moved on geographically or metaphorically. But investing in friendships – all friendships (old and new) is really important if you want to repatriate well.
First and foremost, you need to consider what your friendship situation is going to be like when you arrive: are your old friends all still around?
If so, lucky you!
If not, treat this as you would any new assignment. Figure out the best ways to meet new people – be it through school, joining a gym, finding a class to take or taking up a new hobby. New friends might be the people who get you through the transition as they won’t have any preconceptions about you returning as the person before you left. You can reinvent yourself (yet again) and be the person you need to be for this next phase.
Work on old friendships
New friends are great be so are old ones! Going home is a great time to reconnect with old friends and family: people you have been distanced from for so long and have had to relay on a catch up over a garbled dinner back when we could travel or zoom drinks scheduled to fit neatly in between all your kids’ hectic social lives.
The idea that you might be able to meet up more than once a year, that your kids might become friends, and that you might know more about what is going on their lives other than the big milestones is attractive, to say the least. Get in touch, set up a time to meet (within the relevant COVID rules in your country, of course!) and remind yourselves why these awesome people are still in your lives despite living so far apart for so long.
Of course it might not be that easy. Old friends might resent you for having left and it will be impossible for them to imagine what your life abroad was like or why you might be finding it hard to resettle in your old home. Sometimes you will get past that awkwardness and sometimes you won’t so give yourself, and those friends, the grace of time to work through it, whatever the outcome.
Stay in touch with expat friends
The third group of friends to connect with is the one you have left behind. Those are the people that lived through the most recent era of your life and they probably know you the best as you are right now. Don’t let out of sight be out of mind and remember that it’s so much harder for those left behind so they are probably suffering without you now! Stay in touch with zoom meet-ups, WhatsApp voice notes and sending photos and make a plan to meet up again as soon as you can when the world opens up once more.
Explore your “new” home
When you’ve been away for a while, home can hold the same novelty value that a new country does. Make sure you take the time to explore your local area over day trips, long weekends and domestic trips (we’re all doing more of those!!!) to discover what your backyard has to offer.
Treating your re-pat experience as an opportunity to seize the day might not be something that comes naturally but it is incredibly important. Having the right mindset and treating this new phase of your life as a new and exciting experience can really direct how the repatriation goes for you.
Look for positives
Speaking of mindset, having the right attitude and approach will have an enormous impact on how all three phases of any move (pre-, during-, and post-move) will go. Before you repatriate, let yourself get excited about everything – big and little. And I’m talking everything – from reconnecting to friends and family to shopping in your favourite supermarket, from buying a place to call your own to having a great cup of tea in a cafe. In amidst the grief of leaving and the tree of moving, don’t let yourself forget all the good things you will gain from moving home if you want to repatriate well.
I say this to everyone I meet: Repatriation may well be the hardest move you will make. While a positive mindset can’t guarantee that everything will all be fine, a negative one will ruin it before you even get there.
Whether you are excited to move home, terrified, worried or just plain relieved, you’ve moved before and you can do it again. It will take time, but you’ve got this! You can make this a success and repatriate well! And in the meantime, we’re here for you!
Wanderlusters – if you’re struggling with a move please don’t hesitate to get in touch even if it’s just to rant to someone about how stressful it is to move a dog or that the movers broke your favourite vase. If anyone will understand, I promise it’s me!