For most people who move abroad this is planned for a defined period or at least they start with the intention of returning home at some stage. For some this never happens, but for those who do return they can find that repatriation can have as many challenges as the original move abroad. The physical act of moving home is always stressful, but even though most have a strong network of family and friends there is often a surprising level of culture shock as they return to what was recently home and leave the expat location that they have become used to.
In the same way that it was essential to fully plan ahead before the move abroad it is also very important to do so in advance of your move back to your home country. In order to avoid some of the emotional issues that people experience on return home it is helpful to understand what to expect. The culture that had been a part of your life up until the point that you relocated can seem strange as you return to view it almost as an outsider for the first time. Service levels that seemed adequate when you left may not match those you have experienced in your new expat home.
Reverse Culture Shock
It is not how your home country has changed while you are away that causes the problems (although if you have been away for a long period it will have changed), but the major changes to you and your family as you have broadened your experience while living as an expat in a new culture. Finding yourself returning to friends and family who have not had the same experience and missing the life you have enjoyed can lead to feelings of displacement and not belonging in either country, which can take time to overcome. This is often exacerbated by having built up an idealized image of your home while you have been away.
Ironically, taking your family home can result in some similar issues to those experienced when you became an expat as children have to say goodbye to the friends they have developed in your expat home as well as give up a lifestyle that they have adapted to and then learned to value. Younger children will have limited memories, if any, of their home country and for them it is a move to a new country. Those who were born while you are abroad will have no real connection with what the rest of the family regard as home.
This becomes especially true for families who have spent time in a variety of countries before returning to the ‘family home’. These children and teenagers, often referred to as ‘Third Culture Kids’, can feel as if they do not belong anywhere and feel detached and isolated from their peers who have lived a very different life. Efforts should be made to establish links with other returning expats and with local groups involved with international issues or with interests that they developed while away. You should also ensure that you stay in touch with the people you met while away. The good news is that Third Culture Kids tend to do very well academically and in their careers as the confidence and independence that they have built up works to their advantage.
Accompanying partners also face resettlement issues as many lose contact with friends and professional networks while overseas and the find it difficult to re-establish them when they return. They also often have difficulty relating to people who have not had the same experiences that they have gained facing up to the challenges of a new environment.
It can also come as a shock to adjust to life without the perks of the expat life that you may have become used to. This is added to when you find yourself having difficulties establishing your credit status when you return home, as a returning expat is treated in many ways the same way as a new migrant into the country. International banks, such as Citibank and HSBC, are often best placed to handle the transition and if you bank with them as an expat it is worth talking to them before you leave to ensure that you can keep an account with them and obtain credit or a mortgage, if required.
The same logistical issues need to be handled in identifying appropriate international removal companies, arranging the relocation of any pets, identifying schools and, if you have not held on to your house, a new home. If you are travelling independently rather than as part of an international assignment program, you may need to find a new job. You will also need to remember that while you have been away as well as getting used to the costs in your expat home the costs in your home country may have changed. You will need to be sure that you set your expectations appropriately to be sure that you can finance a standard of living that you will be satisfied with.
As an expat you may have been non-resident for taxation purposes in your home country (not in the US where you remain liable to US tax on your worldwide income). When you return home you will need to re-register with your home taxation authority.
Career Impact of Repatriation
Many who return with their employer with an expectation that the experience, knowledge and skills that they have gained on their international assignment will be valued and advance their careers. In many cases this expectation is not met and they feel unappreciated. Statistically 25% of returning expats leave their employers within a year and 40% within two years.
You will need to consider whether your own career is best served by staying with your current employer or using your newfound knowledge and experience in a new role. This will often depend on the repatriation and talent management processes in your current company. If you have the opportunity to work with a mentor or sponsor you should take this up. Seek out others who have returned from working abroad and draw on their experience. Also seek out people at senior levels who have spent time abroad and prospered on their return and try to learn from their experience and gain their support.
You should be proactive with your employer to be sure that they understand the role you have fulfilled and experience and knowledge you have gained and avoid them seeing you as the same person who left several years before. Only if they are aware is there any chance of them taking account of your experience in planning your career. When you return make sure you take every appropriate opportunity to remind them of your capabilities and avoid becoming part of the statistics of discontented employees leaving their employees. If they do not take account of your experience, however, it is quite probable that there are many employers who will value the experience with an attractive role.
Where assistance is available with repatriation it should be taken so that you can help to prepare you and your family for the practical and emotional issues you are likely to experience on return. Awareness, however, gained, will help you to develop strategies to handle the challenges of your return. Know what to expect and prepare yourself and you are more likely to be able to manage the experience positively.