Repatriation is like breast feeding. It’s the silent aspect of expat life that no-one really knows they need to prepare for…until they’re in the thick of it going ‘WHAT THE ****?!’
Much like having a baby, all the focus of moving abroad is put on the birth phase: how to live in a foreign country, how to survive the painful process of expatriation with minimal pain, how to roll with the punches when wave after wave of excruciating culture shock knocks the breath out of you.
And then, when it’s all over, it’s time to head home with your little bundle of expat life memories and the knowledge that your life has been changed forever. It’s then that we realize just how unprepared we are.
We focus so much on how to be expats, but ignore how to be repats.
I repatriated to South Africa after twelve years abroad. I had left as an eager twenty-two year old, ready to take on the world. Life had led me to London, Saigon, Bangkok and Istanbul, and by the time I returned to South Africa I had a husband and two children to show for my adventures.
I was woefully unprepared for re-entry. I naively assumed that repatriation would be much easier than expatriation. I was so wrong, and I suffered because of my lack of preparation. But like I said, repatriation, like breast feeding a new baby, is the silent aspect no-one prepares you for. The thought never even crossed my mind that it would be difficult.
I thought returning home would be natural. What I learned is that it takes practice, patience and perseverance.
Here are some observations about repatriation that were particularly relevant to me.
- Nothing had changed, but everything was different.
Places, people, attitudes, they were all the same as they had been when I left. But instead of finding that comforting, instead of slipping back into my old life, I found it profoundly confusing. I had changed, had had experiences to last two lifetimes. But, without me knowing, I had changed too much. The intervening years had swung the pendulum too far, and I realized with sadness and fear that whilst I could go back physically, I never could mentally or emotionally return ‘home’.
2. I built the idea of ‘Home’ into something it could never live up to.
All those years missing my family. All those years fantasizing about having childhood friends around the corner. All those years pining for warmer weather, cooler weather, more greenery, less traffic, something, anything more familiar. I let them crowd my mind, exaggerate what I thought I wanted. And then when I had it, reality smacked me in the face because none of it felt how I dreamed it would. Of course it was wonderful to have family closer, but life plods on and the novelty of joyous reunions gave way to busy schedules and postponed get-togethers. Home was not what I thought it would be.
3. I took expat life for granted.
As the rose tinted hue of home faded, I realized with deep regret that I had either taken much of my life abroad for granted, or even worse, wished much of it away. I thought of all the times I had ‘checked-out’ of my life because I was homesick, or fed up or overwhelmed. And now, when I didn’t have it I missed it terribly and all I could think about were those missed moments when I should have been thankful, but instead was blinded by the challenges.
4. I missed living outside my comfort zone.
Struggling with languages, making uncountable cultural faux-pas a day, getting lost, making friends over and over, feeling immense pride in just getting the groceries done, these were all the things I suddenly missed about expat life. I had started expat life clinging onto the boundaries of my comfort zone, resisting the inevitable pull to venture beyond its cosy confines, hastily patching any breached areas so that my bubble remained intact. But after 12 years and four countries, I had learned to live in the frontier zone, where comfort holds no sway. Once I had repatriated I felt my comfort zone beckoning like a toothless grin, meek and kind of scary.
5. Without being ‘foreign’ I’m not that interesting.
For twelve years I had been unique. Well, in my mind anyway! In the expat world people care about where you are from, where you have travelled, what you have seen. Expats are innately curious about other cultures and nationalities. A dinner with girlfriends was more like a United Nations round-table with many nationalities represented, each person fascinating merely because they came from somewhere different. In South Africa, no-one cared that I was South African! I was no longer a novelty or a source of cultural information. No-one really cared about my stories. My enthusiasm for certain far-flung destinations was met with blank stares. I began to understand that I was more irritating than interesting. I realized with horror that I was, in fact, normal.
6. My lack of identity was actually my identity.
Yeah, that one blew my mind. I have spent my whole life wondering where I fit in and more than a decade wondering where I fit in as an expat. I am South African, born in the UK, with Dutch nationality thrown in for fun and living all over the world. Where was home? Where were my roots? Did I even have roots? What did it mean if I didn’t have roots? These were the questions that coursed through my mind as I tried to cling onto some sort of identity in a foreign country. Once I had repatriated and was back in the bosom of one of my identities, I realized that I didn’t fit there either. I have spent so much time trying to work out where I fit in, and repatriating showed me that I am most comfortable with fitting in nowhere…and everywhere. My non-identity is my identity! Liberating!
7. And finally, I missed the magic.
You know what I mean. The magic. The thrill of waking up in a new city. The addiction of trying new food, encountering new people, of stepping out into a new world every day. The excitement of jetting off to a tropical beach for the weekend. The flipflop feeling in your stomach that you are doing something extraordinary, that you have broken the mold. The hedonism of privilege. I missed that feeling of ‘I can’t believe I’m (insert appropriate expat experience)’.
After three years of being ‘home’ we were expatriated again, this time to The Netherlands. I keep these realizations with me in case we are repatriated once more, but I suspect that my heart will take the lead, and I’ll fall victim to each and every one again. Just as right now, as I gaze out the window at a cold and grey winters day I find myself longing for the sticky hot days of the South African summer.
Have you repatriated? I’d love to hear your experiences!