4 Things I’ve learned about repatriating well

Peeling back the layers on expat repatriation

Courtesy Stock Xchng

Maybe Steve Jobs was right and we can only connect the dots looking backwards.  At one point I would have said that I had no advice for anyone repatriating other than to simply hang on and get through it.  But now, looking back, I can see that there were at least 4 things that I probably did right, even though it didn’t necessarily feel like that at the time.



Leave well

We had more notice of this last repatriation than we’d ever had before, several months in fact.  This meant there was time both to say our farewells to people and places and start thinking about life back home.  Two essential elements of the RAFT model for transition.

Although I’ve never heard it recommended, I also found it helpful that we stopped off on the way back to visit with family in the UK.  That mini-break created a bit of a buffer between the two realities and landing in Canada didn’t seem like such a jolt.

Choose your destination wisely

We were fortunate that we were repatriating to a very multicultural and diverse city, our home in Toronto.  I’ve often said that I don’t need to travel anymore, because the world now comes to me.  Rubbing shoulders (quite literally on my subway ride to work each day) with people from all around the world makes me still feel connected to a much wider world. Anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances who have repatriated to small-town anywhere suggests that the cultural adjustment is much more difficult.  Something to think about if you’re planning to retire to a rural utopia.

Look inward

Bizarre though it sounds, signing up for Twitter and LinkedIn, when I first returned was a really valuable exercise.  At the time, my intention was simply to learn about this new social media phenomenon and find myself a job, but in hindsight coming up with the required summary/brief description of myself, compelled me to think long and hard about who I had become while living overseas and what I wanted for my life going forward.

Don’t sever the expat cord

I believe that one of the reasons there is so little written about repatriation is that many repats feel they must close the book on being an expatriate.  Even though I claim that I’m a ‘forever expat’ I admit to feeling occasionally that maybe I’m just a sad ex-expat to still be writing about my experiences.  But I know that it’s been helpful to my adjustment to acknowledge and celebrate my expat life rather than pretend it never happened.   A life lived in many countries is part of who I am and that’s never going to go away.

Even though I’ve talked about how little my international experience was valued when I was interviewing for jobs, it was someone in my international network who referred me to my previous position and on several occasions I’ve been able to connect people across the globe.  Staying connected on social media with those you met overseas can have valuable practical benefits as well as social ones (subject to the usual caveats).

It seems we only become wise after an event.  Four years have passed since we returned to Canada and every year I’ve blogged an annual “state of the nation” about my adjustment, each one peeling back yet another layer of the onion.  I wonder when, or even if, the adjustment will be complete?

18 thoughts on “4 Things I’ve learned about repatriating well

  1. This is a great blog, Judy! I think it’s incredibly challenging for those of us who have chosen this path. I applaud your (attempted) repatriation and your honesty in this blog.

    Prior to my leaving the USA to live abroad, a friend of mine (who had been raised all over the world and then married a man in the State Dept. and continued traveling) told me that once you live as an expat, you never fully repatriate again. For years I questioned that, but, at this point in my life, I cannot imagine fully repatriating again. It’s like once Pandora’s box was opened—we’d seen, felt and experienced a different world with different views, values and beliefs—how could we possibly tuck all of that knowledge back and snap that box shut again? I don’t mean that we can’t return “home” (wherever that is) but I find it so hard to listen to opinions and views that have no outside-of-their-own-cultural-norm information to support them. I think when one stays within one’s mother country their world remains the size of that culture which is (let’s face it) uber-limited. The reason that the monumental knowledge that we (as expats) have accrued isn’t valued is because it isn’t understood. It’s irrelevant to those who can’t imagine what we’ve been through and learned. It’s like we’re explaining ourselves in a foreign language. I find it very difficult to return to the world that exists within USA beliefs… God I realize I sound like a snit and I am sorry for that. I truly love my friends and family in the States and we, as Americans, have some wonderful and amazing characteristics and strengths but it’s simply NOT the whole world. I’m sorry for babbling on here. I’m working on a blog about cultural differences right now so thanks for allowing me this babble🙂 Well done, Judy!

    • Thanks for such an in-depth response, Holly. Many of the expats I know feel the same as you. I think a lot depends on where you repatriate to. I’m truly fortunate that I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world in a very multicultural country. If I were to repatriate to my original home town in the UK, which is quite small and very monocultural, I know it would be different matter altogether.

      • My USA life is in Washington DC so it is quite large and multicultural. I suppose the problem could just be me and my own inflexibility, projected onto others🙂

        Cheers Judy!

  2. Liking peeling back the onion metaphor. Agreed, repatriation is sweetened if returning to a cosmopolitan city with an international / multicultural population. Wise advice indeed.

  3. It must help to go back to a cosmopolitan place, like Toronto, so you were lucky indeed. I think that repatriation is especially difficult if you go back to a small or rural community in a large country like the US or Canada. Once you’re a global citizen with so much international experience you don’t fit in easily in these more “isolated” communities. Is it really possible, I wonder? Without denying who you have become, at least.

    • I think it’s possible to settle, but you’re right that you are forever changed by your experience. I’ve come to realize that as an immigrant to Canada I’ve been an outsider most of my life. Not quite fitting in is who I’ve become.

  4. Great post. I agree totally. I have lived in many areas of the US and although I am never 100 percent comfortable, the more Cosmo, the better. International cities or possibly college towns are the best. But your other points about leaving well and keeping in touch with people ring true as well.

  5. Thanks, Kathleen. After reading your book (great read, btw) I can see why you felt like an alien when you moved to the US!

  6. I think there is also something about managing expectations. Realizing that nowhere is 100% perfect. Nowhere – even home. It’s easy to over-romanticize and then feel let down if life doesn’t turn out exactly what it looked like in that glossy magazine.

    • Claudia I think many expats start to see their home countries through rose-tinted glasses the longer they are away. Just as I now look back on some of the places I lived and remember only the good things🙂

  7. I’ve read this post three times, each time finding a previously unnoticed nuance, so Jack’s ‘peeling back the onion’ analogy is quite apt. I like that you balance the outer (where you go and what you surround yourself with) and inner (making sense of all the pieces of who you are and what you want going forward). So much food for thought, thanks.

    • Linda I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about your upcoming transition. I know it’s supposed to be good for the individual, but it’s also incredibly helpful for others going through it to know that they’re not alone.

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