Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Repatriation Act I

(This is a post I wrote in September 2013 but neglected to post.  I guess I wasn't satisfied with some aspect of it. Can't remember what it was, so here you go.  Happy New Year ~K)

When you make the decision to become an expat, you are signing on to altering yourself, your life, and your perspective of the world forever.  Often these changes occur in ways you can't even conceive prior to the experience.  You also sign on,  at some point in the future to face the challenges of Repatriating to your own country.  You don't give much thought to this early on, because when offered the opportunity to live in another country you blindly jump at it.  You don't give much thought or consideration about reentry, because it is in the future and you will cross that bridge, if and when you come to it.  Which is EXACTLY the adventurous attitude one must embrace to be an expat! Eventually though, in most cases, repatriation happens.  That is where I am now.

As most of you know, I usually approach most major life changes with research.  In my searches, I have limited research, data, and essays on repatriation outside the context of corporate culture.  Most writers have little knowledge about repatriation and its effects on the family.  Most of the information that I have been able to track down seems to echo the similar themes.  Firstly, repatriation is more difficult than people realize, often being as hard as if not harder that the acclimation to the foreign country.  Second, it is usually easier to repatriate to a new location than attempting to return to the exact location or home that you left.  Third individual's experience of negative after effects of repatriating can be challenging them for 9 months to 2 years after they return to their home country.

Hmmm.  Helpful, but also annoyingly ubiquitous.  I thought I might attempt, for the sake of others who may someday be facing repatriation to expand based on my experience thus far on the above points.  

'Repatriation is as difficult if not more difficult than adjusting to an expat assignment.'  We are still in the early stages of our reentry, but so far we have found this statement true....and not true. Many aspect of repatriating are easier, with a shadow side of difficulty. For example, when we went to Sweden we were suddenly in a world where English was no longer spoken or written around us.  We abruptly lost our ability to communicate and gather information in our usual, familiar ways.  We suddenly had no way to understand what was going on around us, follow news of the world, or even directions given on signs or announcements.

We have returned to a country where English the mother tongue, and are now submerged in information.  Maybe too much. The sensory overload of suddenly understanding ALL the conversations around me has caused me to withdraw from social situations a bit. I just can't process all the information like I used to.  While it has become easier to communicate with others, I have found that my patterns of communication are altered. For instance, even though I never effectively learned Swedish, I still seem to have lost the quick neural pathways in my mind that easily access my english vocabulary.  Idioms, slang phrases, and the subtle nuances of intellectual and witty communication in American English are bogged down in the sticky molasses of my remote memory, so I have to think harder and longer when engaging in social interaction. Also after two years outside the country my knowledge of current events, pop culture, and local community issues is minimal.  This puts me at a disadvantage once the conversation moves beyond the weather, and the novelty of  "I lived in Sweden for the last two years."

The fact that we speak the language, there is an assumption by those we interact with that we are just like everyone else.  In Sweden as soon as we opened our mouths, everyone around us knew we were foreigners.  While this did set us up for being an uncomfortable curiosity to strangers, it allowed us some slack when we made social snafus and suffered from adjustment fatigue. When we don't understand cultural nuances here we can't say, "Sorry we aren't from around here."  Because we are.  Well...we were.  Shrug.  I can't say that it's harder than when we moved to Sweden, it just presents different the challenges.

Second theme; "Repatriation is easier if you move to a new location than if you attempt to return to the exact spot you came from."  Well, I guess I am the poster child for expats attempting to return to the exact spot they came from.  Four weeks post ocean shipment I can offer a little insight to this one.  We did explore the option of starting fresh in a new location, but based on a number of factors we decided moving back to Surely Manor was the best choice for now.  Some things have been easier than starting new.   We know the school system, (although this one cuts both ways.)  We didn't have to research and establish new cable, cell phones, gas or electric companies, medical professionals etc.  We didn't have to adjust to a brand new living space.  I think this definitely helped us resettled faster.

However there is a caveat.  Moving back to my old life is a lot like trying to wear my pre-pregnancy clothes three months postpartum.  Nothing quite fits the same way.  Like the pre-pregnancy jeans I managed to squeeze into, they just aren't comfortable like they used to be.  Even if they are passible in appearance, (because I managed to get them zipped,)  I ended up walking around feeling awkward and self conscious.  I can hope all I want, but  the reality is, things aren't what they used to be and it is going to take mental discipline and emotional endurance to fit the new me into the old mold.  However if fitting in again means I have to loose the weight of the fabulous experiences I had while being an expat, well...I think I'll pass.

Would moving somewhere else have eased this dissonance?  I can't say for sure.  I can speculate that a new place would have given me the opportunity to live without the constraints of my former life, and possibly made continued personal growth and evolution easier, but I think the reality is there are changes I would have to make to reacclimate to life in the United States regardless of where we settled. There is also much to be said for the benefit of being surrounded by a community of people who are happy to see me and welcome my return.  The kids in our old neighborhood have been very welcoming of my girls and I believe this has been huge in how well they have adjusted so far.  Here,  I have friends who even when I am feeling out of place and sad, recognize that it's something I'm going through not who I am, based on their past experiences with me.  It would have taken a number of months to make new acquaintances if we settled somewhere new.  While I acknowledge the merits of a fresh start, when choosing a location to repatriate to, the best choice is the one that makes the most sense for your family.

The final point about experiencing challenges related to the repatriation for 9 months to 2 years after returning to your home country...hmmm.  Clearly I can't speak from direct experience here, but I can pull from my clinical experience for some help.  We have been back in the US for about 12 weeks and in our home with our furniture for 4.  As of this week, our three girls are back in school and we are starting our first week of what will become our normal routine.  Now that the rush of getting everyone registered and initial culture shock has passed, I find myself settling in to an emotional state that is much akin to grief.  I miss my expat life.  I miss the beauty and simplicity of Sweden and the support of weekly fika with other expats.  I think what I miss is having a community of individuals who are dealing with and understand the challenges of living the life that we have chosen.  Expats are remarkably resilient people with a depth of endurance and optimism that you typically don't encounter in average daily life.  Even though most of us were struggling, we had each other and accepted one another with little or no judgment.  I miss that community, and feel very privledged to have been a part of it.

So while the jury is still our on the long term implications repatriation, the immediate effects of repatriation are definitely fully impacting my life.  Regardless of if and when you choose to repatriate, I think there is one thing that is certain.   Being an expat, you already know that no matter what the situation, you are experienced in building and rebuilding your life and networks.  Just don't assume that it is going to be easy.  So far I haven't found it to be more difficult than what I faced, and survived in my move to Sweden…however time will tell.


  1. This line was really great: "Moving back to my old life is a lot like trying to wear my pre-pregnancy clothes three months postpartum. Nothing quite fits the same way." I haven't repatriated yet and don't know when I will, but something about this description seems so perfect.

    I hope everything is going well for you all!

  2. Thank you Jen! We are about six months in and (knock-on-wood) it feels like we are turning a corner in our adjustment. I don't think we are necessarily fitting any better, but I think we are no longer surprised by how it has all changed.

    Hope all is well with you too!