Repatriation is hard and yet most companies fail to prepare their global employees for this step
In 2018, I was excited and stressed as I relocated to London with my family. I left my corporate job (gasp) and started my own consultancy as my husband entered a new chapter with his company. We took two toddlers, ages one and three, and left the family support we had waving at us from the comfort of their homes in the USA. And, yes, this was hard but I also knew it would be. I was able to balance the fear and frustration with my excitement about the travel and adventure we were about to undertake.
What I didn’t know is how hard it would be to return.
Most expatriate discussions and programs focus on the art of settling into your new home, connecting with others, and understanding cultural differences. They often leave out the part where you fall in love with the place your living, the people you meet, and the life you have created for yourself. They leave out the part where you have to say goodbye and start over.
Why is coming back “home” so hard?
- Life goes on without you. The interesting thing is that while you were away, your local friends and family did not hit the pause button. They filled the gap that was you with new friends, new commitments, and often new phases in life. That friend you used to jog with no longer jogs and has taken up spin classes. Your monthly get together with your best friend was replaced with a Friday happy hour with their coworkers. That couple you used to hang out with now has two kids and barely leaves the house. Your coworker that you came up with through the organization is now Vice President of a new division. You came back thinking that it would all be familiar, but it’s not. Just as you have changed, so have your friends and family. There is this weird sensation of starting over with an uncomfortable itch of familiarity that you just can’t scratch.
- Losing your “celebrity” card and accepting your weird. I certainly appreciate that we are all individuals and there is something unique and different about all of us. However, whether you are in a work environment or walking down the street in a new country, there is an immediate celebrity factor to having a different accent and being from “across the pond.” It’s an instant conversation piece about the place someone has been in your country or the celebrities they follow – and it invokes curiosity from both of you as you search for those tenuous connections from the tiny pub you discovered in Boston to the debate on if the American’s much sweeter desserts are better than British pudding. I never wanted to be a rockstar but you do get used to people just kicking up a conversation after hearing you talk. Now when I order a coffee, they just take my payment and move on. And, that’s okay but it’s also a weird thing I didn’t realize I would miss. I remember how hard it felt to make friends and find community in those first few months in London – and now as I initiate conversation to build my new community, without my “celebrity” card, it feels even harder. I feel weirder. And, every impression feels much, much more permanent.
- The long goodbye and big emotions. In most cases, but certainly not all, as an expatriate, you are keenly aware of your return date as the logistics of international moves (particularly if you have kids and/or pets) is not for the faint of heart even with corporate help. This often results in weeks or even months of “lasts.” This is our last time (at least for a long while) at our favorite restaurant, visiting this place, and hardest of all spending time with this group of people. It results in an endless bounty of killer waves with high highs and very low lows of emotion. And while you might assume that the post-move excitement of rebuilding and seeing old friends will eventually help these waves calm, the reality is that the storm continues for a while as you enter this next chapter of longing for what you had and celebrating those new connections. You have to learn to surf and sometimes that means learning to survive under water for longer than you may be comfortable with.
- Appreciating your different and letting your inner weirdo shine. We moved from an English speaking country to an English-speaking country and this was still so hard. There are indeed very large cultural differences between England and the USA. And there are adjustments to be had when you move abroad AND when you return. I had gotten used to the quiet “Hiya” or nod in London, walking outside in my wellies, the murmurs of flat whites being ordered, and the smell of the resident Turkish kebab shop as I walked down the street. I was almost alarmed at how friendly the American parents were at the bus stop while I quietly sipped my coffee with a nod. I didn’t realize I had adjusted to the point that I didn’t quite fit anymore here in the USA and, my British friends will tell you, I certainly hadn’t fully embraced the British way of life! I had to get reacquainted with my awkwardness as I fought the urge to regress to who I was pre-move and the fear to discover who I am post-move. There’s a feeling of being stuck between two worlds and not fitting into either. And, there is a long period of feeling and owning that awkwardness and realizing that you just have to let all that weird beautifulness inside you shine – even if it means rejection… for now.
- The surprise in the strength of your relationships abroad and their meaning to you. In my experience, the relationships I formed while abroad were deep, meaningful, and brought out sides of me that didn’t exist when I left the USA. Living somewhere new with people from all over the globe allowed me to explore and I was able to jump into deep conversations that resulted in strong, lifelong relationships – sometimes stronger than those forged over years of friendship in the USA. There is something about being in a place where you no know one that forces you to open up more, to learn more, and to find your own people – your family abroad. And, that’s what it indeed feels like for me – like I left half of my family in London. While I am soaking up all of the laughs with my biological sisters, I hadn’t fully expected how much I would miss the promise of a morning coffee date with my London “sisters” in the process.
The reality is that I would not change my experience living abroad. The people I met have forever changed how I look at the world. My career and business has grown into areas I could not have imagined back in 2018. And, while I experience deep sadness and longing for those people and places I left behind, I can also simultaneously laugh and feel joy in the reunions I have with those I love here in the USA as I create this next chapter. What I recognize now is that I can feel joy, sadness, success, confusion, and failure nearly simultaneously – and it’s all about choosing where to focus my energy and not skip over the hard stuff. Thanks to those that have supported me while abroad from here at “home” in the USA and across the pond in the UK. My book is full of exciting and amazing chapters and I’m sure that there are many more to come.
Do reach out and share your experiences if you have lived abroad. We will all experience it differently and it takes a village to thrive. And, as always, if you as a leader, team, or organization want additional support in creating a programme that can help you or your expatriate employees and their families process and start their next chapter in a healthy way, do not hesitate to contact Livthentic for an exploratory discussion or schedule directly on calendly. I see your spark and want to help you grow it into a flame. You can also join our mailing list to stay in touch or follow us on Linkedin, Facebook, or Instagram.