Written by: Caroline Tapken, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Expats fall broadly into two categories – those who love the life and the career opportunities, living internationally for years, and those who test the waters, spend a year or two, and then move back home. For the purposes of this article, we are talking about the long-term expats and the challenges they face when finally returning home after several years of the expat lifestyle.
What is an Expat
An expat, short for expatriate, is someone who lives in a country that is not their own; who has voluntarily moved overseas to experience living somewhere different, or to take up employment in a different country. Expats generally intend to return to their own country at some stage.
ShortTerm Vs Long-Term Expats
Short-term expats will not generally experience too much trauma when transitioning back into life ‘at home’ after just a few years overseas. For those first few years of expat life, most of us keep a toe – or even a whole foot – in life in our home country. We might visit regularly; we may keep our property – empty or rented out on a short-term basis – with the intention of returning to the place we left; we certainly keep things like bank accounts, driving licence and credit cards. We find it easy to maintain our friendship circles for a couple of years, and can quickly slot back into the life we left behind.
Long-term expats face different issues. As we become invested in our international lifestyle, we might divest ourselves of ties to home – sell the house; exchange our driving licence for a ‘local’ one; start using a family-member’s address as our postal address; return home for visits less frequently, as the rest of the world looks much more attractive when planning holidays.
In short, we begin to cut the daily ties to our home country, and focus more on our international outlook.
The ‘Going Home’ Dilemma
For most expats, there comes a time when they need to ‘go home’. Either for the children’s continuing education, because the work internationally has come to an end, to take care of aging parents, or for retirement. When this return is well planned, and anticipated with excitement, it can be fun. If, however, it is enforced or unexpected, re-entry to your country of origin can be even more difficult than venturing off to foreign shores.
Because we expect it to be easy! It is, after all, ‘home’.
Unlike a move overseas, on your return home there is no corporate executive there to meet and greet, to show you around and introduce you to the ‘team’. There are no international groups filled with like-minded people in the same situation as you – far from home and trying to settle. But ‘home’ can seem as foreign as the most remote lands.
I moved to the Caribbean for a job in my mid 20’s. I vividly remember returning to London for a visit sometime later, only to find myself with a handful of coins I had never seen before. I held them out to my taxi driver, who asked me if I had been in jail, as I didn’t know what they were and couldn’t read them in the dark! While I had been away, new coins had been added to the currency. Disorientating to say the least.
Then there was the time that the paper document you used to have to carry around with your driving licence was done away with – and I produced that document when trying to rent a car. I had to use my UAE licence in the end, as I couldn’t remember my National Insurance number to verify my identity to allow me to use my UK licence!
Just two stories of how we might sound English, but after a few years overseas, we certainly don’t know what is going on in the country of our birth!
You might have years of amazing international experiences behind you, but if HR cannot tick the relevant boxes when you apply for a job ‘back home’ you will find yourself off the short-list. I have 30 years of experience in public relations, including 8 years running my own PR Agency in the Middle East. BUT I don’t have a vast network of local media contacts in the UK – so my overseas experience was considered irrelevant.
When you have to build your ‘home’ network from scratch, with people who have never lived anywhere else, your world can suddenly feel very lonely and isolating. No-one understands what you have experienced, where you have lived – and worse still, they really do not care. No shared experiences, no shared interests, very little in common.
Author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes William Bridges, summarises the stages we all go through when going through transition and change, and it is important to recognise that these are a series of natural emotions that simply cannot be rushed.
Before there can be a fresh start, there must be a clear end. This means you have to have closure somehow, bring your expat life to an end, say your goodbyes, and not leave one foot in foreign lands, hoping to return one day.
The end is followed by the messy middle. A period of transition, confusion and even despair in some cases. This is a necessary door you must pass through, leaving behind the ending, on the way to the part where you readjust and move forward happily.
There is no time limit on each of these three phases, and no guide as to how you will handle each one, or how long it will take. Important to understand is HOW you need to end things, that there WILL be a time of messiness that separates your old life from your new, and that the sun will eventually shine again, as you move into the third phase of readjusting to your new life at home once more.
Help is at Hand
You can muddle through your repatriation struggles alone, believing no-one understands, or you can do some research and get some help before that time arrives, understanding and making plans to deal with the inevitable highs and lows.
Two amazing books are Homeward Bound: A Spouse’s Guide to Repatriation: Robin Pascoe and the aforementioned Transitions: Making sense of Life’s Changes: William Bridges.
Alternatively, you can talk to someone like me, who specialises in helping expats with future planning, and transitions only an experienced fellow expat turned repat could ever understand.
Caroline Tapken, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Caroline works with Expats and Repats to help them plan their future, so they can enjoy the retirement they deserve.
She is a seasoned expat herself, with 35+ years of living and working in the Caribbean, the USA, Asia and the Middle East, and a marketing & communications professional with a strong hospitality and travel background.
Caroline is Mum to two third-culture-kids (TCKs) and a rescue Basenji-Saluki mix. She recently returned to live in the UK and is Listener-in-Chief at Joy & Purpose Life Coach.