Landing Well: 10 More Tips for Repatriating with Dignity


 Landed 2

“The process of coming home after living abroad is simple and stress free.”

 

This is a quote from  NO ONE . . . EVER.

 

At least no one who has ever actually attempted the fine, fine art of repatriation.  As a follow up to “Leaving Well: 10 Tips” I wanted to add some thoughts about what happens after the plane lands.  Prepping for your departure and closing out your expat experience before you leave is SO important.  It is also fully exhausting.  Physically,  emotionally,  mentally, spiritually and parentally (if applicable) EX – HAUST – ING.

Here’s the kicker.  The only buffer between the exhaustion of the last thing and the exhaustion of the next thing is the trip between the two.

Bonus tip A:  Take the longest flight you can find.

Sooner or later though . . . you have to land.

Here are ten tips for Landing Well.

 

Tip #1:  Plan the After Party

It is perfectly fair for the people who love you and have missed you to want to celebrate your homecoming.  Depending on your personality and, quite frankly, the personalities of the people who love and missed you these reunions can range from refreshing and wonderful to overwhelming and painful.  Generally some mix of all of those.

Bonus tip B:  Brace for Paradox

The initial “woohoos” are survivable.  The dinners, the hugging, the slightly offensive jokes about that place that you called home less than a week ago . . . you can do it.  You might even enjoy it and even if you don’t, it will be over soon enough.

The bigger issue is what do you do next?

I recommend taking a timeout.  Plan some time to process the reality of your new life.  Detox from the experience of back to back goodbyes and hellos in the context of high anxiety and jetlag.  Pause for a moment.  Take a deep breath and enjoy a very, very select group of people restricted to you, your family (who are also transitioning) and people from tip #2.

Granted, time off or away can be cost and schedule prohibitive but this is a worthwhile investment if you can do it.  It could be two days locked up at home or two weeks on a beach.  However you do it  you’ll be much more ready to start figuring out what normal looks like when you’ve taken a break.

 

Landed 1

Photos courtesy of Dan Kennedy                             (aka Safe Haven #1)

Tip #2:  Know Your Safe Havens

Some people just get it. They get you.  Often (but not always) they’ve been right where you are and they can still feel your pain.  They understand the paradox of what you are feeling and they are eager to help you through the process.

You need to know who those people are.  They’re the ones who will keep you sane.

Here’s what to look for:

  • They ask questions that they actually want to know the answers to.  Then they ask more questions.
  • They understand (instead of assuming) what is going on inside of you.
  • They listen to your stories without thinking up a better one while you talk.
  • They share great stories at the right time and it’s helpful.
  • They understand that you can still love your country and be overwhelmed by it at the same time.
  • They roll their eyes with you more than at you.

Just a few thoughts to help you spot them but you’ll know them when they come around.  Spend time with these people.  It will be as energizing as it is therapeutic.

 

Tip #3:  Pace Yourself

There is something sweetly unique about the first few months after landing.  You’ve missed so much and now you’re back.  You can read.  You know the language.  It’s pretty normal to be excited about your new found accessibility.  You may also find yourselves needing to restock your lives.  We sold everything when we went to China.  Then we sold everything again when we came back.  We felt like we had a lot of catching up to do.  Maybe you will too but you don’t have to do it all at once.

Pace yourself.

Specifically (but not restricted to) these 3 areas:

  • Food:  No matter how long it’s been since you’ve had a good cheeseburger, you don’t have to eat them all right now.  Pace yourself.
  • Money:  You will get into trouble quick if you try to catch up immediately with what your friends have accumulated while you were away.  Pace yourself.  Just for a while.

Bonus Tip C:  Enjoy the freedom of a season with less stuff.

  • Time:  Everything takes longer in transition.  You can’t do everything you want to right away.  Take your time and focus your attention where it is needed.  You’ll get there, but pace yourself.

Read more about that here:  Rock, Paper, Scissors: Helping Kids Thrive in Transition

 

Tip #4:  Do a Values Inventory

“What are the top ten most important things in your life and why?”

You are not alone if your answer to that question shifted while you lived abroad.  Seeing your own culture from an outside perspective changes things.  It doesn’t mean you’ve let go of your high values but you may have discovered that some pieces weren’t really as vital as you once felt they were.

I’m being vague on purpose.  Maybe that’s not fair.

  • How about your politics?  What happened when you saw how other parts of the world feel about your country?
  • What about your faith?  How did worshipping in a different context (maybe even a different language) shake or strengthen the perspective you had always known?

I could go on . . .

  • How did living in community impact how you discipline your kids?
  • How did witnessing poverty rock your world?
  • How did your experience change how you view education?
  • How did falling in love with nationals destroy your stereotypes?
  • How did studying a new language give you empathy?
  • How did living abroad change your paradigm of the world?

It happens.  You are really not alone.

However, this is the tough part . . . Your friends who stayed right where they were, probably didn’t experience the same shift.  Why would they?

Do you see the potential for friction here?  You are so wise.

Taking inventory of your highest values and how they have shifted will prepare you for interacting with people.  Knowing what is really important will give you a good sense of which conversations are best ignored and which one merit speaking up.

Bonus Tip D:  Fight Feelings of Enlightenment

 

Tip #5:  Allow People a Frame of Reference

“Wow, that is a really cool story about China.  That’s just like when I went to France in high school.”

Nope.  It’s not.

People have a frame of reference for anything different than their norm based on the most similar part of their own experience.  They will get as close as they can but sometimes . . . “nope.”

Repeat after me, “It’s ok.”

Their frame may be horribly off but so is yours . . . about something.  Try talking to a nuclear physicist (unless you are one).  “Wow, that’s a great story about nuclear fusion.  That’s just like when I dropped the mentos in some diet coke.”

Nope.  It’s not.

You can see these interactions as a chance to politely broaden a frame of reference or just get irritated.  The first one is better for your blood pressure.

Bonus Tip E:  Not everyone wants to have their frame broadened.  Repeat after me, “It’s ok.”

 

Tip #6:  It’s OK to Love Two Places

“Man, I don’t know how you lived over there.  I bet you’re glad to be home.”

I think this (frequently shared) statement can be more internally conflicting and frankly hard to respond to than any other.

I am so glad to be home but I was so glad to be there as well.  There were some hard parts about living there but there are some hard parts about living here too.  There were a lot of days “over there” that I missed home but there are days here when I feel something remarkably similar.

Loving where you lived as an expat doesn’t mean you love your homeland even the slightest bit less.  Don’t feel guilty when you feel homesick at home.

 

Tip #7:  Smooth Does Not Equal Easy

I see a LOT of people in transition.  I teach this stuff.  I know what a rough transition looks like.  Ours has not been that.  In fact ours has been as smooth as they come.

We had phenomenal Safe Havens who set us up and took care of everything we could ever need.  They found our apartment, stocked it with food and furniture, picked us up at the airport, celebrated us, let us hide, listened to our stories and shared their own. Since then we have made other great relationships.  We have a great church, our kids are in great schools getting great grades and making great friends.  Zero major challenges.  Which is also great.

Smooth.

And yet.  It has still been hard.

We’ve needed to learn a new city while we figure out how to be American again.  We’ve been overwhelmed by the cereal aisle and disgusted by the evening news.  Some days . . . lots of days . . . we feel completely out of place.  Like foreigners in a very familiar land.

Smooth is a good deal.  We’ll take it.  If you get the chance, you should too.  But know going in that smooth doesn’t equal easy.

 

Tip #8:  Swim Upstream

There is a looming fear in so many returning expats (myself included) that we will somehow slip back into the people that we were before this wonderful experience.  It’s a fear that we might just get caught up in the hype and the rat race of “normal” life to the point that we forget about how we have been changed.

  • A fear that I will view my nations politics as more viable and important than any other nations.
  • A fear that I will forget about what its like to worship with people from all over the world.
  • A fear that I will revert to my stereotypes and my previous frame of reference.
  • A fear that I’ll never learn Chinese again because I don’t need to.
  • A fear that my kids will only see poverty on TV and never learn to empathize.
  • A fear that we will forget how to need other people because we are so freakishly independent.
  • A fear of becoming typical.

The harsh reality is.  These fears are legit.

Left alone there is a high chance that all of these things will happen.  My encouragement to you (and to myself) is to make decisions and then RESOLVE to make them happen.

Maintaining expat relationships . . . doesn’t just happen.

Traveling back . . . costs a lot of money.

Learning more language . . . not much motivation.

Needing people . . . harder than just doing it on my own.

Whatever it is that you want to hold onto will be a conscious and intentional decision followed up by a solid bit of determination.  Swim upstream.

 

Tip #9:  It’s a Better Adventure Than a Struggle

Do I really need to explain that one?

Bonus Tip F:  Perspective changes everything.

 

Tip #10:  Grace – Give it Freely and Keep Some for Yourself

  • When someone says, “you lived in Japan?  My neighbor is Korean.”  Give her some grace.
  • When someone says, “you lived in Germany?  Heil Hitler!”  Give him some grace.
  • When someone says, “you lived in China?  Oh my gosh, were you persecuted?”  Grace.
  • When someone says, “you lived in Africa? That is so cool, say something in African.”  Grace.
  • When no one says anything, and you really wish they would.  Grace.
  • When you snap, or cry, or crawl into a hole . . . it’s for you too . . . Give yourself some grace.

Landing is hard . . . sometimes because it was supposed to be easy.  As you leave and after you land grace is key.

 

Bonus tip G: Grace Again (worth repeating) 

 

If you are packing up or already home, I hope this helps.

If you are welcoming friends who are returning home . . . read #2

If you know someone who is packing up or transitioning now, please pass this on.

If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy.  Add your tips.  What worked for you?

 

One more for those you who always say goodbye and never leave – Staying Well:  10 Tips for Expats Who are Left Behind

 

52 Comments

  1. Great article. Every time is read a post like this, I want to go back to China tomorrow.

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  2. Amazing! When are you going to write that book??

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  3. Thank you for the comments and suggestions. My family repatriated in January after 5 years in Singapore and both your suggestion lists hit the proverbial nail on the head in many ways. I had friends tell me to give it 6 months of heartfelt transition time and in some ways it didn’t take that long, but in others it still is wrenching to my soul to think of the differences between SG and Kansas, yes, we now live in Oz and not the down under one. Talk about huge reverse culture shock in many ways. I can appreciate and totally understand your lists, though in many ways not articulate them. I thank you for articulating and adding linguistic shape to much of what we have experienced.

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    • We are moving
      To Liberal, KS in a week. We were missionaries to Tanzania. Would love to connect there. Talking to other missionaries is so helpful.

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  4. A friend who repatriated last year shared this with us. We are getting ready to repatriate next month. These things are certainly among our concerns. Thank you for letting us know we won’t be alone. The adventure has been so worth it!

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  5. Thank you for your thoughts and ideas. So helpful to review even though I’ve lived abroad for 8 years now. By the way, those photos look like my hometown airport where I greet my dad every June and say goodbye every July. 😉

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    • Thanks Jen. Wondering if all airports look alike or your dad lives in RVA?

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  6. We are two months from a repatriation after 42 years…granted, off and on…from Tokyo. I can hardly see the keyboard because of the tears. I am not afraid of the water gushing out of my eyes. It is, however, painful, and it will be okay.

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    • Martie . . . Wow! 42 years. Speechless. What an amazing experience. I truly believe that repatting is a completely different experience for veteran expats like yourself. I’m sure you are experiencing and will experience the same things that I have but multiplied dozens of times over. You are so wise to see that it will be painful and ok. Blessings on this part of your journey. Please keep me posted on what comes next.

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  7. Thanks Jerry we miss you guys!

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  8. We miss you too Anonymous. At least we probably would if we knew who you are. Meh . . . details. We miss you.

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  9. Awesome stuff! We repatriated 3 years ago after spending 7 years in China. Still miss it SO much, but finally feeling at home and even learning to love our new city and church in the U.S. I’d love to see another blog post about repatriating 6-18 months in. There were a lot of lessons we learned, both from doing it well and not doing it so well. Things like: Look for and SEE the Lord’s provision, and keep going back to that well for strength. In the first few months, we saw the Lord do absolutely MIRACULOUS things in providing for us–like providing an anonymous private investor to finance our mortgage when we didn’t quite qualify for the traditional loan we needed from the bank (just one example). Some of the craziest spiritual intervention we have seen, period! As our vulnerability and need increases (and repatriating is ALL ABOUT the vulnerability and neediness!!) so does his GRACE–THIS is where you get strength. Another tip I would give is–pull the trigger on getting counseling, and find a GOOD counselor. I personally sought out counseling about 8 months later than I should have–i.e. AFTER I had a bought with severe clinical depression 14 months after moving back. Thankfully, the Lord provided an amazing Christian counselor who has worked with other returning m’s and understands those specific challenges. She encouraged me that leaving China was equivalent to losing a relative, and that I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve adequately. Tip 3: Figure out how to grieve properly. Tip 4: Expect new relationships to be hard, deal with insecurities as they arise before the Lord, and KEEP building relationships and pushing through the hard stuff. As an extrovert, my “normal” is for my relationships to be energy and life giving. In transition–the opposite is true. Building new relationships was awkward and super draining. Made me want to hole-up and become a hermit–totally unhealthy for an extrovert! Definitely need to push through the awkward and hard, pray instead of going over and over conversations in your head (“Did I talk about China too much? They must think I am such a wierdo!”), and ask the Lord to send new friends who will “get” you. Know that eventually some (not all) of these new people will become your new life-giving community in a couple of years. Yes, seriously. But you have to put in the time and energy to build those relationships. These are just a few of my personal experiences from the last 3 years. 🙂

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  10. One little thought from someone who’s always been ‘at home’ but has welcomed back family and friends. Over time, those of us over here often change too (our experiences, our politics, our theology etc.). You’ve changed, we’ve changed, again, grace!!!

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    • Such a good point Helen and so true. It gets so complex when we change in different directions apart from each other. It’s like the difference between watching your own kids grow up and seeing your friends children when they are 2 and then not again until they are 10. You knew they would change but seeing what that actually looks like is always a shock. Thanks for the comment.

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  11. Yes to ‘Mbdean’!! Get stable living conditions and let yourself GRIEVE – all the stages of grief. (Particularly if you have left indefinitely or were evacuated or forced to leave.) Also note that part of your ‘safe people’ may need to be counselors in the short-term just to process the transition. There are some wonderful retreat and therapy centers all over the US for returning folks.

    On practical notes:
    -For those away for more than a year or two: Pick a ‘safe, reputable’ store (like LandsEnd for me) and purchase ONE entire cute outfit online ahead of time for the season you are arriving in. If you have no idea, ask a trusted friend for suggestions. That way from Day 1 you can greet a crowd without feeling quite as foreign.

    -Build in REST and work your hobbies. Only things that fill your batteries are allowed.

    -Use social media to prepare for reunions or ‘partnership meetings’. Do they blog? Instagram? Pinterest? Tweet? Facebook? If I flip through someone’s facebook page I can get a gist of what’s going on for them and can genuinely talk to them when we meet again for the first time in 4 yrs. Just remember: “Sad but true: Most everyone loves to talk about them self.” Use these reunions to reconnect with their lives and what you’ve missed.

    -Let your kids go at their own pace. Some will love being back in America. Some will hate it. Many will vacillate between the two. Talk them through the changes. Stay close as a family. And let them carry their backpacks on their heads if they want.

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    • Kimberly, Love that last sentence!!!!! Yes! Carry their backpacks on their heads and run barefoot and play football (soccer) without shoes and climb the trees in the park instead of playing on the provided equipment and eat lunch 3 hours later than most Americans!!!

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  12. Fantastic read! I am American living in the Netherlands. This is my 3rd time abroad (4th if you count a semester abroad in college). I’ve experienced all of above – especially the part about feeling really critical and impatient with my country and friends back home. Even now, when I visit, these issues confront me and I find myself nearly sprinting to the airport so i can escape. However, after doing this for so long, I’ve found those feelings to be less intense over recent past. Grace, perhaps? I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened, selfless or religious person. Sometimes, I just don’t have the energy to fight. And other times it’s because I realize that there is plenty of ignorance in the world to go around. For everyone in the US who doesn’t know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland, I’ve met Europeans who can’t tell you where Colorado is and don’t seem to care to learn. Every time I hear a European lecture about the commercially consumed American culture – I can’t help but notice those same people aspire to own a BMW and a house in Mallorca. Bottom line is that while I will never be like my friends back home who’ve never left our hometown, I’m also not ever going to be like a person born and raised here either. So, rather than deride either ‘side’, my version of grace is to find the best of each world I inhabit and take the best I can find. The downside is that I often feel like I don’t belong anywhere – a disconcerting feeling given that I have young kids who I want to feel like they have a home SOMEWHERE. I’m not sure just defining home as ‘planet Earth’ is enough but until we can settle down I hope I do a decent job of teaching them to think about what they see and not take any one way for granted.

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  13. Really enjoyed this – well written and oh so true! I hope that as many folks welcoming back expats read this as do expats themselves. We are moving again this June and I have enjoyed all of your posts on the topic of leaving/returning. We are Americans, “returning” to Japan after a 2 year stint in Switzerland. So, a bit different experience than going back to the US, but most of your points still ring true for us.

    I am also a cross-cultural trainer and really like your style in presenting this crucial information in an accessible, humorous way. When preparing folks for an international assignment I always spend time talking about the entire “international assignment cycle”. Often they can’t relate to the return piece, because it is not in their radar yet. Maybe in the future I should just give them a link to this so they can access it closer to the time they will need it!

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  14. Excellent article!! You included “stuff” I have lived but never seen written out. It has taken me long time and the stages have waffled between good and deperessing. One of our children has had a really hard time. One of the hardest looking back after reentry is the disappointment in a friend. A double grieving. I am passing this along to others. Thank you for this great resource.

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  15. I wasn’t ready to repatriate after our first 3 year assignment, so much so I ended up on anti-depressants … I had no idea what hit me, my husband didn’t know how to help me, my family and friends had no idea what was wrong with this “stranger” who had returned from a (not so strange) land …..won’t bore you here but basically I just wasn’t coping with not coping because, well ….. because I’d always coped. I weaned myself off the meds after about a year into our 2nd and far tougher assignment. We’re now on our 3rd, and I consider myself an experienced expat (much tougher and less naive than when we first ventured out 10 years ago) but one who absolutely dreads the possibility of ever having to go back home, because it’s no longer “home”, well not in the traditional sense anyway. I have a plethora of supportive expat friends but the reality is when you go home, those friends are on different time zones or in hard to get hold of places and your support network has just, once again, been pulled out from underneath you. I get NOW why it was so tough the first time round and it’s simple – because no-one warns you that landing back “home” ain’t so soft, there’s no way you could believe how hard it can be. Once you’re over your nostalgia eating, all those welcomes, all those ridiculous and totally irrelevant platitudes (albeit from well meaning but clueless friends) about how being home must be such a relief…… normalising (I can’t use the word settling anymore) ….. the reality that your adventure is over, that you have to be normal again, when you don’t feel normal, you feel like you don’t fit in, like no-one understands you or why you left, how you could possibly have loved it well, all of those things (and more) makes going “home” a tough gig. So .. hats off to you Jerry for sharing your thoughts and tips so beautifully and good luck to those of you about to repatriate … hang in there, keep breathing and get help the minute you feel you might not be coping.

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  16. I’ve moved back an forth between the US and Europe five times. I’m back in Europe now. I honestly believe that for some people it isn’t possible to repatriate.

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  17. Thanks. We’re still in our adopted country, but in our 16 years here, we’ve seen so many repatriate – a jillion different reasons – and I find myself thinking through these things, wondering when and what it will be like for us. I love number 5, 8, and 10 – just nicely said. Thank you.

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  18. I am an adult TCK working as a school counselor in a large American International School in Asia. I was reading through your piece, thinking about the many families and colleagues who will be repatriating within the next few weeks, and how this article could be useful to them. Until I arrived at point #5:

    “Try talking to a nuclear physicist (unless you are one — then try talking to a pretty girl). “Wow, that’s a great story about nuclear fusion. That’s just like when I dropped the mentos in some diet coke.””

    Your assumption is that pretty girls are not nuclear physicists. Indeed, that the likelihood of an attractive female even relating to a nuclear physicist is so low, it’s like comparing life as an expat in China to a semester abroad in Europe.

    As currently written, this article is misogynist and short-sighted. While some of your points are valid, as a whole it is useless to the population I work with and support because of the assumptions made about women in science. Please consider a more appropriate comparison.

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    • Emily — Thanks for pushing back. That’s fair and it was certainly not my intention to be offensive to women. I see your point and I think you are right. If I may I would like to raise you one. I think my original wording was even more short sighted and offensive to male scientists, capitalizing on a cheap stereotype that they are too cerebral to be social. My honest assumption was not (intentionally) that an attractive female was incapable of relating to a nuclear physicist (although I can see how that was communicated), but it was that a nuclear physicist is incapable of relating to an attractive female. I’m confident that I had Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory in mind as I wrote. Regardless, to narrow any group of people into an offensive stereotype is the absolute opposite of where my heart is. I appreciate the feedback and offer a sincere apology for not thinking that one all the way through. Please hit refresh for a slightly updated and hopefully less misogynist version. I hope it’s helpful.

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  19. Thanks for these tips, insights and most of all for understanding me!
    Just repatriated 6 months ago to the USA after 32 yrs in Europe. Even though I’d done my homework to prepare myself for re-entry nothing spares you from having to walk through all the emotions. “Grief” was a word that came close to what I felt these first 6 months but that feels different now that I was just able to take a short ministry trip back to Europe. Grief is when something/someone dies…but being back in Europe my head and heart cleared and I learned two key things: “my Europe” did not die…it’s still there, waiting for me. And, I saw and felt that it was no longer my “place”… My place is now in the USA for however long God has me here. These two things have helped me immensely.

    Biggest hurdle to cross: no homecoming celebration.

    One last note: I asked a wise friend to assist me as a “transition coach” for 4 months prior to my departure and at least 6-8 months afterwards. Best decision, ever! We meet via video-conferencing for an hour or two each month and she asks very helpful coaching questions (ala coachingmissioninternational ) and I can be totally honest about my process.

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  20. Outstanding, very well written. I like the light hearted nature. I also get a kick out of people’s comments who are so easily offended. Tip 9. Could also be called, If it’s not a good time it’s a good story!
    Appreciate the insight and to things that seem so common sense but need to be brought to the forefront and not belittled as ideas so obvious. These ideas may not be new but they need to looked at and revisited especially if you have kids.
    Thanks so much
    Don

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  21. my daughter will be back in the uk from peru on monday. is it normal for me to be just as upset as she is that she’s coming back after 20 months? in a nice way that is!

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  22. Loved this! Spent 25 years overseas in 4 countries and left London to move to a tiny community in Alabama. All of your points are spot on! God gave me a message before I left that helped. “There will be people for you to love and people to love you.” Looking for them helped me with my focus. Also my son, who had come back for college years before, gave this advice: your stories are often just as appropriate without geography. “When I was in Amsterdam ….” can often be replaced with “Once…” and not be as intimidating to listeners. Thank you for sharing these.

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    • I’ve been told that TCKs often start stories with “When I was in X place” because it gives context in the same way that non-TCKs start with “When I was in sixth grade” or “When I was ten” – and also warned that it can seem like obnoxious bragging to those who are not TCKs! I like your alternative, just saying “Once…”

      Thanks for sharing this, Jerry. Somehow I lost sight of your blog after the 10 steps for leaving well, and then someone I know from another city posted a link to this post on a conversation on my Facebook wall… one of those “small world” moments. I’m glad I found it again! I have JUST moved back to Virginia from China (as in, last Friday) 🙂 and I enjoy your writing anyway. Cheers!
      Lily A.

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  23. As a global vagabond, I really appreciate this. Both for those I leave behind and for those I return to. I tell expats going home that they need to expect the Expat Clash. The clash that happens when you have been fundamental changed by your expat experience, but your friends and family expect the old you. And that gulf is made bigger by the fact that so little has changed in their lives. You don’t fit anymore. You clash. Then the rub is you no longer fit at home and you never quite fit in your adopted country, so you are forever in some stage of “stranger”. This is the expat life…

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  24. Thank you, it just helps to see that I am not the only one feeling this way.

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  25. Great article – really out into words a lot of the stuff swarming in my head! Good, practical tips in a clear and concise manner. Thank you!

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  26. Thanks for these articles! By the way, that airport looks incredibly familiar….where I say goodbye and hello (in just a few days) twice each year to my parents.

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  27. Great tips. We did this many years ago. Now it’s our kids’ turn. Thanks for providing a forum for all those who frequently just need someone to understand where they are coming from.

    Ah, yes: Say something in African.. (or even Say something in Nigerian). It’s also okay to put off homecoming get-togethers and parties until you’ve had a few days to recuperate. I remember family wanting to take us out for dinner just after we got back–only it was midnight in the time zone we had just left and we had been traveling for two days with young children. Grace, please, and the ability to say “No, let’s wait.”
    (By the way, I love your writing.)

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  28. Thanks for these articles, Jerry. We repatriated from Central Asia two years ago after having lived there for nine. It’s been a rough transition in every way. My husband has had a hard time getting back into the job market here (“you’ve been away for so long!”) and has been unemployed for almost a year now. I still miss Central Asia every day, sometimes so much it hurts. Our children have transitioned well, doing well in school and they have lots of friends. The vast majority of our friends don’t understand why we still feel up in limbo and why I still miss Central Asia so much. That makes it a very lonely walk. I particularly agree with your suggestion to give ourselves some grace. Before Central Asia I actually lived abroad for another ten years, which means that I’ve never really lived in my “home” country for any length of time as an adult until now. I know I will probably always miss the expat life and give myself a lot of grace on those days when I crumble and want to pack my suitcase and go… somewhere… anywhere, just to be abroad again! We went to a week-long debriefing seminar a month after we arrived back “home”, which is something I highly recommend if possible–to get that time away and to have a good look at all the facets involved in transitioning back “home”. I still often think back to what I learned during that week and it helps me to be patient and give all of us grace another while longer.

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  29. Thanks for this. .heading back to the states after 3 yrs in Turkey. I had my first dose of reverse culture shock while on the phone with my cell carrier making arrangements for the phones to work again when we get back. I think I may have upset the nice customer service rep with my outburst when I heard how much cell phone plans cost in the US (after being on a pay as you go sim card here). Sigh. Grace… One of many things I’m sure. Wonder if I’ll ever be comfortable wearing shoes inside someone’s house again?

    Reply
    • I live in Turkey now…I will completely have sticker shock when we go back to the US next year. And I think I will always now have a different pair of slippers/shoes to wear at my front door and in the bathroom. So much learned here.

      Reply
  30. Thank you all for the comments and advice. I have not thought about many of these things because I am still trying to figure out the logistics of moving to Boston in a month after 3 years in Korea. Thankfully I do have a job, but no place to live, and I do not know anyone. Seems Craigslist is full of scams. One thing I have experienced is that most of my friends and family are too busy to keep in touch. Out of sight, out of mind. How have you dealt with this?

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  31. Fantastic post. Perhaps the best I have ever read on the subject, one we are familiar with.

    We served in Taiwan for 16 years, after two 2 year stints on other continents (Africa and South America). We weren’t ready to leave Taipei (in fact, it was not planned, but was necessitated by a mother-in-law with Alzheimer Disease). I don’t think we gave ourselves much grace at all for the first 5 years back (we have been back 8 years this month). Others gave us grace, but we didn’t give ourselves much grace…really until we were able to go back to Taiwan for a mission trip in 2012, when closure occurred for us).

    Thanks for helping this old guy get a bit more perspective.

    Reply
  32. Thank you for this article. I agree – one of the better ones I’ve read on the matter. I think there’s one other thing which could likely fit into one of the categories you already have but bears identifying more deliberately:
    I don’t know how to matter in my home country.
    In a culture where your job, your car, your home, your network, your style, your perfectness is what holds all the value – I don’t know how to matter. I miss being of use – feeling like my presence was helpful “for the greater good”. In my home country, I don’t know how to matter because I don’t know how to care that my kids got 2nd place in little league. I don’t know how to care that the school is throwing a booster-thon for “underprivileged” who don’t have Christmas presents. I don’t know how to care about “making my house a home” or being the neighborhood “welcome wagon”. I can’t make that stuff matter in my mind (and not sure I want to – refer to Tip #8) and therefore I don’t know how to matter to anyone else. This has caused great grief in my repatriation process. I just want to be useful again.

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  33. This is such a beautiful and relevant article for returning expats. I retired 6 months ago and returned “home” after 15 years abroad, so a double whammy to my lifestyle–no work to steady my course and the repatriation. Most days I’m glad to be back in near reach of my family, but there are those days when I yearn for the other world that became so dear to me for all those years. I will pass your wisdom on to others. Thank you for sharing.

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  34. Jerry, thanks for an excellent article. We just moved back to the States after 5 years in Denmark, and are right in the middle of what you wrote about. I especially liked what you said about grace…give it freely and keep some for yourself. 😉

    Reply
  35. This is the best advice I’ve read in years, as a seasoned expat, we’ve said goodbye and hello more times than I can remember and have gleaned most of this stuff you write about the hard way…….experience. I’m bookmarking this for all our short termers that we continue to deal with in our East Asia life.

    Reply
  36. We will be returning to Canada after seven years in the Middle East, and I am very afraid of all the points you raise. I will remind myself that “with grace” is the only way to live whether here in Kuwait or In Kelowna BC. I will definitely be reading more of your posts.

    Reply
  37. Though aimed at returning missionaries, the book “Re-Entry” really covers anyone in transition – especially back to their home culture. May be obtained through Amazon, etc, or directly from publishers: https://www.ywampublishing.com/

    Reply
  38. When we returned to stay for good, we had to take a taxi home in the middle of the night after being up for 24 hours. We were tired and dirty. I wanted to go to bed but had a job interview scheduled the next morning so I had to take a bath. I discovered my mom had not cleaned the tub so I took a bath at the faucet of the tub, washing my hair there as well. We didn’t feel very welcomed. For obvious reasons, my name is withheld.

    Reply
  39. Someone asked me to write about my feelings, emotions, difficulties as I was ‘in’ the ‘Culture shock’ experience after my yearly trip back to my Homeland, Zimbabwe. It was cathartic and healing for me to write. I add it here for those who expect friends or families return from a different culture and for those returning.

    Morag’s Musings on Culture Shock

    As the time to leave Bulawayo drags closer everything becomes more intense. Life becomes a round of last glimpses, last conversations, farewells. The petrol attendant races up, a smile covering his face and joy exuding from every pore. Dread fills my heart. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave what for me is so incredibly ‘comfortable’. What is so ‘ME!’

    I go out to the townships again to see Gracie, the lady who worked for my parents throughout my young years. Grace was my mentor, stabilizer, moral compass and ‘older sister’ during my teen years. Each year I return to see her. I drive with Portia through the ‘streets’ that were obviously once tarred but now little areas of bitumen push through the sand and silt as a testament to a long gone era when maintenance was a priority. I navigate around groups of children playing with ‘plastic bag’ balls, and street BBQ [braais] where families gather to share their evening meals together. In this desperately poor area I am aware of the richness of community. Everyone shares what little they have; homes are not fenced-in fortresses but women gather to share stories and to do their chores together. ‘Chums’ and corn [mealies] struggle to survive in the dry earth..The township market garden.

    Gracie is in her 60‘s and lives here with her 3 grandchildren. Her twin daughters have joined the ‘dispora’ [those displaced reluctantly to other countries in order to survive] They work as waitresses in South Africa. Kevlina, has bought her mother a mobile phone so they can keep in touch but Gracie poor eyesight can’t see the buttons. They apparently don’t send her money and Grace is left looking after the children so she is no longer able to earn her own money. She rents out the second room of her house in order to eke out a living. She and the three children sleep, cook and live in the other small room. She complains about various aches and pains that she endures. Her only son Weatherley dropped dead in this same room. He was in his 30’s. Another victim of Aids.

    We unload the stocks of staple foods, cleaning supplies, fresh fruit and veggies and some seeds, that I have brought with us.The goods fill up every precious spare centimetre. I hate to feel like the benevolent ex boss; I feel impotent! I leave in a few days and will return to the wealth and opulence that we call ‘normal’. Gracie’s supplies will run out and she will again struggle to find food for her charges. I hug her tight as I prepare to leave and struggle to hold back the tears that are mirrored in her eyes too.. I organise for an optometrist friend of mine to see her when he visits from America in July. I drive off in the gathering darkness and my heart aches.

    I return to the Sandra Jones Centre and my ‘daughter’ Sibongile purposefully rejects my hugs. She is struggling to adapt to my upcoming ‘disappearance’. I wont be there to see her face when she gets good marks at school. When she struggles to feel ‘special’, her Mom will be thousands of miles away. I don’t want to give the impression that I am indispensable, but I feel her sense of rejection. I don’t want to leave her but I must.

    The relationships I have developed with the staff and girls over the years have markedly deepened. As Thina and I sit sharing a plate of food together, she explains the African traditions and culture. What shines through is the respect and love for their elders, the reverence for authority. She shares deeply with me and visa versa. When entering a room, it is culturally correct to greet each person and ask after their welfare, their families. It is so easy to barge into a room and start with the ‘business of the day’ and to ignore others in the room. This is rudeness to them, yet I see so many people from other countries that ignorantly or blatantly disregard the beauty of the Zimbabwean culture. They are gracious , silently enduring the foreigners, watching on humbly and quietly, but I become incensed. How dare they? I have seen people from other countries that will take us to the ice cream shop and offer to pay, but then only buy for the ‘whites’ and leave the 4 ‘black’ children with nothing! How bloody insensitive.

    I once travelled to the Centre with 2 Australian couples. Thina [now the Director of the Centre] was driving. One of the wives asked me a question which, out of respect I passed on to Thina. [A local Ndebele woman with vast knowledge of the area.] Immediately the second woman, interjected over Thina and began giving her ‘spin’ which was totally incorrect! That is rudeness in the extreme.

    Zimbabwe has been a country that has scraped itself through abject poverty, where food was a luxury not a necessity, where cholera, genacide and AIDS killed millions ….. many breadwinners. They are incredibly innovative. Unemployment levels are high, but they find ways of making money anyway. Filling potholes, making craft to sell, selling lollipops on the side of the road or just plain hard work. Men and woman line up at work sites hoping for a day of work. Roadside shops double as the local hairdresser but the stylist doesn’t charge. This is also a time to laugh, chat and share their lives together. No one moans or complains, they just get on with it. They have a saying, ‘We will make a plan.’

    One of the greatest joys I feel in Zimbabwe is the lack of a perception that ‘I have MY rights!’ They do not share our view that what I own is mine… that at all costs I must have my own way…All for one…and thats ME!…. that everything I give should be accounted for. If someone has two loaves of bread, they give one away. If you have eggs, you hand them out and the one with vegetables will share with the egg giver…No one keeps account. It all works out in the end!

    I have sat over the last 5 weeks and listened to the girls at the Centre share their stories with Thina and I. I plan to write a book sharing 11 of the girls lives. They speak in Ndebele and I video them. We have to get a written consent because I know the ‘western world’ treasures those mystical legal backups. We ask them if they want to have a pseudo name. They giggle at the thought. Some vehemently refuse. They want people to know them. Others chose the names of one of the girls they look up to. Most choose very ‘english’ names. Then they sit looking into the camera and begin to share their stories. Some need a bit of coercion to share. One skims over the bad bits and gives a shallow representation of her life. Thina gently brings her to a point where she is real. The tears flow. Her mother, sick with HIV and a prostitute, gave up her daughter and son on the alter of poverty. In return for food she let these men rape and sodomise her children. The mother dies and leaves her daughter to deal with her own journey with HIV and her son with horrible scarring and syphillis. Day in and day out I hear stories of horrific abuse and heroism. Fortitude of spirit that has allowed these girls to fight back from these very real nightmares.

    Yet in the back of my mind I know I will be returning to a land with a totally different spirit! A self serving, ‘the world owes me’ attitude that sickens me to my core every time I return. I have long since realised that no one really cares about what I have seen and heard. In fact for the majority it is better to block me out of their world because it makes them uncomfortable. I knock on the doors of their complacency and indifference. They feign interest for a while but often mid sentence they will walk away or someone will butt in. I am reminded of my gentle, gracious Zimbabweans and I stay silent. Why waste my time. Why put my jewels in the pig swill.

    The bright shops in the Sydney airport blind me as I walk through. Posters daring me to come and buy. Even clearance sales challenge me to browse and feed into the materialism that is drowning people in debt. Alluring tentacles begging me to sample what they have to sell. I want to be physically sick, yet at the back of my mind, I know that in time I will adjust, I will adapt and succumb to the notion that I NEED these trinkets of despair. THAT is what terrifies me the most!

    Bad timing means my return correlates with the announcement of the new Australian budget. We wait on the edge of our seats to discover what benefits we will loose. No one remembers the time when the government handed out cash handouts encouraging us all to buy a Television set. I didn’t want it and gave it away, but we all knew that for years we would be paying for that excess. Now payment time has come and sure as nuts the pensioners will be going out naked again…Protesting their hardship. We don’t even KNOW what hardship is in this country. Most of us are in the top percentile of the worlds economy. So I listen to people droning on about how they can’t afford a beer and that we don’t give our young people opportunities and how could we ask them to pay for higher education?? I hurl verbal abuse at the TV, pummel my fists on the table and make sarcastic comments on Facebook carefully worded so the person knows it is aimed at them. I don’t understand that they are entitled to their opinion as much as I am to mine…but my words are cutting and hard….I hate myself for it but I press ‘post’ not ‘delete’. I don’t even know the young girl who is sharing her view.

    We get angry when the Finance Minister talks about giving up on a beer but we puff on our highly taxed cigarettes and throw back a ‘beer with the mates’ and piss it all against a wall and complain when the guy charges us $7 to see a doc for our often self induced illness. We think we are hard done by and a Barbie is a great time to rant! I sit there and grit my teeth. My silence is agony! I want to rise up and pour ice water on the conversation and punch them in the face! It is better to be anti social so until I can adjust and bear it, I become a hermit and busy myself with fundraising.

    The other day I was driving home from work and slid in front of a car to my right who was veering into the turning lane. In Zimbabwe if you offend someone with your driving they hoot at you [and I received a lot of those signals]….but then everyone does, because it is hard to navigate the potholes, people and the erratic traffic also doing the same. This particular day, I obviously offended the car following the one turning right! It is an offence to hoot your horn at someone here, so I was unaware of my perceived misdeed until I was waiting for the traffic lights to change. Looking in my rearview mirror I saw the woman behind me gesticulating at something and slowly shaking her head. My reflection looked back at her in the rearview mirror and I raised my eyebrows. She should have been warned off, but as she followed my rear end closely I noticed her pointing again and this time saw the object of her intense interest….A Go Pro!!! Expletives rose and flowed from my mouth as I grabbed my hair with both hands [YES…I let go of the wheel….arrest me!] and screamed!!! Stupid, narrow minded, nitwit. She had no idea what kind of a manic she was dealing with. Everything within me wanted to stop my car, grab her little weapon of mass destruction and give her a deep seated colonoscopy. Gripping the steering wheel I had to force myself to see that I HAVE to adjust. Not everyone has experienced what I had. This is their reality and as much as I hate their pettiness and ridiculous world view, I cannot expect them to understand my reality.

    Australia is a wonderful country full of the most incredibly generous people…but we give of our excess…. not sacrificially. 80% of the world starves, is displaced, and will watch their children die from war, disease, pestilence. The media highlights the Nigerian children taken by some despot and we all hold our chests and sigh, but it is happening everywhere. All around the world men and women hyped up on their own power, abuse and steal from the very people they are supposed to serve. I don’t have the answers. I don’t want to be drawn into a protective bubble that doesn’t see or feel the pain around me. I also don’t want to be drawn into this world, this culture that dictates that my wealth is normal and therefore OK! Oh I wish I had the wisdom and sacrificial love of Mother Theresa, but I don’t. I don’t even have the answers to this dilemma …and it is tortuous conflict for me. How do we live in this world knowing about the horror in other worlds? Do I pack up my goodies in a backpack, leave my family and head off to be a conquering hero? Or do I come back here, gripping onto the privilege and knowledge I have of an amazing people; of sharing their perilous journey towards healing and restoration. Can I overcome my ambivalent feelings towards this country I now live in, enough to let them in to my world? To walk with others to find the answers that I don’t have to living in THIS world of financial privilege when my heart has been touched by a completely different world. I pray that God will guide me to a peace in both worlds until such time as He brings about His perfect restoration.

    Reply
  40. Thank you so very much for this article. As a military family, we have lived overseas in Japan two separate times, each time for a 3 year tour. We have been back now for almost 2 years and still I feel that we don’t really fit in. Your article was so helpful to me by putting into words much of what what we have experienced and by sharing tips, such as “grace.”

    Our return to the US was sort-of a cultural double-whammy. Of course there was the expected transition from Japanese to American culture, which was actually harder than anticipated. What was unexpected for us, but almost as jarring, was transitioning from a lifestyle steeped in military culture to one that is less so. My daughter perhaps had the hardest time with this; we moved back 5 weeks before her freshman year of college. Our base and her high school were surprisingly culturally diverse and going from that environment to a college where the students are overwhelmingly white was a huge transition. But in addition, going from base life to campus life was equally challenging. No uniforms everywhere, no ID checks at the gate, no national anthem before movies, no stopping whatever you are doing outside, including driving your car, to observe colors. And of course, the fact that not everyone at college loves the military (haha!) and some literally do not know the difference between Navy and Air Force.

    Even for the rest of our family, living off base now, these changes feel odd. Although we are in a large military area, our lives are less influenced by it because we live off base. And we have “Japan moments” all the time. What you describe in your article is just spot on. As for me, I generally have stopped talking about Japan to most people here, because what I find is that they do not want to hear how it really was; they want to hear how they THINK it should have been. (Point 5 was so helpful to me!) So we talk among ourselves about it, we talk with our friends who were stationed with us there, and we feel understood and connected in that way. We understand the comforting feeling we have when we happen upon a group tourists speaking in Japanese. We understand how it feels to have a person ask if we speak Chinese since we lived in Japan (has happened more than once). And when my 12 year old observed that a restaurant called “Asian Bistro” is somewhat inaccurate, because it lumps all Asian cultures together, and yet there are Italian restaurants, Greek restaurants and Polish restaurants, I get it. We laugh together at all the memories, all the cultural mess ups we made, and dream together of how we might be able to go back to visit.

    What was, without a doubt, are hardest tour ever, became our most treasured. We love both countries and our family’s lives and perspectives have been forever changed.

    Again, thank you for your article. And thank you for letting me express my thoughts.

    Reply
  41. I lived in Afghanistan for 2 years after I finished college. I did not give myself grace nor did I look for enough Safe Havens. It is also okay to seek professional counseling during this time. I waited and I wish I had started immediately. With most people I stayed very closed about where I had been as I didn’t want to field all of the questions. No transition is easy, but obviously this made it much harder. Your tips make perfect sense! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  42. My husband and I returning “home” to a new town, where we will retire, after 22 years in various countries. I know we will experience lots of unexpecteds and your blog helps me to think about some of them. For me, having to make new friends after years of never really having to make much effort to do so, as we were welcomed into an expat and/or local group, is the scariest. We have good friends, but they are all scattered around the world. Your repeated advice about grace and being patient with life and oneself is so good. Thank you.

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  43. … the only thing I didn’t read in this is that re-patriating it’s different for every culture – and whether you’re moving “back” near old friends or family. Adds a whole other dimension.

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  44. We’re literally moving continents this week. We’ve lived in east Africa for 13 years (in the same house for 11.5 of those years). And it’s hard. We’ve purged most of our stuff, and only have 13 pieces of luggage. We’re stopping off in our passport country for 3 months, and then moving to another country. It all seems surreal…even though we’re homeless and heading to the airport in 48hours. We’ve cried, we’ve laughed, we’ve grieved, we’ve said too many goodbyes to count, we’ve done too many “lasts” this year. We have 3 kids and this is all they know. They’ve been courageous. I feel like I’m holding my breath waiting for the storm of emotions to hit…

    Reply

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