Repatriating is weird.
It shouldn’t be but it is.
It should be awesome — and easy — and the complete redemption of every challenge, every irritation and every bumbling misadventure you have trudged through in your life as a foreigner. You are being unshackled from the chains of expat awkwardness and outsider fatigue.
Language barriers — gone. Cultural head scratching — no more. Mystery dishes — not on your plate. Awkward laughter to cover your embarrassment even though you have NO idea why you should be embarrassed (or laughing) — done with it.
You’re going back to normal. Your normal. Normal normal.
And there it is. The reason that repatriating is weird. Because it was supposed to be normal. Turns out . . . it’s not.
Your normal shifted while you were away. Theres a good chance (although the variables are different for every person) that your new normal IS communicating through a language barrier, scratching your head, eating the mystery dish (or finding a culturally acceptable reason not to) and awkward laughter.
Repats face a multi-layered challenge when they come “home”. One of those layers is tainted with the guilt of feeling like they should not be feeling like they are. There is a sense of isolation when we re-engage our communities.
Generally speaking, people don’t repatriate in herds. Maybe we should. Then we might know that we are actually quite normal.
For those without that luxury — here are some some things that DON’T make you weird.
1. Sensory Overload
Feeling overwhelmed by things that have never overwhelmed you before is not weird. This would make sense if you were only overwhelmed by bad things. You can brace for that impact, but it’s confusing to find yourself drowning in the things that you were most excited about coming back to.
Remember this — your senses (all of them) have grown accustomed to something different. You’ve adjusted the settings to respond to the realities of your foreign life. As an expat you have been hyper-tuned in, because if you’re not you’ll miss something important. In other ways you’ve completely checked out because you don’t understand and frankly you don’t need to.
It’s like when you’re watching TV and the sound is bad so you turn it up to 65.
Then you forget and change the channel. You just woke up the whole neighborhood.
It takes some time to readjust.
2. The Little Brother Syndrome
If you’ve got a little brother I don’t even need to explain this to you. They can annoy the pot out of you and, as the elder sibling, you reserve the right to pummel them. Wedgies, noogies, wet willies and forehead flicks are all perfectly acceptable means of retaliation (assuming parents are absent). HOWEVER — When Lester McNeederbottom down the street takes his lunch money . . . it’s on.
NOBODY messes with your kid brother but you.
Even if your expat experience was hard. Even if you slipped into a bad habit of whining and griping about every part of it. Even if you couldn’t wait to get home . . . you’ve connected.
So when somebody talks trash about your host country . . . it’s not weird to feel defensive.
3. Total Incompetence
I forgot how to use my bank card at the supermarket. I spent 10 minutes looking for the veggie “weigh station” before I remembered they don’t do that here. I couldn’t remember if U-turns were legal. I had no idea how to order at Chipotle.
This list goes on.
Trust me. Whatever is on your list. You are not alone.
4. Weird Withdrawals
Being the outsider has it’s challenges. As an expat you go through various stages of frustration with being the odd man out.
We got stared at. Pretty common for foreigners in China and to be fair . . . we’re kind of a walking freak storm. My wife and I are the garden variety, fair-skinned foreigners but our kids look NOTHING like us. Our daughter would blend in perfectly if she weren’t standing with us and our son (who has by far the darkest skin in the family and an awesome head of curly hair) doesn’t blend at all (with us or without us). We are totally worth staring at.
We grew pretty comfortable with the ogling but at times it was the most irritating part of our lives there.
So why in the world would I feel offended when people in my home country DON’T stare at my family?
I don’t know. But I did.
It’s pretty common to have withdrawals that make no sense at all.
When you see the place you have always called home through a different set of lenses you return to it with a different perspective.
“These people just don’t get it.”
“Everybody here thinks they’re the center of the universe.”
“If they could see what I’ve seen.”
“I used to think like that before I moved abroad.”
Faith, politics, education, business, office protocol, you name it. It’s all subject to a deeper scrutiny from those who have seen it from a different angle.
Here’s the catch. It is highly unlikely that you will notice yourself being more judgmental. You may, however, notice that everyone around you is wrong.
Side note — if everyone around you is wrong, you’re probably being more judgmental.
You are not the first.
6. Zero Self Discipline
It’s pretty exciting to come home to all of the guilty pleasures that you have missed so much. Consequently it’s not uncommon to find yourself substantially fatter and broker six months later.
7. Missing your other language
Personally, I find this to be the most dysfunctional quirk in my own transition process. The only time I have ever had a deep yearning to really commit to learning a new language is when I have needed it the least. When I was in China I fluctuated between being a terrible student and a mediocre student.
Then I came home and found myself listening to Chinese podcasts and checking out new Chinese character memorization software.
Doesn’t make even a tiny bit of sense but I would bet that I’m not alone.
8. Feeling homesick at home
If “home” was clearly defined before you lived abroad you may be painfully confused on your return. Even if your host country is radically different from anything you ever experienced growing up, you may be shocked to discover you miss it like you’ve lived there forever.
The whole “home” conversation gets more complex if you grew up cross culturally but you knew that already. If that’s you, you’re well acquainted with being homesick even if you can’t identify where home is.
Whoever you are — there are many more like you.
I tread lightly here. Clearly repatriation and death are not the same. That said, mourning is an absolutely legitimate part of this transition. It is healthy and natural.
The defining characteristic of grief is that it is a process. Mourning is not the same as venting. You don’t just get it out of your system one day and then “poof” it’s gone.
By acknowledging that this could be grief you’ll connect yourself to the many other repats who feel the same. Beyond that you might just get your eyes opened to people all around (even the “normal” ones) who are grieving many different flavors of loss.
They are all around.
10. Becoming self-centric
Repatriation is weird. We’ve covered that.
It’s a shock. It’s a process. It takes time and we feel alone while we are doing it.
We’ve had an adventure and we want to share it.
We’ve struggled and we want someone to feel bad for us.
We’ve been gone and we want to feel missed.
We’re behind and we want some help catching up.
We’ve changed and we want someone to notice.
We’ve got lots to say and we want someone . . . anyone . . . to listen.
And since we are the ONE in the crowd who has done something different, it’s easy to forget that we are not the only ONE — period.
The crowd matters.
“Home” changed too. They had an adventure while you were gone. Bad things happened. Good things happened. They missed you but they didn’t sit on the porch waiting for you to come home. They’ve changed. They’ve grown. They’ve got stories to tell and they might like you to show some interest as well. There’s even a strong chance they would love to hear about how much YOU missed THEM.
Don’t kick yourself.
If coming home has become all about you . . . you are definitely not alone.
What’s your story? Share it below and prove to the others that there are more like them out there.
Know a repat? Past, present or future? Pass this on. They may think they’re the only one.
Want to feel normal? Go here and read this legendary piece about repatriating by Naomi Hattaway: I am a Triangle
Want to meet more people like you? Go here and join the “I am a Triangle” Facebook Group which is FULL of people just like you. Told you that you’re not alone.