Repatriating Normally: 10 Things That Make Coming Home Feel Weird

Hipster girl with a suitcase

 

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.

 

5.  Judgyness

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.

It happens.

 

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.

Anyone?

 

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.

 

9.  Mourning

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.

 

32 Comments

  1. Yes, I can relate. I’m emailing this to some friends. Thanks

    Reply
  2. Lived in China for 2 years and repatriating was the toughest part of the whole process. Thanks for writing this, just emailed it to several people who can relate.

    Reply
  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! After 7 years in Macau, China, re-entry to NZ is proving more of a challenge than I anticipated.

    Reply
  4. Until I read this, I seriously thought I might be the only one to feel all of these things. Thank you for putting it into words better than I ever could!

    Reply
  5. We lived 16 years in Japan before choosing early retirement and a life of full time travel, beginning in Thaialnd. This article was spot on, especially the grieving process, which I feel like I am in the process of working through now.

    Reply
  6. We’re heading back “home” for a few weeks this summer, and I find myself bracing for all the imaginary things I will have to explain to all the “wrong” or “ignorant” people in the supermarket, church, ahem family reunions. I’m getting on my own nerves, and we haven’t even packed a bag yet! Thanks for aptly putting a name to what I’m feeling…judgmental. I will be keeping a close eye on that.
    Also, I’m excited for my blonde, blue-eyed, introverted babies…no one will notice them. It’s their dream come true!

    Reply
  7. The self check out at the grocery store gets me every time I go back to the States. I never know how to do it and I am always cutting in line and making people mad. I seriously don’t see the lines.

    Reply
  8. Ha! Ordering at Chipotle! We got some serious shade from everyone behind us in line when we tried this on a summer visit once several years back. It was such a negative experience and my wife compared it to the food villagers in Indonesia throw to dogs – we’ve never been back. We totally missed that one!

    Reply
    • Not just Chipotle. We lived in GTMO for eleven years. I did bring the kids back for about a month every summer for time with Grandparents, but they were used to: McDonald’s, KFC and Taco Bell (our only fast food)… and the family rule was we couldn’t go to any of those, since that was all we’d have for the next eleven months, So, they wanted to go to Wendy’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, pretty much any other fast food restaurant… and had no idea what was on the menu. I would forget also, or the restaurant would add something new.

      Reply
  9. Been back five years after 20plus years total as expat. I still don’t fit in here.

    Reply
  10. After living for 15 years in Saudi Arabia and having just returned ‘home’ yo California three weeks ago I’ve experienced every one of these. Good to know it’s my new normal. I even miss the five times daily call to prayer!

    Reply
    • I see you wrote this in 2015…..hope you get to read my response!
      I lived 2 times in Kuwait. The last time was for 6 years…left in 2013. Today I’m still finding some things really difficult! I get totally lost in grocery stores and would rather go to a sit down restaurant. And yes….the 5 times daily call to prayer kept me on schedule!

      Reply
  11. Right on the money!! Less than 6 months back and these things are starting to “normalize”. It does take time!

    Reply
  12. I have been gone from home country for 10 years and now 62 yrs. old. I feel “stupid.” Everything is hi-tech and on-line and “there is an app for that.” I feel like my parents probably did when I was teaching them how a laptop connected to internet and how to send emails. Huh???

    Reply
  13. This is a great read….I am heading back to the UK after spending a very strange/exciting/depressing/culturally amazing 2 1/2 years in Jakarta…wish me luck!

    Reply
  14. I repatriated from China back to California and the most difficult thing to face is that I have no Chinese friends in the U.S. I’ve noticed that I have to go to Chinatown to practice my Mandarin, and even then, most just consider me another local. The hardest thing, is that I felt I had so many friends back in Asia, and in America it seems no one is interested in knowing me as a person here, even if I make extreme efforts to have friends. I have even less connections here in America. I have to say that I went through a horrific mourning process, loneliness. Now, I am stronger and ready to go back for good! I’m thankful to hear others’ stories, and would love to share my experiences.

    Reply
  15. Rebecca I feel for you. The question is where do you stay fluent with the new languages you are forced to learn, out of survival?? The connections you make with other cultures and understanding of their lives, too. I lived in China for 4 years and my little bit of Mandarin has come in handy as my nephew married a Chinese girl and their family love me because I share their language. They also have a Chinese restaurant and I order traditional dishes that aren’t on the menu and they love to share their culture with someone that can appreciate it. I have been in the States for 4 weeks and it’s like being away from family for the holidays looking at FB postings of all the holiday parties and bazaars. I find myself not wanting to look at it anymore to lessen the homesickness of expat life. Everyday I am counting my blessings, I can go the grocery and get everything I need and then some. I can drive my own car and go anywhere and do anything. The posts of my expat friends are still sharing their struggles and I have to not rub it in their faces of how wonderful the U.S. is and how great it is to have had the experience of an expat life for 10 yrs. in 4 countries and great to be home.

    Reply
  16. I’ll try VERY HARD (hope you don’t notice THAT part)–with the things you have written—I’ll be so HAPPY to have you at least in the same country—forgive me if I can JUST be a LOVING, CHERISHING MOM–to you and MOM IN LAW to your precious husband. HURRY HOME and get some loving from all who love you so much!!!!

    Reply
  17. PS—-#6 part especially the fatter part for me) 🙁

    Reply
  18. Grew up in 5 countries on 3 continents; worked professionally in SE Asia and SS Africa… still come ‘home’ to Tennessee and have to ask the gas station attendant to repeat himself 3 times because I can’t understand his accent. Double ditto on all 10 things above.

    Reply
  19. What a great article. My husband and I have been living abroad for more than a decade as expats. We are both Army Brats and spent much of our childhood abroad. My husband actually attended 17 different schools before our graduation from Würzburg American HS in Germany. There is a definite need for information like this for military families … even for those who only travel domestically. Thanx again for your insight.

    Reply
  20. Oh my…I can SO relate to all of these! I’m now 1 year stateside after 10 years in Kenya and still have trouble using my bank card at the grocery store lol! Some days are better than others but I still grieve the loss of rich relationships and sense of community I had in my host country. Life in the U.S. moves too fast for me.

    Reply
  21. My wife wanted to repatriate two years ago. I was not ready to make the change so took a post in Germany. This year I think I can handle it. Getting my knee replaced in the morning. My new philosophy is slow down and when I return to the U.S. of A. keep expectations very low. The last nine years living and traveling outside the U.S.A. have been intellectually crazy stimulating. Teaching Islamic history and Arab studies, economics in China and living in rule-bound Germany have all enlightened our perspectives. Thanks for a great post.

    Reply
  22. Great article! I have been in Central Asia for 11 years, when I go back to the states, is it messed up that I feel slighted by the total lack of completely inappropriate marriage proposals? Like, “I only have one wife, you can be my second wife and live upstairs!”, “You have nice teeth…are they yours…will you marry me?” “You are American?! Marry me and take me to America!” “My wife has only give me daughters, I need a second wife so I can have sons. You are old and need to get married or your ovaries will harden and you won’t be able to have children and your husband will divorce you and you will have no one to look after you when you are old. Marry me.”
    …I shouldn’t be missing comments like this!

    Reply
  23. After 15 years in the Middle East and returning home to Australia, I felt every one of these. So nice to know I’m not the only one!

    Reply
  24. Great article – I returned (not a repatriation, but close) to the US after living in China and it just seemed too easy, to the point of boredom. Where was the challenge; the interest? I’ve recently repatriated to the UK after a few more moves. My saving grace was that it’s been so long since I lived here it felt like a new country. But still so many of these points hit home.

    Reply
  25. This is so part of the military Brat life! My children only had the experience with GTMO – which is mostly like Mayberry with much better weather… and a lot of Jamaican and Philippino contractors. The top speed is 25mph and there is ONE stop light – and it is in the museum. The longest road is about five miles long. The Commissary/Exchange is the only store and included the bank, a Subway (restaurant), barber/beauty shop, and the ‘gift shop’; the WHOLE kaboodle, plus it’s entire parking lot would fit into the average WalMart building. Shopping Stateside can be quite overwhelming: the average shampoo section is usually larger in a US store than the entire beauty/personal hygiene aisle at the GTMO Commissary.

    I know many military kids who have lived in two or three foreign countries by the time they graduate high school; many attend local pre-schools or Kindergartens, then start school on Base. They speak passably in at least two languages other than American English. Some attend American Schools (not DoDDS schools), and one family currently has children in an Australian high school, complete with ‘Houses’, although, alas, no sorting hat or magic classes. One family moved from Japan to Europe. Yeah, moving back to the US can be rough, but these kids have such a unique experience and view of the world..

    Reply
  26. here is my long comment, which I actually posted on my FB page, after returning to the US from Thailand after 26 years:
    I have some honest words to share. And I write this with a heart full of grace and love towards those who love me, and for my friends who have also left, who can relate, who are struggling still, with this thing called “re-entry.”
    ***
    “What’s it like being back? How are you adjusting, being in the US again? Are you done with the great adventure? Are you going to finally settle down and get a real job? How does it feel, to be away from that land that you loved? We are so glad you are here now. We need you here. Don’t go back. Stay.”
    These words, all said to me since I have been back, by lovely and very well-meaning people. Are they implying that I left on a short, uneventful journey, and have now come back, to finally settle down? To move on? To live a real life?
    I won’t settle. Not yet. You see, my heart, my heart….she is still not here. I arrived by airplane, but my heart is walking back here. Wandering and waving and saying goodbye, taking her own time. Touching fabric, smelling mangos, tasting that dirty, fresh fish taste, that I can’t explain to those who want me to adjust.
    My heart is breathing outside of my body and taking in and remembering the culture and the language and the friends, and the children, oh, the children, who entered into my empty spaces and now refuse to move on. They don’t move on. So why should I? And how do I? Thailand is like a welcome weight around my ankles; chains that jangle and remind me of my movement and my sluggishness, in a fast quick world. I need this. I need to move slowly. I will not keep pace with my companions here. I will walk the slow walk of the old Thai man, hands clasped behind his back, until I am ready to meander with those who must hurry, hurry, here and there.
    So please just ask my how my new journey is going. Ask me, “Has your heart caught up?” Ask me if you are walking too fast or if that tear in my eye is just dust or if it is a memory that wants to travel down my face. Ask me how I’m doing. Ask me if it hurts. Ask me if I still dream in Thai, or if my heart still breaks over the children that I loved and raised as my own.
    Don’t try and figure me out. Don’t try to relate, by sharing your story of that time you went on a mission trip to Haiti for 2 weeks. Don’t rub my back and tell me that I will be ok. I don’t want to be ok. I don’t want to come back to the way I was. I don’t want to lose any of the last 26 years of my life, and have it all become like a broken pair of flip flops, forgotten in the front hall closet. I don’t want to settle. I want to be a petulant child for a little while longer. Let me.
    One day, I will resolve to live here. One day, I will stop daydreaming about packing my suitcase. One day I will no longer want to feel the rain on my skin, like the pin pricks of a tattooist, when I ride my motorcycle in a sudden May downpour.
    Until that day….until then…match your pace with mine. Patiently wait as I struggle to find the right English word. Bear with me as I muse and remember and tell you a story you have heard before. I need you to just be. To help me breathe and give me grace. Show me what it is like to “settle”, and convince me that it isn’t a bad word. Wait with me, as my heart catches up to the rest of me. I need you to be that for me, my friend. Be my home.

    Reply
    • ‘One day, I will resolve to live here. One day, I will stop daydreaming about packing my suitcase.’

      This brought tears to my eyes. We spent 11 years in GTMO. There are a lot of differences between that and being a true ex-pat: GTMO is like a small US town (i.e. Mayberry) but with better weather, the gates are closed, so we didn’t have access to ‘real Cuba’. But it’s a tight community; even with so many people transferring every 18 months or three years. It really has its own culture because there are military, GS civilians, and contractors who are mostly US personnel, but very diverse; but there are large populations of Jamaicans and Philippinos who work for contract companies for things like public works, cleaning services, etc. Since the Jamaicans and Philippinos spend most of their lives during their employment away from their own families, they get to know our kids and take an interest in their lives.

      It’s been two years and I still check the flights to see how many seats are available. GTMO gets in our souls. I know people who lived there as children who are older than I and feel the same.

      Reply
  27. In the mid 90s I repatriated to Oklahoma City, a few months after the Murrah Building bombing. Everyone had clearly gone through a big experience but most people had talked as much as they wanted to about it. Everyone else had this big shared experience but wasn’t saying anything about it.

    Reply
  28. Nice work. Thanks. I just returned to the U.S. after 14 years in Slovakia. I swear I’m European now. Don’t know what to think of this place. And I moved back to a completely different part of the U.S., not my native New England. Don’t even recognize the jargon half the time. Every day attitudes and behaviors are so different.

    Reply
  29. Jerry, thanks so much for all of your brilliance! Thanks also for your support of the I Am A Triangle community! Thumbs up!

    Reply

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