The Expat Exodus: 10 Questions Every Repatriating Expat Should Consider Before They Leave

Young girl with suitcase walking down the street. Rear view

 

It’s coming again . . . the massive, painful, Expatriate Exodus

 

As I write this there are thousands of expats scattered across the planet who are packing up their lives and making plans for whatever comes next.  It happens every year and the high season for leavers is upon us.

click here to see why expats hate June

I myself repatriated just two years ago and am now preparing to return to my life as an expat.  So whether I am re-expatting  or becoming an ex-repat one truth is painfully clear.

I am leaving . . . again.

Here are some questions that I have found to be helpful by watching people leave well.

 

Question 1:  Are you Crazy?  

This is not so much a “yes” or “no” question.  I’m just establishing a baseline.

Maybe a better question would be “how crazy are you and is that enough?”

What you are about to go through is quite frankly . . .  crazy.  Not the “mentally deranged” type of crazy.  That’s a separate issue.   This is more of a “you’re just not like the normal people” kind of crazy.  Normal people pack their bags and take a trip.  They ask the neighbor to watch the cat.  They say goodbye, go away . . . and then come back.  That is normal.

What you are doing is not normal.  You’re packing it ALL up . . . or selling it . . . or giving it away . . . including the cat.  You’ll say goodbye and you’ll go away but that is where you part ways from the normal people.  Literally and figuratively.

It’s good to wrap your head around the fact that the next few months of your lives is not going to be normal.  Even for you.  It’s also good to know that this is a season.  There is a beginning and an end.  Normal will return but for now and for a little while it’s gonna’ be crazy.

It will help if you are too — at least a little.

Question 2:  Are you Leaving Well  or Leaving Happy?

There is a monstrous difference between leaving well and leaving happy.  Leaving happy can range from, “I’m just happy to be leaving” to “It’ll be just like I never left.”  Regardless, you’re missing something if your primary focus is how you feel when you get on the plane.

How about a sports metaphor?  Tickling a runner with a broken leg so hard they nearly wet themselves doesn’t get them ready for the next race.

Leaving happy may mean setting yourself up for a fall in the near future.

Here are some of the differences between leaving well and leaving happy:

  • Leaving happy remembers the good times and ignores the bad.
  • Leaving well celebrates the good and learns from the bad. It mourns and adjusts.
  • Leaving happy anticipates an unrealistic future — “It will be better when . . . “
  • Leaving well prepares for the inevitable high’s and low’s to come.
  • Leaving happy candy coats reality.
  • Leaving well addresses the bitter and the sweet.
  • Leaving happy leaves relationships  . . . nice.
  • Leaving well let’s them go deep.

For more about Leaving Well read these posts from last year’s Expat Exodus series

 

Question 3:  Have you considered that going home might be harder than leaving?

Sorry — don’t kill the messenger.

This is something that I’ve heard over and over.  Going “home” was more difficult than becoming a foreigner.

We could go a thousand different directions here but I think the roots of the issue can be found in the mammoth gap between your expectations and reality.

  • You think you are going “home” but your “home concept” is outdated.  Home changed while you were out.  So did you.
  • You think it will be easy to get around now that you speak the language but “the language” is going to overwhelm you.
  • You expected to be an incompetent, bumbling idiot when you moved abroad but you’ve got no clue that you’re about to feel that way again.
  • You’ve got great stories and can’t wait to tell all your friends.  Bless your heart.  Not all of them want to hear your stories.
  • You’re excited about your favorite cereal but the cereal aisle is about to destroy you.

Question 4: Do you know that you’re NOT weird?

Crazy? Yes.  Weird? No.

I get to spend quality time with dozens of exiting expats every spring.  It is remarkable to me how many of them share the exact same anxieties.  What is even more remarkable is that most of them feel isolated in that anxiety.  Whatever they’re feeling, they’re pretty certain they are the only ones feeling it.

You may not be normal but it’s almost guaranteed that you’re a normal repat.

You might be a normal repat . . .

  • If you are leaving in two months and still have no clue where you’re going to work . . . or live.
  • If you’ve been fighting with your spouse . . . your kids . . . your friends . . . your co-workers more than usual.
  • If walking by the vegetable market makes you cry.
  • If group hugs with your weeping bff’s don’t make you cry at all even when you try your hardest.
  • If you’re finding yourself more frustrated with your host culture than you have been in a long time.
  • If you’re having vivid . . . or scary . . . or senseless . . . or stressful dreams.
  • If you’re having deja vu a lot.
  • If you’re having deja vu a lot.
  • If you feel like expat life has changed you . . . and you’re afraid going home will “change you back”.
  • If the thought of politics, or pop culture, or school, or church or the nightly news at home makes you vomit a little bit in your mouth.
  • If you are afraid.
  • If you are excited.
  • If you are something that is not on this list.  Anything.

Trust me.  You are not alone.

 

Question 5: Do you have a plan?

Trust me again.  Trying to round out this important chapter of your life without a plan is a sure way to pile unnecessary stress on top of an already stressful process and miss some golden opportunities for doing this well.

It is basic supply and demand and your time is at a premium.  You can budget it like a wise investor or you can take your chances . . . like a drunken gambler.

A well thought out plan ensures that your best friends get your best time and your ok friends get your ok time.  It also protects you from well meaning time suckers and circumstances which are neither good nor ok.

Even if you’re not a planner.  You’ll do better with a plan.

 

Question 6: Does your plan include a buffer?

 

The best laid plans of Mice and Men oft go awry

And leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy!”

-Robert Burns — To A Mouse

 

Frankly I think old Robert was off by an “oft”.  Your best plan will ALWAYS go awry.  Something will come up.  Someone will cancel.  It will rain or snow or your taxi will get lost or you will develop a fluke allergic reaction to shoes.  Something will not go as planned.  Guaranteed.

 

So what is the plan then?  The plan is to stick to the plan 100% . . . and then be flexible when the plan doesn’t work out like you planned it.  Leave yourself some wiggle room if at all possible.
  • Do the hard stuff first.
  • Protect your last two weeks.
  • If possible consider leaving later rather than sooner (even a few days makes a big difference)
  • You’ll be packing until you leave your house or apartment — Consider some time in a hotel or with friends before you leave.

 

Question 7: If you were on a plane right now what would you be wishing you would have done better?

Stepping through the security gate at the airport is a bit of a surreal moment.  It serves as a sort of portal into the next chapter.  Once you step through and lose eye contact with your entourage it all turns real.  That’s it.  Chapter over.  Page turned.

It’s a weird mix of lonely and liberating but it marks the end of the last chances.

Sure, you’ve got Skype and email and tons of frequent flyer miles so it’s not all doom and gloom but it is definitely and entirely different.

Now (pre-leaving) is your best time for awkward eye contact and goofy “you’ve changed my life” speeches.  Hug emojis are not actual hugs.  Skype is not the same as your favorite coffee shop.  Facebook can’t compare to a best friend photo shoot.

There is no time to do everything you want to do . . . but there is time to do some of it.

Why are you even still reading this?  Go.

 

Question 8: What are you taking with you? 

Wrestling with the literal version of this question can be painful.  Are you shipping your things or downsizing to the maximum suitcase allowance?  What are you NOT taking and how are you getting rid of it?  Who wants your toaster and more importantly who do you want to have it?

Great time to take inventory.

The figurative version of this question though is where it gets rich.  How are you different from the person you were when you started this adventure?  What has changed inside of you?

  • What do you value that you never valued before?
  • How have your core beliefs been challenged and stretched and strengthened?
  • What memories will make you grin until you are old and wrinkly?
  • How have you been transformed by this whole, crazy experience?

Consciously thinking about these things is a part of moving forward with a strong foundation.

Side question:  What are you leaving behind?  Try that one literally and figuratively too.

 

hugging-smileysQuestion 9: Do people REALLY know how you feel about them?

Let me answer that one for you.

Unless you have told them . . . specifically . . . in very clear and simple terms . . . then NO — people do NOT know how you feel about them.

Why?  Because people are dense.

People generally know the headlines but they don’t just assume the details.  They may know that you appreciate them but they don’t know why.  They don’t know what it is about them that made you start respecting them.  They don’t know the impact (specifically) that they have had on you.  They don’t know how you are a different person for knowing them and they don’t know how you can only hope and dream to impact other people the way they have you.

Because they’re dense.

But it’s ok.  You’re dense too.

Assume nothing.  Leave them knowing.

 

Question 10: Are you being selfish?

It is a stressful time.  I get it.  Trust me.  I get it.

You need to sell your stuff and pack your bags and make your plan, look people in the eyeballs and say good healthy goodbyes.  You need to be thinking forward and backward and right now all at the same time and you can’t afford to miss a single moment.  You’re overwhelmed with details and people won’t stop asking you for your blender.

You’re leaving and life is tough for a leaver.

But look around.  Those people around you . . . are being left.  Again.

Leavers are not the only ones impacted by the Expat Exodus.  You know what it feels like.  Chances are, if you’re a leaver then you’ve also been left before.  Some of you have been left year after year for a long, long time.  You’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t get easier.

If you’re a Leaver — Why not share some grace with the Stayers . . . it’s the secret sauce to leaving well:

  • Give them grace when they ask for your blender . . . again.
  • Grace it up when they cancel dinner . . . again.
  • Show some grace when they disconnect early and act detached, or irritated, or downright angry.
  • Grace when they don’t come to your stuff sale.
  • Grace when they try to haggle at your stuff sale.
  • Grace when they want to spend every waking moment with you.
  • Grace when they insist on awkward eye contact.
  • Grace when they refuse to look you in the eye.
  • Grace on those who want you to leave happy when you’re trying to leave well.
  • Grace through the tears and the laughter and the sarcasm and the denial.
  • Grace all over everything.

You’re leaving.  Wait.  Scratch that.  WE are leaving.  This is a big part of our story.  It’s ok for that to be about us . . .

But it’s not ALL about us.

And P.S. — If you just realized that you have been selfish . . . give yourself a little grace too.

 

Are you leaving?  Why not take some intentional time to wrestle through these 10 questions?

Getting left or know others impacted by the Expat Exodus?  Please pass this on.

Got a thought, or a story, or another question to ponder?  Post it below.

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the reminder, Jerry. When we left last year, I wrote a song about leaving and saying goodbye, and I played it for my students. Whenever I’m missing them, I just pull out my guitar and play it again. https://youtu.be/QB25oMgAH7o

    Reply
    • I love this song. Thanks for doing it well.

      Reply
  2. Such a relief to read your blog !! In the next two months will be our eighth move in 15 years… My 11 yrs old daughter found it hard. I’ll share your story w her. Btw you r very spot on for each 10 questions xx

    Reply
  3. I am a child of expatriates and am an expatriate now myself, so leaving a place has become a familiar experience. I only realized how hard it might be for the stayers a month ago when the boss with whom I had worked for 5 years left unexpectedly (he was a good boss). It was very hard for me to say goodbye–I was angry and breaking down in tears at the same time–and I realized that I was going through the stages of grieving for a good working relationship that was changing. (I know this sounds creepy–who appreciates their boss that much?–but it really wasn’t.) So how must it feel for parents and grandparents and siblings who have to say goodbye–over and over and over again?

    Reply
  4. Thanks for thinking my thoughts! Been thinking about Ireland or somewhere in the UK . Here’s anew question – my “dog kids” are my life. How does that go? Still the quarantine thing? Thanks for any input!
    (I have 5, from 40 lbs. to 160)

    Reply
    • I believe that vaccinated dogs from the US are now allowed in the UK without quarantine since the US has become so successful in controlling rabies in this country. But there is paperwork involved and you have to prove vaccination within a certain amount of time before travel. I’m sure you can find the details online through the consulate or possibly your vet. I have a friend who moved to the UK with her dog two years ago. Her biggest problem was finding dog friendly housing, particularly in London.

      Reply

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