If you are an expat, you may find that moving back to your home country is actually more disorienting than going abroad was in the first place. You won’t be the same person you were when you left. You’ve been exposed to another culture and learned how to thrive in a completely different environment. Whether you come away from the experience with good, bad, or, more likely, mixed feelings, you’ve grown personally. Your perspective on the world is broader than it used to be.
When you get back home, you’ll be bursting with stories to tell. You’ll feel a romantic fascination with what you’ve just done. You’ll feel like there must be some sort of mesmerizing glow about you, something intangible that will fascinate others, too. But then you’ll find that the people back home have been living pretty much the same lives they were when you left. Their routines have not changed much. They aren’t as fascinated by your experiences abroad as you thought they’d be. You feel like you’ve gone through deep and profound changes, but when you tell a story about your life overseas, people reply with an anecdote about their vacation in Italy 20 years ago. You realize there is a chasm between them and you, and you will never bridge it. It’s a lonely and frustrating feeling.
Back in your days abroad, there were probably times when you longed for the comforts of home. You missed your home country’s food, your friends, your family. Maybe you missed things you used to take for granted, like the easy availability of a particular brand of milk, or a favorite chain of restaurants. You may have idealized your hometown, comparing an imagined perfection to the real-life reality of the new country, and as a result, you thought your home country was far superior to the new one. But then you go back home and realize your home country isn’t as impressive as you thought it was. The cracks in the sidewalks are bigger. The buildings are more rundown. The cars aren’t as shiny. The people aren’t as healthy or as well groomed as you remembered. It’s bad enough to feel lonely and disconnected, but now you’re a little disappointed, too.
At that point, you start doing the same thing you used to do, but in reverse. Instead of missing your hometown friends and family, you miss the friends you made in the foreign country. Instead of idealizing the memories of your hometown, you idealize the memories of the foreign country. Instead of thinking, “Why can’t this foreign country be more like my hometown,” you think, “Why can’t my hometown be more like that foreign country?”
Repatriation doesn’t just bring culture shock, it brings culture whiplash. Going abroad looks easy in comparison.
The experts agree. According to one popular textbook used in many international MBA programs, “Executives’ repatriation can turn into the most stressful time of the entire international assignment.” However, while many companies concentrate on preparing their managers to go abroad, very few of them pay any attention to helping them come home. They figure their people are coming back to the place where they grew up, so the adjustment will be easy. They don’t realize it will actually be harder.
If you are an expat about to head back to your home country, don’t underestimate the challenges you are about to face. Keep in mind, however, that you already have the skills you will need. The same adventurous, flexible and adaptive spirit that helped you adjust to life in a foreign country will help you adjust back to your homeland. It may seem strange at first, that instead of finally getting to rest those muscles, you will actually have to work them harder. But you’ve already shown that you’re up to the task.
If you are back at the headquarters, welcoming these people home from their stint abroad, remember that the reentry process may be more stressful than you realize. You don’t need to coddle your repatriates, because they have already shown they perform quite well in the wild. But be standing by, ready to facilitate their reentry if needed. They are a valuable bunch, these people your organization chose to send abroad. They have the courage, adaptability and global perspective your organization will need to succeed into the future.