Alongside the topic of cross-cultural adjustment upon relocation, the topic of repatriation back home is also receiving increasing attention. Multinational organizations are concerned with the turnover of repatriated expats, the population of international workers and students are made aware of reverse culture shock, and travel bloggers write about feeling misplaced and having the insatiable travel bug. Whatever the many different approaches and voiced concerns, it all boils down to one thing: coming back home is not easy.
I have already touched on the topic in some of my previous blog posts, highlighting the difficulties of feeling ‘rootless’ and misplaced. From an expat management perspective, unsuccessful repatriation is frequently the result of a lack of opportunities to use the new knowledge and skills acquired abroad. As a relevant BBC article puts it, ‘organizations often fail to help expats make a successful transition to a rewarding new position that capitalizes on their global experience’. It seems that all the abovementioned themes are similar in their implication, that upon coming back home people are faced with something that does not correspond to their expectations and needs.
In this entry, elaborating further on the matter of repatriation, I would like to take a slightly different angle. Instead of looking at what it is that expats get when coming back home, I would like to ask what it is that they lack from their life abroad. In fact, similar to homesickness upon relocation abroad, the difficulties of returning have something to do with missing the feeling of being abroad, being a foreigner. As such, what exactly is it that repatriates miss?
Based on my own personal experience, interviews with repatriates and anecdotes from relevant blogs and discussions, I would argue that the answer is rather straightforward: being a foreigner. When you are abroad, you have the status of a foreigner, and are in a process of exploration. I believe that as long as you are not entirely integrated or assimilated, which requires a substantial amount of time, the excitement associated with being foreign continues. Moreover, I would argue that the excitement is related not just to getting familiar with new the place, food and everyday customs. Excitement lasts because it is also about smaller things, such as ‘where you are from’ conversations with locals, meetings with fellow foreigners, language misunderstandings, the exploration of surrounding sights, establishing favorite city places, and regularly experiencing something at least slightly new and different. In plain words, abroad interesting things seem to happen more often – maybe because our senses are more alert there?
Isn’t it true that you are much more aware when driving an unfamiliar road than when driving your routine, too-well-known way to work? Could the same difference hold true for being away vs. at home?
Let’s consider the following… Usually people start relocating on their own as adults, which means that by the time people relocate abroad, they have been building and sustaining their comfort zone (at home) for at least a couple of decades. Hence , it is not surprising that within two, three or four years abroad we still haven’t achieved the same level of comfort as at home. As such, when abroad we are still in unfamiliar territory, still feel like driving on a new road, and remain more alert. Moreover, as the saying goes, being out of your comfort zone is the place where all the magic happens. Maybe this magic is exactly what repatriates miss when finding the way back into the comfort of their homes?!