Friday, March 8, 2013

Returning to your home country

christiania, glass house, august 2007
Home, Sweet ... er ... Home
No matter whether or not you plan to return to your home country, many expats do. Sometimes they miss family and friends. Sometimes homesickness takes them. Sometimes the great job/relationship/adventure just ends. If you're returning home after a few months abroad, you'll probably readjust quickly. However, if you've been living abroad for a few years, be prepared to face some issues that many "repatriates" report.

You'll See Old Things In A New Light

When I visit the US, the first thing I notice is how huge so many people are. I know, it sounds snobby, but it's hard to miss. I didn't see it when I lived there, but now I see it everywhere. Of course, the next thing I notice is how huge portion sizes are in restaurants, and how common "doggy bags" are because you can't possibly cram all of that food into your body in one sitting.

And everyone drives everywhere. And don't even think about a train.

Alcohol is more frowned upon in the US (don't you dare have a drink at lunch if you're working!), people are more open, work focuses more on reward than risk and you'll no longer struggle to have people understand you.

These and many more differences will leap out at you and constantly keep you off guard. You'll appreciate some of these things and hate others.

Global Experience

You'll notice those issues because you now have global experience. And you'll quickly notice that others don't and the gross generalizations will shock you. I had one relative in the US assume that I was moving to the UK because "they must have got you pretty cheap". Aside from that being offensive, he assumed that immigrants just lower labor costs.

I've also seen people assume that Europeans are all struggling under the load of oppressive taxes or that people in South America live in mud huts and earn just a few dollars a day. Or would you believe that Luanda, Angola, is one of the most expensive cities in the world? Most people couldn't even tell you where that is, much less what's going on there. And they certainly don't know what medical care is like on the rest of the planet.

You'll know many of these things, but others won't. And explaining won't help because ...

Be Prepared for Apathy

That's right. Repatriate after repatriate (including your author when he returned to the US in 2001) discover that most people back "home" don't give a damn about someone else's travels. Few people back home care about the rest of the world aside from a few political rants from time to time. Yes, there are exceptions, but this is something repatriates repeatedly mention. It can be tough to deal with because it invalidates a huge part of your existence.

Friends and Family May Have Moved On

If you've been gone long enough, thinking you'll slip back into your old life is unrealistic. Many people you know will have moved away or simply have different lives. Good friends that you used to spend time with are now married with children and promise to "get back to you", but they don't. Years of being gone mean that you're not returning to an old life, you're discovering a new one with some familiar faces.

TV Shows Are Different

Surprisingly, some repatriates comment about this quite a bit. I don't watch TV, so it doesn't impact me, but turning on the television and expecting the old shows you used to like are gone. For many people, TV is not just entertainment, but it's also a source of comfort. If you're gone long enough, that comfort is gone.

Danger of Boredom

Ultimately, many repatriates report boredom upon returning home. One talked about returning from Asia and not being able to ride side-saddle on a motorcycle down a dusty road to get into town. Others talk about not learning anything new. It takes a lifetime to learn a culture and returning home means returning to a new life, but with fewer surprises.


Many repatriates report grief on returning to their home country. In many ways, reverse culture shock is harder than regular culture shock. It catches you off guard and you may find that things you used to ignore or take for granted are now a source of annoyance. Some repatriates throw in the towel and actually return to the country they left. It's a normal experience and it's something to brace yourself for.

All of these issues can lead up to reverse culture shock, something that many returning expats find very hard to deal with. Many of you who find a way to move abroad need to be aware of this if you return home. It's hard to plan for, but perhaps it will be a bit easier to bear when you're expecting it.


  1. Very nice post. Yes, "re-entry" is a real problem.

    One other very important reason I've heard from friends who have returned to their home countries: aging parents. It can be something as dramatic as a health crisis (and a lack of siblings and other family to help) or just a growing understanding that you may not have that many years left to be with them (and they may no longer be in a position to be able to come visit you). Of the Americans I have talked to who are considering renouncing their citizenship this is often THE barrier. What will I do, they say, if my mother needs me and I no longer have the right to return to the US? However this is hardly confined to Americans, I have a dear friend who lived many many years in France and returned a few years ago to Mexico for exactly this reason.

    1. Aging parents. Yeah, my wife and I have had this discussion. My parents and I have had this discussion. Mostly the plan is to see what it takes to bring them over here when that time comes. As we live over here longer, and become more invested in our lives here, going home wouldn't merely be culture shock, it would be a life shock and a financial burden. Ripping up roots that have been grown through adversity is not something easily given up. All in all, while it might be a hassle to figure out how to import the 'rents, it will be infinitely less trouble than figuring out how to move back and not destroy ourselves.

  2. I have some things to add to this if you're from a small country with a language less pervasive than English.

    I haven't moved back to Iceland but I'm back there 1-3 weeks a year. Whenever I'm back I have great difficulty just making myself understood in daily conversation, since I'm speaking a language full-time that I don't speak for more than a couple of weeks a year. Smalltalk and the nuances of daily conversation are some of the first things you forget in any language.

    Leaving a relatively small homogeneous community also results in some other strange oddities. When I went back a few years ago it took me a week to find out why every other person I talked to was using some new and silly lingo. It turns out it was popularized by some TV show *everyone* had seen, but whose existence I wasn't even aware of.

    1. Ævar, I have experienced the same; but I do not think it is more than a transient issue.

      At least that was my experience every time I was in Greece. For 2 weeks each time, normal conversations would heave in fits and jolts, interspersed with lots of uhs and ahs as I would try to recall common words; then suddenly my tongue would come untied and I’d be able to converse freely. Not of topics with complex vocabulary, of course, but the daily chatter would suddenly flow easy.

      I will not posit the 2 weeks as a universal time frame for this effect – it has to depend upon the speaker and also the language –, but I do believe that the effect must be.

      As such, it seems to me that you simply happen to leave Iceland every year just short of the point at which basic fluency would return to you. Bugger. :-)

  3. I've found that when one is intending to visit one's old stamping grounds, it's wise to swot up on 1) the footie scores and individual champions (of the appropriate code) and 2) the plots of last week's TV soaps. The bother of doing those is a major reason why I stopped visiting. Life's too short.