All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes. Most expats would agree that their international assignments are “good things.” Most are unprepared, however, for the final stage: the return and eventual readjustment to their homelands.
The opposite of “expatriation,” “repatriation” is the fancy term for going home after living and working in a foreign country for an extended period of time. Many expats are surprised to find out that returning home after their assignments is harder, both logistically and psychologically, than moving abroad in the first place.
“If I am home now, why do I still feel like a foreigner?” In the few years that expats are abroad, things change: home countries, family and friends, home and work situations. And the expats themselves change. Living in another country can change a person’s tastes, values, and perspectives. Most returning expats find that there’s no such thing as picking up where they left off, and they may experience frustration and depression. Some have trouble finding satisfying jobs when they return, and a few even end up leaving their companies for other offers.
Recognizing the difficulties returning expats were facing, we developed a customized training seminar to offer to expats who are nearing the end of their U.S. assignments, to help them prepare for readjusting to their home countries.
For the seminar, we meet expats and their families in their homes or coffee shops for an informal, interactive conversation, discussing what they will miss about their American life, what they are looking forward to upon returning home, the concept of “reverse culture shock,” and what their uncertainties and anxieties are as they make the transition and begin their next stage of life and work.
In our Repatriation Seminar, we ask expats and their spouses to reflect on how they have changed during their stay in the U.S. Many say that living in a foreign country has made them more flexible, open-minded, and knowledgeable, and many associates are able to identify specific workplace skills and understanding that they have gained.
We also help the returnees anticipate and mentally prepare for the reactions of their extended family, friends, and colleagues upon their return. Katja Seeger, a German native and former intercultural trainer who lived in the U.S. for a total of seven years, points out, “People assume that you are still the same person that you were when you left. And most people are not interested in your ‘America stories.’”
The Repatriation Seminar helps returnees think through the challenges of the coming days and develop some strategies for surviving and even coming out stronger. We talk about what it means to be “forever a triangle,” and if there are kids in the family, how to help them navigate the return experience on their level.
Our trainers have experienced expatriation and repatriation themselves, so they can empathize with the trainees. One trainee commented that the best part of the seminar was that the trainer “once was an expat herself and could share a lot of helpful experiences and tips with us. She could relate and help us find ways to cope with the changes to come. We feel as prepared as possible!”
There and back again
Returning expats find it reassuring to know that experiencing ups and downs is totally normal, and so is eventually settling back in to a new normal, back in their home countries. They can look forward to the day when they can objectively see the good and bad of both places and say, “Different is not bad. Different is just different.”
Several months after returning to Germany, one expat who had taken the seminar said that it had helped her and her family know what to expect. “It helped prevent emotional stress. For instance, we expected that we would find different friendships, and so it happened.”
Another returnee commented that the seminar “helped us a lot with understanding what’s happening with us and adjusting at home. I knew what to expect when we started missing America. I had the feeling that I was well prepared for going home, after the Repatriation Seminar.”