Coming home: buckle up, turbulence ahead
When living abroad it is not uncommon to suffer from homesickness, especially if you think you are never going to return to live in your home country. But after going through the ups and downs of culture shock you adapt, settle, pay your taxes and build a new life. You may integrate, but perhaps never fully, and you may harbour an over-romanticised picture of your home country. Some things will always remain strange in your new environment and you will certainly tire of hearing stereotypical views about your home country.
This is what I went through living in Austria for 23 years. I loved Austria with its natural approach to doing things and Alpine landscape. I truly considered it to be home but I also missed UK culture; its multiculturalism, salt and vinegar crisps, the in-born art of queuing and of course the British sense of humour.
So, when it was time to come home three years ago, as an interculturalist, I knew the path ahead wasn’t going to be easy. Aware of all the pitfalls of reverse culture shock, I packed up and left Austria, my home for half of my life, and looked forward to the new experience. Despite all my intercultural knowledge, I still experienced the curve – after all reverse culture shock is an emotional and psychological process of adjustment after living abroad so it can be difficult for anyone to escape its symptoms! Of course, everyone experiences it differently, but the process generally looks like this:
Reverse culture shock is a process that is very often overlooked by companies with repatriating employees - and returning expatriates often leave their organisations as a result. It can be emotionally draining and have a negative impact on both home and professional life. Often it is the non-working partner and children who struggle most as they are faced with additional issues such as finding work, building new friendships and support networks, new subjects at school and even a different language. My two teenagers were actually born in Austria and despite being bilingual, had always been educated in German. Arriving in the UK, they missed the physical freedom children enjoyed in Austria. And I couldn’t provide them with something comparable to Lake Constance to swim in!
I left the UK in 1991 and returned in 2014. So how did I react? Well, I found everything very dirty and inefficient. And some of the things I had missed, such as the politeness of British drivers, were now a thing of the past - but of course there weren’t as many cars on the road in 1991 and Chelsea tractors didn’t exist back then! My mood was low at times, trying to support children but at the same time trying to find my own feet.
This feeling of alienation is totally normal. I got there and you will too, but it takes time and you should never lose sight of the positives of your repatriation, even when all you want to do is pack your bags and move back. But here are a few things you can do to ease the reacculturation process:
- Be positive about re-entry – remember the benefits of life in your home country and sell them to your children.
- Until children have settled into a routine, don’t try to stop them from keeping in touch with their old friends abroad via social media even if you think it is not helping them to settle. They will find their groups eventually but all teenagers need to feel that they are liked and that they fit in, which they won’t at first.
- If you are returning for your partner’s career and don’t have a job to go to, get in touch with an intercultural trainer or career coach to help you focus and see how your skills can be used back home. Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and see what you really want to do and what’s on offer – this is a bonus! You may want to retrain or fulfil your dream of setting up your own business.
- Inject some of the things you loved about living abroad into your life back home and engage in activities you enjoyed while living abroad – you’ll see your home country through an entirely different lens!
- Try not to complain constantly to people about your home culture, as this can make it difficult to meet friends. You may have done this when you went through culture shock moving to another country.
- Find a confidante who has been through a similar experience and understands what you are going through; you can let off steam with them.
Of course when you come home, you will miss your former life and you may find you are sometimes overcome by a sense of “longing“. But remember the things that you don’t miss too much. For example, that feeling of being different or that you are on display and scrutinised for the way you dress or speak the language. The re-entry process and your experience abroad has given you greater resilience and an “I can tackle anything” attitude. You have no doubt become more flexible and open-minded and developed a set of intercultural skills that are a tremendous benefit to you both in your private and professional life.
Vanessa is an experienced intercultural trainer and coach. After living in Austria for many years, she’s now back in the UK and enjoys accompanying professionals and their families through the relocation and repatriation process.