Everyone experiences the return after an expat assignment in their own individual way. Whether as the assignee, partner or child, everyone finds their way back home at their own pace. In addition to your own personality, several factors play a role:
- Will I move back to my old place of residence or will I move to a completely new region?
- How often have I already been abroad?
- How long was I away?
- How well did I maintain contact with my home culture?
- What were the reasons and external circumstances for my return?
- What phase of life am I in?
- What are my educational or professional perspectives?
- What plans do I have for the future?
While some people are obviously overjoyed to be back in familiar territory, for many people disillusionment sets in after a while. Why is that? What exactly is happening? The topic of re-entry is complex and sometimes we find it difficult to put into words what we feel and experience, let alone talk about it with others. I would like to explain three important aspects of re-entry in more detail (based on Gerhard Winter, 1996):
1. Change of value orientations and attitudes towards life
At first, most returnees are happy to be back. They enjoy the comfort of familiarity. But after the initial euphoria, a sensation of emptiness and alienation may start to kick in. Why are people so stressed and inflexible? Have they always been so consumption- and performance-oriented? Abroad, people automatically take a different perspective and now look at everything with these new glasses. Depending on how long you’ve been abroad, the political climate has changed, the economy is in recession or even the whole country is in a pandemic with far-reaching consequences for public life. The topics in the press and also the discussions in the closer environment reflect a much narrower worldview than what one has developed abroad. People may appear self-centred or narrow-minded and seem to be unaware of how well they are doing compared to other countries.
2. Alienation from family and friends
The family and old friends usually welcome you back warmly and you enjoy this first time of reconnecting very much, because you missed them all so much abroad. For them, time hasn’t stood still either and babies were born, there were weddings, divorces, funerals, new jobs, moves and only those who have maintained contact abroad don’t lose touch. While you are full of enthusiasm and want to tell about all the experiences and important insights from abroad, you might encounter a lack of understanding or disinterest after a short time. Sometimes you’re even labeled as arrogant when you tell others quite naturally about a recent experience (“The other day on the Great Wall of China…”) Those who stayed at home did not follow along with your changes in values and attitudes, and it becomes painfully clear that you have “drifted apart” to a certain extent. Often returnees prefer not to talk about their experiences abroad anymore.
3. Loss of competence
The foreign assignment is often used as an important career step and is planned strategically. Therefore, professional reintegration after re-entry should be planned and supported well ahead, because all too often returnees are confronted with career regressions or little appreciation of their foreign expertise. This can lead to employees quickly seeking the next expat assignment or changing the company. In private life, it can also happen that the hard-won “foreign survival tactics” in the home country now seem obsolete (e.g. fast networking skills, foreign languages, right-hand drive or driving in chaotic traffic, tracking down English-speaking doctors, finding certain recipe ingredients, etc.). In addition, the partners who are travelling with them often had to take a break in their job and are now worried that their skills are outdated. A common challenge for a child is the change of school systems, who now appears incompetent in the new school system and has to prove himself against the prejudices of his classmates and teachers.
Back to square one or a new beginning?
The word returnee actually does not express exactly what it is. It is actually not a return to the old life, because after going through all these experiences and your personal development abroad, this is not possible. You have outgrown your previous life like an old pair of shoes that no longer fits. An important step towards re-integration and real “arriving” is the processing of the experiences and the emotions that go along with them. Returning home is just as much a transitional process as moving and settling in abroad – a process involving farewells, joy of reunion, grief, confusion and reorientation. This transition process challenges us to reflect and deal with ourselves and offers enormous potential for personal growth. This also includes dealing with your emotions – especially with contradictory and very unpleasant emotions. Emotions need to be felt, because if you ignore them, they will come back through the back door until they have your full attention. It takes time and courage. Corona has provoked an extraordinarily traumatic return for many expats. More than ever, awareness, patience and a large portion of loving self-compassion are needed.
You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place. Like you’ll not only miss the people you love, but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again. – Azar Nafasi
You will be rewarded with inner clarity and inner peace, which clear the way for your new integrated self, living a joyful life with fresh courage and a clear vision for the future. As a coach, I accompany returnees on this path, because it is much harder to walk it alone. I consider networking with like-minded people equally important and decided to create a group coaching program for returnees called “Arriving” together with my colleague Christina Kapaun. You can find all information about “Arriving” here and check out the dates when the next group starts. In my upcoming articles you will find “My top tips for a smooth landing” and some insights into my own re-entry experiences. Stay tuned!