The homelessness of repatriation

Lately I’ve noticed that there had been a lot of discussions in various expatriate forums (on LinkedIn, Twitter, and others) about  the difficulties of repatriation.   And, of course, I have also worked with clients who had repatriated or were facing repatriation. But not until my own recent return home have I felt the full “homelessness” of the experience.

For me there are two kinds of “homelessness”. One has to do with feelings of not belonging — the feelings that come to many of us when we return home after a long expatriation. We find that not only have we changed, but also that our home country has changed. If we fit together before like pieces of a puzzle do, we don’t seem to fit together now. And so we begin the quest of trying to fit in, to belong, to make a “home” — a quest that for many ends up in an overseas stunt again.

And then there is that second “homelessness”. This one is more logistical in nature although it’s no less frustrating. It presents a dilemma for those of us who don’t have a house to come back to and, upon repatriation, have to find a place to live. Having been used to the housing that often differs from what’s available at home — in both quality and character — we go through denial, disappointment, frustration, and finally feelings that “one has to compromise somewhere” all in a span of the first few weeks.

This second “homelessness” is the one that has been affecting me. I’ve been looking for a house for a few weeks now and with each new place that I see I get more and more disillusioned. I try to think where to put the various mementos I’ve accumulated from my expatriate travels, I try to see myself in the new place and imagine it being my “home” for the next few years, and I try to predict if I am ever going to “love” it.

The truth is that I really loved every one of my overseas houses. And I feel that loving the place were you live accounts for a good percentage of your happiness as an expatriate. For in every place you go you thrive to make a home for yourself and your family. A home that will be your sanctuary and support you when things get tough. The same remains true when you repatriate. “Loving” your new home in your old home, or your home country, is important.

And so I am continuing my search for that one place that will speak to me, that one place that I will know I will come to love. What about you? What was your experience like in finding your “new home” in your own country?

People who read this post also read:

What makes repatriation difficult

How to leave without regrets

Moving again?  Need packing “know-how”?

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14 responses to “The homelessness of repatriation

  1. I have been living for more than ten years our of my country. Since I still keep my house and travel there with regularity, I am lucky not to experience the second homelessness feeling that you mention in your post. But what I do feel with intensity every time that I visit my home country, is the sensation of not completely belonging to it any more. In my case, it is not so much because my country has changed (in fact, it has not changed a lot and that is maybe part of the problem), but because I am not the same person I was ten years ago. I see my society, my friends and even my family with other glasses, -my “intercultural” glasses, I guess- , and what I see, is not always nice.

  2. Do you think that perhaps part of the problem is the knowledge that you’re now looking for a permanent home? When we’re expats we know that our situation is temporary and I have always selected a home based on it being “good enough” when living overseas. However, “good enough” usually turns into being “just perfect” after I’ve lived there for a while. Maybe you’re just putting too much pressure on yourself to get it right.

    One solution would be to delay the decision and rent for a year. Having repatriated myself (more than once) I know my feelings about where and what I want to live in change significantly during the re-entry period. When discussing repatriation with fellow expats I’ve always said it’s important to delay major decisions for at least 6 months if possible, to avoid making decisions I may later regret.

    I look forward to hearing more about your repatriation, as we’re in that situation too at the moment, teetering on the edge of “should we stay, or should we go again?”

  3. I think you should look at a lot of options until you like the apartment that you rent. I liked the house that we rented when I repatriated to Britain… although I had numerous awkward conversations with real estate agents about the “bad absentee landlord.”

    I am a person who lives abroad and rents out the property I own… I don’t consider myself to be a “bad” person or a “bad” landlord.

    If you are buying – you should look at the changes in the market in your home country. Britain has housing problems created by the recession, the credit crunch, and a legacy of property speculation.

  4. Bravo, Judy! I, too, have recently repatriated to my home country after over a decade abroad. Like Astrid, I returned many times and did not feel like it was truly “home” some of those visits. But my husband and I had done a great deal of talking, thinking, and visiting different areas of interest to us, and during our last year overseas we bought a home that needs a great deal of fixing up in a community we had decided was a perfect mix of our home country and overseas experience. So this move “home” is actually to a new home for us, making our expectations of needing to settle in, get to know the place, etc. more familiar to our nomadic experience. Having repatriated twice previously, I have to say that this move “home” (and I do use the term loosely) has felt more exciting, and more familiar, to us both than any other. And as we work on fixing up the house, we truly are creating our new home base – something I felt I did pretty successfully for my family each time we moved to a new overseas location.

  5. I think one should realize where one is going and what situation is there.
    I have not been in Russia for 15 years and during these years I moved around 4 countries. Each had there own realities which could be named as pluses and minuses, but the reality is that spacious apartments and houses come in London or Moscow only to those who have dosens of millions. And in Switzerland even if you work in Zurich you can afford a spacious place because living in the suburb means travelling about 30 min, opposed to London or Moscow or New York’s 2 hours. This is one of many realities and before moving somewhere one should evaluate their importance to her/himself and decide if the move is worth it. After living in very spacious places in Vienna, Basel and suburbian US we also expected to find a similar space in London. But after the estate agent told us that he already had customers who called him “a shameless lier” and threw things at him when they saw what they can get in London for their money, I came to the above conclusion.
    So, now 15 years later I feel right at home in Moscow: consciously I am surprised at myself that after such a long time and relief from many ugly things, like illogical beaurocracy, I know how to deal with them. I accept large multi-entrance 20 storey high building with a million of neighbors after living in Art Deco 3 family apartment houses or two storey condos. I accept fast paced lifestyle which does not need to be so fast paced actually and a lot of other realities. If you can’t experience it like I did, e.g. change a huge space with attic and cellar storage for a cramped London apartment, look at population and housing statistics and really think: do you want to have a large place and a quiet way to work, or tons of options in a multinational center in exchange for the bedroom where you will have to squeese sideways between a wall and a bed and hear the neighbors, God forbit they have a party 🙂

  6. We lived for five years in what many people would consider paradise, 100 meters from some of the finest beaches in the world in Aruba. Coming from densely populated Holland with its unstable climate, we were very happy to live in the tropics. After five years, we went back. The two things which struck us as negative were that we had lost contact with friends. And our first house, a small flat. But the good thing was that we rediscovered the value of the extended family and the small house to start with only gave us more time to find a nicer home. So with each negative, there is a positive as our Johan Cruyff used to say.
    Still, the longing for the tropics and the lifestyle, the broader perspective of life in a very interesting part of the world were things still change, this longing remains. But then, when we were in Aruba, we soon started to miss rain, snow, fog and the endless opportunities for personal enhancement which are lacking on a small island paradise.

  7. Thank you to all for sharing your experiences. I have a couple work colleagues who are struggling with this at the moment. I will share your comments with them.
    My expat experience took me away for more than 8 years — 3 years in China and 5+ in South Korea. Life changes happened during that time: divorce and my child graduating and going away to college.
    Upon my return to the US, I moved back to the community I left, although I didn’t have a house or car, and my household goods were partially in storage (where they had been for 8+ years)…and on a ship at sea.
    Fortunately, the wonderful company I work for gave me the time needed to take care of these personal details.
    The parts of repatriation that I found difficult were: dealing with my best friend who was mad at me for being gone for so long; finding the post office (which had moved); figuring out what social changes had happened in my own society and company; and determining what job position would feel fulfilling.
    I think the key to a successful repatriation is: attitude.
    A house is just a house. Home is where I am. My hotel room was “home” until I found my permanent living space.
    One of my key learnings from my Asian friends is the importance of: relationships.
    Building and maintaining relationships is my responsibility. It was necessary to begin new relationships upon my return, as well as re-build those that had begun to deteriorate.
    Best advice: very few people are nearly as interested in your expatriate experiences as you would be in sharing them. Build bridges with those you meet by listening twice as much as speaking.
    My encouragement to you: the friends and experiences you cherish from your expatriate years will always be in your heart. Your life is forever enriched for the experience. Find others that have had an expat assignment; you will find a new friend. You will immediately have many things in common, and will have a great time sharing your memories.

  8. I also have been through this experience. My two daughters and I went back to the UK for 4 years, while they finished their education, after the past 6 years living and working abroad. Although Oxford would seem like an ideal home to most, I found it deeply unsatisfying except when in the most cosmopolitan areas of the Cowley Road. I spent most of the time travelling for work, found it hard to make friends when I was back, as people were so insular. We found we all needed to get out of England regularly.
    Now I have moved back to Lithuania where I worked for 5 years, 6 years ago. I am not there much, but the friends I made have lasted.
    I have found that a few well loved possessions surrounding me are what it takes to make a home, but I am not settled till my large book collection arrives and is unpacked. Still even in my “home” where I am working, I collect books and pictures and items which are treasures to me, and which always find a new place when I return home.

    I think the worst situation is when you are split between two “homes”, one where you work and one which is really home. Then you are always dissatisfied with where you are, and you are always about to leave for the other place.
    One expat colleague has said that what it really takes to make a happy expat is the absence of desire: the ability to just settle and make the best of what there is.

  9. “I think the worst situation is when you are split between two “homes”, one where you work and one which is really home. Then you are always dissatisfied with where you are, and you are always about to leave for the other place.”

    I have known so many expat women in this situation – particularly those of us in the sandwich generation – torn between teenage or young adult children and aging parents. These women commute regularly between 2 or even 3 countries, never with enough time in one place to settle into a routine, get a job, join clubs or activities or the normal ways expats are able to make friends and create a life. And yet because they don’t work and travel a lot, many outsiders don’t realise how difficult their life is and are unsympathetic.

  10. Pingback: The Homelessness of Repatriation « Official mkPLANET Blog

  11. This is an interesting topic. Generally, when we have repatriated, I’ve anywhere between 2 and 5 days to find a house. Pick the one that sucks that least among a handful we can afford–that pretty much sums it up. Inevitably, once we’re in the house for a few months, I end up hating it and having to come to grips with it. That has been about a four month process for me this time.

    Repatriation is far tougher, in my opinion, than expatriation.

    Danielle Barkhouse
    Author of The Expat Arc

  12. After living in NY for over a year, moving back home it was harder than I´d ever thought it would be!
    I had read something about culture shock, but nobody told me I might suffer from reverse cultural shock.
    I met friends but most of the time I felt I had nothing to talk about with them. I couldn´t keep up with most of the things they were talking about: ads, tv, university, etc. I felt so lost here.
    I used to get lost in familiar places. Suddenly I couldn´t remember the name of the streets around my home, and longer days and higher temperatures because of the change of season/hemisphere was probably the worst of all.
    The first thing I thought on my firts morning when I woke up was that my bf should turn off the heat because it was too hot. I was just about to ask him to do it but instead it was simply awful to open my eyes and realize I was in my old room and that after the night storm it was actually cooler than the day before. And I was all by my self 😦
    Things didn´t feel better for a long time. It took me around 6 months and a 3-week roadtrip to start coming to terms with the situation.
    Now it´s 18months later, and I still miss NY like hell. But I can say I got used to the South American way of life again 😉

  13. Pingback: Who owns the truth? « “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” What was your expatriate experience like?

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