Whenever I’m making plans to speak about repatriation to parents at international schools, I know the topic will be a hard sell. Many expats are positively repatriation-phobic; they are not going to think about it ever, if they can avoid it. The feedback from organizers reflects another common attitude: if they are not repatriating in the next few months, many parents don’t see the need to come and hear my talk.
They couldn’t be more wrong – a point they would learn if they came out to listen! Parents need to be aware of the repatriation challenges that lie ahead for their global nomads throughout the overseas experience.
Preparations for the day your children will return “home” should not be left to the last minute. Life skills acquired along the way can ease a child’s transition not only to the culture stamped on his passport but also to a future life as a productive and happy adult, ready to assume his place in the world. What’s more, everyone in your expat community is affected by repatriation, even if yours doesn’t happen to be the family moving.
Because you can be sure that one of your children’s best friends or favourite teachers is moving. That’s the reality of expatriate life. Someone is always moving on. As moving season creeps up each year, you will look around your dinner table to see children of all ages wearing long faces. If your kids are the ones about to move, they may be wondering why their friends suddenly seem to be withdrawing from them. A period of disengagement is common as children protect themselves by stepping back from someone close to them who is leaving.
Teenagers have been known to break off their relationships months before the school year ends if one or the other in the couple learns they will be leaving. Young girls start weeping in advance over a cherished friend who is moving, worrying they will never see each other again.
Most expatriate adults have learned to accept the springtime moving period as a natural part of the expatriate life cycle, much like a change of season. It simply marks the inevitable passage of time.
In the transient expatriate world, though, time easily slips into hyper drive. During a two-year time period, a family can arrive in a place unknown, quickly make friends, make better friends with people who become close friends, then see those close friends become friends living somewhere else in the world, all in the blink of an eye.
Transition is not a notion easily grasped by children, who live in the here and now. Kids don’t understand life cycles. After all, they have had so few. In the time before their own move or that of their best friends, they may be sad, angry, depressed, relieved (if they have hated where you live), or excited. Sometimes, they’ll experience all of these emotions at once.
Nor do children understand that things usually work out in the long term. Patience is not a virtue common to them. So this is where you, the parent, come in. You must help your children manage the expectations and fears that are part of the transition to their “passport” culture. As Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken point out in Third Culture Kids, for a great number of TCKs the re-entry process more closely resembles an entry (my italics). That means a brand-new job is just beginning for you, the parent. At the same time, you are managing your own feelings about moving home.
What is Re-entry Shock?
Re-entry shock is simply the shock of being home. It’s the reverse culture shock you experience in your own country when you visit places that should be familiar to you, but aren’t; try to interact with people you should feel comfortable with, but don’t; or face situations you should be able to handle, but can’t. There can be no simpler way to explain it. Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.
These feelings are particularly disconcerting when they happen in your native country and can be far worse than just a bad case of culture shock. Abroad, you expect to feel foreign; you don’t expect to when you come home. When this shock does occur, as it does for everyone in some form or another, it can make you feel extremely unsettled and often, so insecure and inadequate, that it can spark a veritable emotional chain of reactions.
Like culture shock, it has a cycle of its own which must be worked through to its natural conclusion. Depending on various factors discussed in this chapter, re-entry shock can last mere weeks. For others, it may be years before the contact lenses are fitted back in the correct eyes.
Re-entry Shock Can Be Worse for the Spouse
At home with the moving boxes and endless details to attend, the non-working spouse often feels the blows of re-entry shock harder than the partner who goes directly to an office and structured job, or a child who heads off to school. That’s not to dismiss the intensity of shocks for the employee or the child, but they are different from the ones experienced by the spouse.
Isolated, lonely, and exhausted from unpacking or chatting only with real estate agents and the service people helping put a home together, the spouse is left grappling with the harsh realities of re-entry, like starting over again and thinking how nice it would be if a new life could just magically emerge from the moving boxes. Unwrapping reminders of the old life can bring on nostalgic tears borne out of that exhaustion and loneliness. Overly-anxious to get everything settled and get on with life already, the inventory of spousal emotions that emerges at this time can be almost as complex as the list of household belongings. These feelings are similar to the ups and downs associated with the culture shock of a new foreign assignment. That’s because at first, home can seem like a new assignment especially if the re-entry has been into a brand new city.
It’s completely natural to feel like a foreigner at first. Though your own culture’s cues may be all around, they are still unfamiliar.
About The Author
See Robin’s site at www.expertexpat.com – Robin Pascoe is the author of Raising Global Nomads, and Homeward Bound from which this article is extracted