It was hard to avoid the news that broke through Bloomberg on 10 June: “The Ministry of Finance instructed government ministries, institutions, and entities funded by the state to reduce monthly costs for non-Qatari employees by 30%.” That number could only mean one thing: many people will be on the move, leaving Qatar forever. In a pandemic, with economies crashing into recessions, there will be just one option for many, and that is to go home.
Repatriation is commonly regarded as the hardest move in expat circles. Reverse culture shock, dramatic changes in lifestyle, a significant reduction in income, and loss of friendships all contribute to an unsettling time. There is also a misconception that moving home should be easy, which actually makes it quite the opposite.
There are, however, a number of ways to mitigate the negative effects and turn repatriation into a successful move.
Before you move
Just as you would prepare for a new assignment, prepare to move home. Treat this just like a new assignment. You may or may not be going back to the exact place you left. Even if you are, the place you left is not the same, and you are definitely not the same. Do all the things you would do for any international move. For instance, you can research schools and medical facilities, or look at the best places to live and things to do at the weekends. Think about what you and your family need from this move and how this might impact your decisions.
Create a Bridge
Try to mentally make the link between your new home and your old home. Although they are two distinct places, they are already linked by one important thing—you! Think about all the things that your old home and new home have in common as well as how they are different. Understand what that means for you and your family. Consider how to create continuity between the two homes by making your new home feel like the old one. Pictures on the walls, recognisable ornaments, familiar furniture—these are all things that make us feel like we are “home”. Having mementoes of your old life in your new house can also create that link between the two.
Traditionally, we think of home as being a house where we live. Expats might think of home as being a place in a particular country. It gets complicated when the place where we grew up is not the place we call home. Even more complicated is realising that our kids might have a different idea of where home is. Consider what home actually means to you and your family and redefine it so that you can all identify with it. The definition may evolve as your family gets older: a family with young children might need more things, while older children can better grasp the concept of having multiple places to call home. The core idea is to know that home is people and memories rather than a place.
Look for Positives
Keeping a positive mindset is a key factor in making any move successful. Just as you would look for all the things to get excited about in a new destination, repatriation should be no different. Let yourself get excited about being closer to friends and family or buying a place to call your own. Remind yourself of all the things that you have missed that you will get back again. It is very easy to focus on the place you are leaving or forget about the good things you will gain from moving home. It feels counter-intuitive to get excited about moving to one place while feeling sad about leaving another, but it is perfectly normal. A positive mindset cannot guarantee a good re-entry, but a negative mindset can sabotage it before you even get there.
Leaving properly is a must, and this has been made incredibly hard in times of lockdown. Expats across the world have struggled this year, missing rituals that are critical for getting closure. It is important to do whatever you can to leave well, as it is crucial to arriving in the next place well. Say goodbye to the people and places that made your time memorable. Take photos of everything—the mundane and the familiar (one day you will wish you had them) and consider doing a photoshoot. Have a bucket list of all the places you want to go and things you want to do, and tick off as many as you can.
Leaving is hard. Leaving is stressful. Leaving is sad. Sometimes, leaving means saying goodbye to people we know we will never see again. Sometimes, it means saying goodbye to a part of yourself, or a time in your life that can never be repeated.
Grieving is a crucial part of leaving. Denying yourself the chance to grieve is an easy option. Being so busy packing up and leaving means avoiding this uncomfortable emotion altogether can feel far less stressful.
However, getting closure is more important. Cry, talk, and vent! Share your feelings with friends and family. If you have kids, they need to know that these feelings are valid.
Developed by Dr David C. Pollock, the Raft method is a structured way to leave well. It stands for reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, and think destination.
- Reconciliation refers to making things right with people before you leave. The theory is that leaving will not make unresolved problems go away and, in fact, can cause issues down the line.
- Affirmation is almost the opposite of reconciliation. Thank the people who made your lives better while you were there, while you still can. Making people feel appreciated is a great thing that you can do.
- Farewell is exactly that—saying goodbye to people, places, and rituals/routines. Ever wish you had known that it was going to be the last of something? The last cup of tea with a special person, or the last time you did the school run? The idea behind this step is that saying goodbye brings closure to your departure.
- Think destination—this is the bit where you look to the future (see the next section). Talking about and researching what it will be like (similarities, differences, where you will live, etc.) all help with the transition process.
Again, Look for Positives
This is the hardest time to stay positive. Moving stresses are at an all-time high with packers arriving, goodbyes to be said and, often, a bottleneck of admin to handle. Yet, it is (arguably) the most important time to stay positive. Of course, you can still be sad, but positive thinking can help your last few days and weeks be as enjoyable as possible.
Reverse Culture Shock
The thing people least expect is to suffer culture shock in their native country. It is where you are from, so, surely, acclimatising should be smooth and easy?
Unfortunately, that is often not the case.
This is where reverse culture shock comes in, and it can really blindside you, even if you anticipate it. One problem is that things have moved on at home in your absence. Even if things have not changed, you certainly have. Your recent experiences of being at home have been while on holiday and have involved fun times with friends and family. They have not involved the school run, a long commute, or grocery runs. Family and friends, while excited to see you, might have demanding ideas about how often they will see you. Or, they might not have time for you having been used to seeing you just once every summer.
Feeling like a stranger in your own home country is one of the most bewildering feelings. It does get easier, so hang on to that knowledge.
If you are finding things weird, your kids definitely will be. While your most recent memories of being at home are on holiday, the chances are that these are their only memories of your country.
The term “hidden immigrant” (looks the same but thinks differently) is a cultural type developed by Dave Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, alongside “foreigner” (looks and thinks differently), “adopted” (looks different but thinks alike), and “mirror” (looks and thinks alike).
When kids move, they often want to fit in straight away and be “normal”. Herein lies the difficulty for hidden immigrants: They might not be able to share “in” jokes or play the same sports as their friends. They might be behind or ahead in some areas of school or even hold different cultural values. They might look and sound the same as everyone else but have had completely different experiences.
Reconnect with Old Friends and Family
One of the best things about moving home is the chance to see all those people you have missed. Seeing them regularly—instead of cramming an update on last year’s events into one dinner—is, frankly, refreshing. Having the ability to just drop in and see people or go to stay for the weekend brings back all the great parts of the familiarity of home.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be easy to see. Some will not understand or even want to know about your life abroad. They might expect you to be permanently happy to be back and might not understand if you find it hard, so you might find yourself holding your tongue and censoring what you say to them. You might even find yourself seeing less and less of these people. In your time away, you may have become used to this phenomenon and know it is impossible to keep all your old friends forever. It still stings, but those who are true friends will still be there.
Stay In Touch with Expat Friends
Just because you have left a place, those friendships still exist, and the experiences and memories that you had with those people still happened. It will be harder to connect on a regular basis, given distances and time differences, but it is worth it. These people have known you the best and most recently. They may well understand you better than your family and friends at home. Expat connections run deep and are often forged quickly, so it is a mistake to let out of sight mean out of mind. It is also especially important for children to maintain those connections. Sean Truman of Truman Group, an organisation providing remote psychotherapy and mental health consultation to expatriates, says: “There’s something really powerful about technology in really good ways about linking people to relationships with people that really matter to them.”
Find A New Network
You might find yourself looking for new friends, especially if you have moved to a new area or the people you knew before have moved away. You need a network that understands you and your experiences. From making friends at the new school to joining a club, new friends are going to be a big part of your “re-pat” experience. When we move abroad, we all put the effort in to meet new people, and this is no different.
Explore Your “New” Home
It is so easy to underestimate what your local area has to offer, but there is so much adventuring to be had there, too. Head outside to national parks or even local parks and playgrounds. Get to know your local shops and restaurants. Perhaps consider getting away for the weekend and exploring something new a little further out from your area. As expats, we often seize the day, knowing there may not be another chance. As re-pats, we can forget that spontaneity.
You Guessed It: Look for Positives
While no one should bury the uncomfortable and unwanted emotions that moving can bring, staying positive is still a critical part of the process, even on arrival. Staying positive can really help to improve your outlook on a repatriation that may or may not have been through choice, and may or may not be going well.
Throughout this all, know that the expat community is still here for you and everyone has your back. Repatriating may well be the hardest move you will make, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be successful.