Home comforts can be hard to find for the expat

By Rebecca Marston
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionBlending back in to your own country can take time

"You get a honeymoon period from friends and family. Then you find they have no sympathy and why would they? You have come back from the 'life of luxury' and you are finding it difficult to adjust: 'Ah diddums. Deal with it and move on,' they say."

Rick White opted to move back home from his professional life as regional director for a large tourism company spending time in Turkey, Tunisia and Greece.

"It was my choice to return, but the life I gave up was so different. I did not do a thing for myself and here I was back to earth with a real bump."

When Colin Monk came back it was not by choice.

He'd been serving with the Royal Navy, flying helicopters, but was so seriously injured ("Just bashed up a bit," he calls it) his career was abruptly terminated and he found himself back in the UK, in hospital and recuperation for almost three years.

He says there are marked differences in the way forced returnees cope compared with those who planned to leave the forces: "Those that leave through injury - like myself - are often driven but disorientated.

"After seven to 10 years in the military they haven't been thinking about networks, or career structure. The ones that are leaving after a set time, they've made more plans, maybe have some money saved up."

Nothing special

As a pilot, he was one of the more qualified personnel, with a good education and proven high level of initiative.

But his flying experience also made his personal adjustment more difficult: "Having a flying licence is something a lot of people would like. When you're told that it's over - if nothing else - your ego takes a bruising.

"You start a new job, but that special factor has gone. Everyone you are now alongside of in the office is better than you at what they are doing."

This is something Barbara West, of the Melborne-based intercultural training and consulting company Culture Works has seen before.

She says: "The sudden drop in adventure and status can lead to significant re-entry shock. Families grow accustomed to having regular, paid help and even access to Embassy parties while on some postings, all of which may disappear upon going home."

Even without a sudden change in lifestyle, adjustment can still be difficult.

Strange land

Ayu Wilshere was away from home for eight years, initially in Hong Kong processing clothes for sale in China. She then married and moved to China itself before moving back to Indonesia.

image captionColin Monk: "I was loving it. I was able to spend the weekend in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world"

Her move was by choice. By then a new mother, she thought it would be good to bring up her son in a more familiar country. Except it didn't feel like one.

"It was very strange. After so long away, Indonesia felt like a foreign country.

"One reason was people were so curious. I've lost count of the number of times people have asked me how much my house cost - it's almost the first question I get asked.

"I've been back a year and a half and I think I am still adjusting."

Jacqueline van Haafen, at Netherlands-based Global Connection, which provides advice and support to individuals working abroad and companies sending them, says many returned assignees come to recognise that coming home is a difficult move: "Nearly all expats agree that repatriation is the hardest posting."

One reason, says Jacqueline, is that it looks the simplest: "Most expats think going home will be a piece of cake, after all, it is home. They do usually realise that things back home have changed, but not that they have, too.

"Feeling an alien for a while in a new country is something one might expect, but feeling an alien in your own country is something different."


Rick White put his personal adjustment as a returnee to good use: "I qualified as a psychotherapist and explored those feelings and experiences more deeply."

image captionAyu Wilshere is just about feeling at home after more than a year back in Indonesia

As the managing partner at the executive search firm Dunleavy White, he says each and everyone copes differently upon arriving back.

Barbara West says some don't at all, and seek another overseas posting: "The comforts of home quickly become monotonous routines that leave the returner feeling like they've never really gone anyplace. Approximately 20% of repatriated managers leave their company in the first year."

Colin Monk was someone who felt he needed another challenge, and, like Rick White, also put his experience to good use. After his recovery he started to work for Michael Page, finding other people jobs.

He went to Canada to be the head of the company there. The country had a lot of returning soldiers: "Canada is not used to returnees. Afghanistan was one of the biggest operations since Korea.

"There were so many injured who needed resettlement, I'd been through that already so could see the range of options open to them."

No regrets

He is now home again, a forced return, for happier reasons than before as another returnee prompted by the birth of a child and the wish for familiar surroundings.

He misses Canada: "I was loving it. I was able to snowboard at the weekend in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

"Plus Canada was doing very well economically so it was a great time to be there. I remember looking at the Newsnight TV programme on the first night back in the UK which carried a report on the poor state of UK manufacturing and thinking, 'Hang on, I'm about to become the head of the engineering and manufacturing division here - what am I doing?'"

image captionRick White retrained as a psychotherapist

But he has no regrets, despite the gloomy industrial report, his business has turned out fine.

Culture Works' Barbara West says though that even some practised returnees, like Colin Monk, can still find the adjustment tricky: "Having successfully done it before, there is no guarantee of success the next time.

"Each overseas posting and thus reintegration is different and involves different emotional and logistical work to settle."

Experts, like Barbara West and Jacqueline van Haafen, whose companies provide advice for returnees, agree that the best way to avoid feeling alienated by your homeland is to start thinking early on about your return.

One tip, says Barbara West, is to imagine what will happen when you are actually there: "Some of the most important things to start planning for are: What is the ideal first day at home?

"The first week, the first month - and then compare those ideals with what may actually happen, bearing in mind work schedules, family pressures and other responsibilities."

Ultimately, says Global Connection's Jacqueline van Haafen, however tough a readjustment, most find it has been worth it: "You have had the chance to make new friends, maybe learn a new language.

"You've had the chance to look at life outside your own terms of reference. And you could also find out you have skills you never knew you had because you never had to use them. "

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