Repatriation Anxiety: Is It About “Coming Home” Or “Leaving” Home?

Many of you know that my “thing” here is sharing Life Lessons- good lessons that I’ve learned on my journeys or discovered through the writings of others. Lessons that we all can benefit by.

Expat Living: Repatriation and Home- that sense of connectionI came across a post, referred by Naomi Hattaway on the Re-entry Stories Facebook page, called, “Lessons Learnt” by Chris Gerakiteys and realized this was one of the concepts I too have long felt important. Where do we call home?

“…The best lesson these global nomads taught me was about home. Home may be a place you have always held dear, or it may be constantly changing. Home is where you feel loved and understood, it may be where you share a history or plan to share a future. It is firstly about the people, and secondly about geography. On homesick days I dream about the coast near my hometown, but what I am really dreaming about is the sense of connection that place gives me.  [emphasis mine]

And I realise the mistake we made, as newly minted expatriates, was to constantly refer to Australia as home. Yes it is home, and will always be. But for the time being, Ghana is home too. And while it is difficult to cross cultures, it shouldn’t stop us from calling our little place in the world, wherever it may be, home. I think it may have eased the culture shock a little had we been more proactive in calling this place home. [emphasis mine]

Though Chris writes about this lesson in connection with Expatriation, I also see this lesson in relation to Repatriation, leaving one home and “coming home” to another.

Expatriation and Repatriation dilemma: Home - No sense of place

Can It Be Home  With No Sense Of Connection?

Over the past year, I have relayed the story of my repatriation nightmare in bits and pieces (also more here and here and here), hoping that my lessons learned would spare others from the same.

By the time I had written those pieces, I had been “home” 8 years, and yet, had never really gotten to that feeling of being “at home” or settled. I was missing that “sense of connection that place gives me.” That sense of being at home that Chris describes had eluded me. What was wrong?  That question nagged at me constantly.

The push to leave Houston, leave my career, leave my American friends and family was nowhere near as hard as I expected, in part because the excitement of living a life made up of making a difference was so strong a pull that the left-behind-life paled in comparison.

Was my coming home dilemma a similar scenario? If I was ready to come “home” after 10 years abroad, why was it so hard?

Is Repatriation merely a case of the Laws of Motion, where “every action has an equal and opposite reaction“? Meaning, if you have grown accustomed to your expat life will the push to repatriate be countered with an equal desire to stay? Or, put another way, will the push to the unfamiliar be opposed to the pull of the familiar?

In my case, going back to Houston would have been familiar like Baku, where I had lived and worked for 10 years by then. (Actually Baku was the longest stretch of residence of my life to that point… pretty stunning that thought!) My repatriation plan entailed leaving Baku for a similar job in Alaska; yes, technically in my passport country but a whole different culture within the US. However, when things went awry within a week of arriving in Alaska, I had to make some very quick decisions. All the careful planning of the previous year went out the window. I was now adrift with no job, and no plan for the future. No going back, yet no idea how to go forward.

Expat Trust issues: Trusting People to do the right thing

Neither here, nor there… in Repatriation limbo alone

Because of the changes, coming “home” to the USA didn’t mean coming home in the way Chris talks about home. I settled in the Washington DC area for perceived work opportunities, instead of going back to Houston where I am from. Making major decisions like that in the midst of a crisis is a serious no-no according to all the “experts,” but when you’re in the middle of it all, you don’t often have the luxury of abiding by “best practices” – mostly we do what we can to get through it and then live with the fallout.

I “repatriated” to an area where I knew no one, had no support system, and had no familiarity aside from business trips once each year. I got a new job within a couple of weeks and threw myself into work which had me travelling two weeks out of each month for the first 6 months, which meant I never got to “bond” with my new “home”.

Much like a new baby or a new pet, that bonding period is so important. Getting out and discovering the area, getting the lay of the land, is what my mother did so well for us as a military family, and I failed to do at all.  I let the trauma of the move, the failure of my plans, all I had to leave behind, and what I felt I lost, overwhelm the bonding period until it was too late.

Oddly enough, instead of bonding with another expat, or other fish out of water, I met Joe (now my husband), a rock if ever there were one. Sanctuary on one hand, isolating one another as he has no expat experience. But the man has had the patience of Job with my discomfort, trying to help where he could.

Can I share with you what helped the most?

It was when I stopped denying my expat past with its out-of-place sense of global awareness, and allowed myself to reach out to others in the same boat- to allow myself to decompress in that sense of connection that common experience with others gives me.

Chris’ words are a balm to my soul and a lesson to be added to my arsenal of “what to do better next time” stories. Take these to heart and do as the expert says, not as this expat did.

Repatriation is made easier by:

“…Recognising you can have more than one home, recognising your personal geography can change, recognising that it is your choice, recognising that your experiences shape who you become.

There is a great freedom in this, from where you live, to how you choose to live your life.
Home is what you make it, where you make it is up to you.  [emphasis mine]

But the most important lesson?

How bloody lucky we are that we have the choice.

Thanks Chris (and thanks Naomi) for sharing this wonderful insight with all of us!

I hope everyone has enjoyed this bit of expat insight from a few of those “global nomads” Chris mentioned.

2 thoughts on “Repatriation Anxiety: Is It About “Coming Home” Or “Leaving” Home?

  1. Pingback: Expat Living: What Does It Take To Make You Feel At “Home”? | Life Lessons

  2. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful reply to my blog post, I really am flattered by all you had to say. When I wrote it I never considered the repatriation experience, but I understand the difficulties. Your experience sounds particularly hard, not only because you needed to make decisions at a challenging time in your life, but also while you were moving back to your ‘home’ culture, you were not moving home, you were making a new home in your home culture, without a shared history with Washington. It’s tough. But as you say, it’s the recognising our experiences change us and the importance of acknowledging that. I see it in our children when we visit home (Australia) and how their experiences make the settling in with family and old friends very different to how it would have been if we had not left. Thanks again, and have a great day. Chrissie

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