Ex-Pat Living: What I Learned… My Plan For Repatriation and Resilience

Here’s a quote from an Expats blog article that caught my eye yesterday:

Repatriation May Not Mean Home-ownership for Expats

Dreams of Home-ownership for Expats

“Many UK expats working abroad intend to return home after their contracts end, but are unable to do so due to banks and building societies refusing their mortgage applications.

Mortgage brokers are snowed under with applications from expat workers wishing to buy into a UK home once their contracts are finished.

Enquiries have doubled due to traditional mortgage providers refusing loans to applicants who have no recent financial history in the UK.”  [note: emphasis mine]

Things aren’t much different in the US-based market. Expats who want to come here face similar job and banking issues.

In recent weeks our Expat Partner Online Coffee has been discussing repatriation and resilience, which of course go hand-in-hand.

The first of two online discussions targeted the challenges and opportunities that repatriation brings. The Re-entry Stories group and Maria Latham-Foley, who is writing a book on repatriation, also joined in.

The second discussion, with Linda Janssen (author of The Emotionally Resilient Expat), was focused on resilience.

After writing a couple of posts about the “joys” of repatriation (Re-Entering Earth’s Atmosphere)  and resilience/expat money issues (in Will That Be Cash or Credit) I thought it might be useful to wrap this up with Lessons Learned from my experience- the process, the planning, and the surviving.

This story may resonate with you if you are an independent entrepreneur, a solopreneur as some call you. It may apply if you have to plan your own next steps- if you have left your contract company and are casting about for a new position.

Or, it may simply be of interest if you are snugly inside a corporate gig and want to see how the other half live.

Here’s what happened…  and what I learned because of it.

Quick background, to give you an idea of what I was working with and the resources I had.

  • Self-employed (no assistance, no benefits) from arrival-5 years;  Local employment (AmCham) with international affiliation (but no benefits) years 5-10.
  • Divorced year 3; no international (US) home base; driver’s license expired while abroad; joint credits cards closed in divorce.
  • Irregular salary from business- paid rent and staff salaries before personal expenses; during Russian financial crisis all businesses were affected (1997-2000).
  • When asked, I agreed to work “temporarily” for a company that offered a steady salary since I was by then on my own. (Temporarily turned into the second 5 years.)

The first 5 years were really the hardest period.

I arrived not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan was selling privatization vouchers to raise capital just as the Russian meltdown was beginning; the collapsing of banks and stock markets rippled through the world affecting places as far away as Japan and Brazil. Nothing was secure. Though demand and business was good for me, it was also viewed as an “expendable” expense when money was tight, so it had a degree of risk that was often scary. One winter in particular, I was faced with buying either a box of cat food, or bread and milk. Fortunately, a client paid his tuition bill (all of $100)… that  was enough. I was spared for another month.

Expat Living: Resilience ...Tested in Major Stress

Resilience …Tested in Major Stress

I went through a divorce in August, 1998; my mother passed away in December, 1998; and while I was home for her funeral, my landlord sold the apartment I was living in.  I got the news that I had to move in 10 days from my assistant, as we came in from the airport.

To say that it was a stressful year would be putting it mildly.

People often ask why I didn’t just come home.

Well, to me, I came to do a job and I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment. I hoped I could weather the storms and come out ok.  I also didn’t want to be a quitter.

Besides, I couldn’t have gone if I had wanted to.

Many folks think that getting into the United States is a piece of cake, judging by the immigration news. And, in truth, it may well have been easier for an immigrant to get here than for a citizen with no driver’s license or credit cards to come home.

Think about this for a moment. When you travel, what are the 3 things you need most?

  1. Your Passport
  2. Driver’s License
  3. Credit Card/Debit Card

With those three things, you can arrive in most any country in the world and get a hotel, rent a car, and negotiate longer term options.

Lacking any one of those three, and the system fails you.

  • You can’t get in without a passport- FAIL.
  • No rental car without a driver’s license- FAIL.
  • No lodging without a bank card- FAIL.

For an expat in this situation you have a very few options. It takes planning to make a jump from a situation like this to a new life.

I reckoned I was in the perfect place for planning, after all the Soviet’s were noted for their monumental “5-year plans” so that’s what I did.

In 1999, my “Re-Building” plan looked like this:

  1. Find a temporary home address
  2. Open a US Bank account
  3. Obtain a US Driver’s License
  4. Buy a car
  5. Get a job
  6. Get a permanent home address
  7. Build up payment history
  8. Get a credit card
  9. Begin Dating
  10. Find a long-term relationship partner

It doesn’t sound like much perhaps, but each of these items is like a Rubik’s cube, any number of permutations that could click or frustrate me in trying.

My daughter was in University during those years so I waited until she got an off campus apartment. I gave her money to put in a bank account in her name. Then after it had been established for six months, I came home at Christmas and we went to the bank and added me to her account.

When I came home on my next leave, I asked her to open another account, this time in my name with her as an additional signer. As I mentioned yesterday (in my post on Cash or Credit), I asked my daughter to go to the bank on the way home each day and transfer money to build up the balance in the US account.

This was possible because I did have a good salary and no expenses. The advantages of living in a credit-less society are few, but this was one of them.

We’re now well into 2000. I was anxious to make a change, but still only on item 1 of my list.

By 2001, I was struggling. I had been working 3 jobs during the crisis and I was burned out by the stress. With the situation around the world so fluid and dynamic, I decided it was time. I had accomplished what I felt I came to do and was looking to lighten the load a bit. I needed to step up my exit strategy and get serious about making this happen. Little did anyone know what September of 2001 would bring.

I came home at Christmas of 2002. Following 9/11, everything was still in free-fall. Caryn and I decided to look for a home to buy. New home prices in Houston, like most everywhere else, were depressed- meaning affordable, even on one salary. Caryn could live in it (rent free) while I was getting ready to come home.

We found a new home builder with a plan that we liked and once the color and amenity choices were made, it was just a matter of checking in each week to see that things were on track. (Much easier than doing a major reno on an older home.)

Here are 4 lessons I learned during this process:

Plans and Actions:  Keys for Expatriate Settlement and Resilience

Navigating The System

  1. Banks want to know where money comes from, especially post-9/11. That my money had come from Azerbaijan, just north of Iran, was not comforting in the least.
    Solution: I got a letter from the US Ambassador vouching for me, for the American Chamber of Commerce office, and verifying that my bank records were legit.  That helped a great deal.
    .
  2. I had the foresight to have the Chamber print out “pay statements“- remember, we had no paycheck stubs to show.
    .
  3. I filed my US taxes each year. Even though a “double taxation treaty” was in place, it only grants a credit on the first approximately $80,000 or so (the amount may have been revised since then).
    Solution: By filing official tax reports each year since my divorce (3 years by this point) I had established income records on my own. I had also established consistent credible income, from a company that had the wisdom to invite the US Ambassador to be Chairman of the Board. Doing the same thing for, say, Local XYZ Contractor, might have needed more verification.
    .
  4. I had an established banking relationship with both checking and savings. The entire down payment for my house was sitting in my savings account being “seasoned” – meaning that it has been in the US for more than 2 months with a trackable trail, in this case small cash deposits from my daughter and my Baku account. We kept records to show each out and in, like shoe laces, one side matches something on the other side.

These four items took an awfully long time to set up. Once you get them started, there is nothing to do but wait six months, a year, whatever it takes. This is the hardest thing to do, but it saves you many headaches when the time comes to move.

Stick to the plan if you can and save yourself mountains of problems that have to be explained to people who don’t understand expat lifestyles and banking systems.

Once the house was built and ready to close the purchase, we had all our paperwork pre-approved and in order. The day we moved in I took Caryn’s car to the Motor Vehicles department and took the test to get my licence.  The next week I went back for my driving test (road test).  I laughed when the examiner looked at me and said, “You’re a little old to be learning to drive, aren’t you?” HE laughed when I replied that I had been driving since before he was born!

Once that was done, I went to the car dealers and tested all the least expensive cars I could. The reasoning behind this was that I wanted to put about $5,000 down and keep the rest of my savings to buy furniture for the house. $5,000 down on a $15,000 car is more likely to be approved than if I put that same amount down on a Porsche.

Again, stick with the plan no matter what you would rather do.

I ended up with a reliable Honda which would get me into the work force when I came home for good. And I now had a double car garage in which to park it.

All that happened in March 2003. After those few hectic days at home, I came back to Baku, several steps closer to my goal of repatriating.

In November, when I had built my savings account back up, it was time to apply for a credit card. I chose a Visa card for global acceptability. Once I had that in hand, I could travel freely (at least, once I had advised the bank where charges would likely come from so as not to trigger the fraud system).

I then posted my resume online at the major job boards and began my job hunt in earnest.

Ironically, once I had a house in Houston, I got a job in Alaska. (In hindsight, I realize that was a mistake, but I was anxious and didn’t follow my own advice.)

Plans aren’t perfect, but they make life so much more manageable.

In the end, #9 and #10 got mixed up, but the rest of the plan made those two possible, so I can’t complain.

The 5 Year Plan took me from 1998 to 2003 to accomplish… literally 5 years from when my life and the world each seemed to fall apart, to the day when I physically repatriated. I didn’t understand then that I needed a new plan for the mental and emotional repatriation journey that only this year feels like things have come around.

Maybe it took so much time to come to grips with it all once I got here because I had been so focused for so long on the plan. So much so, in fact, that I hadn’t done a good job at all of planning to “be” home. I thought I would just move back and pick up where I left off.  (You do know that I can hear you laughing, right?)

I’d also have probably been smarter to hold off on dating and getting into a relationship, and certainly Joe, having been widowed less than 6 months before we met, was in no shape, but what’s the saying? “The heart wants, what the heart wants”? Yes, I’ll raise my hand up for that one. Some things you just can’t plan with a list! (wink)

I hope that this post is helpful to readers who want to understand some repatriation and resilience issues to be prepared for, to plan for and to strive to manage better than I did.

I wish for no one to have a year in which you lose house, home, spouse and parent. But if you do, just know that with some clear-eyed planning, you can come through it, viewing the battle scars as signs of wisdom in the end.

Let me know if any of this hits home or you have any further thoughts on either repatriation to your home country or your experiences with resilience. I’d love to hear other tips.

Best to you and yours!
.
.
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More Expat blogs & transition resources:

http://www.expatsblog.com/news/tag/working-abroad

http://www.theemotionallyresilientexpat.com

http://manyhomesmanymoves.blogspot.com/

http://manyhomesmanymoves.blogspot.com/p/expat-resources.html

http://manyhomesmanymoves.blogspot.com/2013/12/on-critical-incidents-slow-lessons-and.html

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6 thoughts on “Ex-Pat Living: What I Learned… My Plan For Repatriation and Resilience

  1. What an amazing story. I’m not surprised that it could take five years to get back into the U.S.. It was tricky getting our credit union to keep our accounts open (after twenty years) with no physical U.S. address. And you cannot travel without credit cards and drivers licenses. This is true. The French government has us hanging by the drivers licenses right now.

    As we were leaving the U.S. and selling the house we were left without a place to live. The search for temporary housing for a family of four was miserable and expensive. It left us in staying dangerous places living around drug dealers. When you’re no longer a home owner in the U.S., you slide off the bottom of the pole into the “homeless poverty” category of housing. It was a real eye-opener for a former doctor/software engineer couple of folks.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about your experiences. Please continue to leave the trail for others to follow.

    Alice

    Like

    • Alice, you have hit on a couple of the most important points for expats- ” government has us hanging by the drivers licenses” and ” you slide off the bottom of the pole into the “homeless poverty” category.” Not many people realize just how scary the gap is between between being a productive member of society and sliding off the pole, as you put it. Timing is critical in making things work and it’s the one thing we often have no control over.

      I’m glad you’re in a good place now. As a parent it’s hard to make the choices that have to be made when kids are at risk potentially. It’s a near miracle that your credit union worked with you to keep the accounts open. Hallelujah! One small step for man, one giant leap for credit union-kind! I’m looking forward to sharing more with you as your story unfolds there in France, and you get you licenses out of the bureaucratic squeeze hold! 😉

      All the best to you and your family for the New Year!

      -Jonelle

      Like

      • Jonelle,

        What worked for banking was an ex-pat mail forwarding service that’s new in recent years plus changing everything possible to “e-statements”. This expat address reads like a physical street address. I had to forward my mail there and sign a document giving them permission to receive my mail. And, of course, pay them.

        Yes. Credit unions are the BEST. But I was also able to keep a commercial bank account open.

        Every decision is harder with two kids in the car than if it were just me or just my husband and I. Plus, there are few “sleeps four” rooms to rent anywhere I’ve traveled.

        So far so good. Even with the bureaucratic tangles, I love it here.

        Thanks for the visit.
        Alice

        Like

  2. Ya gotta love the internet age! Hard to imagine being an expat without connections anymore.

    Azerbaijan got internet functions around 1998, after I had been there for about 3 years. That changed everything. Of course, it was dial up service, and not very good phone lines, so we would constantly be dropped and disconnected. It also had a .10/minute surcharge. I had an internet service bill of $555 one month and thought I would choke! But when it did work, it was heaven to get a letter from home.

    After I was asked to come over to the Chamber of Commerce (Amcham Azerbaijan) I got to use their NY “APO” set up on the Avenue of the Americas, which is like what you mentioned. By then (2000) we had real internet and real cell phones and life was becoming connected to the outside world. Pros and cons to that but it made life less tenuous.

    It’s nice to hear that after all the adjustments and bureaucratic hassles, that all in all it’s been a good decision. How did you choose this particular location? I don’t think I read anything about that part yet.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Expat Living: Why ALL Expats Should Watch Events In The Ukraine Carefully | Life Lessons

  4. Pingback: Repatriation Anxiety: Is It About “Coming Home” Or “Leaving” Home? | Life Lessons

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