Being multilingual

How to cope with repatriation

When you are returning to your passport country after you’ve spent some time abroad you may not really feel “at home”. Expats generally learn to adapt to their host locations and in the most positive case, end up to behave and think like locals. Even if they had some troubles adapting to the host country, when they repatriate, they often experience a reverse culture shock also known as “re-entry shock” or “own culture shock”:

I wouldn’t say “any other place in the world”, maybe “any other place you’ve lived”? I definitely feel more foreign in my passport country than in the places I’ve lived in. The main reason, in my case, is that I’ve never lived in my passport country and feel more like a tourist who just happens to know the language and some people who live there (family and great friends!). I’m quite familiar with the culture and some habits of my passport country, but I don’t really feel connected to the place, the country.

Since I have children I feel more responsible to know as much as I can about my passport country, the culture, the traditions, the history. But as I described in another post, being an expat German is not that easy, at least not in the countries I’ve lived in. I’m wondering if this “feeling more foreign in the passport country” depends on our nationalities. Are there nationalities, expats or TCK’s feel more comfortable with or that makes it easier for them to (re)adjust once they repatriate? Or is it easier to repatriate from a country that is culturally closer to our passport country?

Returning to the passport country for someone who grew up abroad may depend on the moment the repatriation takes place. Personally I think that the easiest time to repatriate is before one turns 5 (!) but I don’t think that it’s easier for children in general. As soon as they attend school they usually prefer staying with their peers, especially when they hit the teens.

Everyone expects repatriates (i.e. those who come back to their passport country after some time abroad) to fit in almost immediately. They usually do know the language and have many rights that foreigners don’t have. People expect them to know everything about the culture, the life there: from finding a house, school to buying the right toothpaste…

But doesn’t all this put too much pressure on them and make repatriation even more difficult? Repatriates can easily feel misplaced: they feel like a foreigner in what is supposed to be their own country. They experience reverse culture shock, described as follows by Robin Pascoe, author of Homeward Bound:

“Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”

When you’ve lived abroad and had a deep international experience, you change. Of course, your whole life changes you wherever you live, you don’t have to be living abroad for this, but the experience living abroad may change you more. “Old norms and values are viewed from a fresh perspective, and the expat and family see things in a new light; something like (…) going from black and white to Technicolor.” (cit. from Audrey Sykes article Reverse culture shock: What, when, and how to cope on

Dean Foster, Founder and President of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions:

“By the time most traditional international assignments come to an end, several years may have passed, providing the international assignee a significant amount of time to learn new patterns of behavior and thought, necessary to fit into their host country.  While not aware of these changes, expats are shocked into the realization that they have in fact changed substantially usually only when they encounter their home culture upon repatriating.  Both they and the home culture have changed, and this is often the first time that expats have had the opportunity to experience any of these changes.”

Every time you go back home for visits, you can feel frustrated or confused when your close friends and family are not curious or intrigued about your experiences. – Will this change once you’re back for good?

According to Dr. Bruce La Brack from the School of International Studies at University of the Pacific, this is what expats may expect while returning home:

– Boredom
– No one wants to listen
– You can’t explain
– Reverse homesickness
– Relationships have changed
– People see “wrong” changes
– People misunderstand you
– Feelings of alienation
– Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
– Loss/compartmentalisation of experience

Audrey Sykes gives some clues how to cope with repatriation. She recommends to “share your experience with others” – but what if there is nobody to share the experience with because you did repatriate to a very monocultural and monolingual place? –  “maintain your style and stay international” – what if this style is too exotic for the people in the place you live? –  “ask for training” – but what if you can’t find any help in loco?

Dean Foster recommends a repatriation training for the entire family. He considers that “it needs to involve the HR department at least 6 months prior to the return, so that the company can insure a position for the repats that values their new skills.  Repatriation training that helps not just the repat, but the entire family, adjust to the fact that they have all changed significantly while on international assignment, to assess and value those changes, and to see the ways that their home country has changed while they were abroad. This takes training.” – But are companies giving repatriates all this time to get prepared to the repatriation? And do they provide this service for the families? Every repatriate should know that there are programs that “address the entire family’s issues, and that are combined with HR advising to insure a position that values the repat’s new global skills.  The family issues that need to be addressed include helping children adjust to a home they may not remember, returning to unfamiliar “kid” culture (children may have in fact been born abroad, may come home with accents), partners who need support to re-enter a workforce they have been out of for several years, the loss and disinterest of expected family and friends, all of this requires training to anticipate and to manage successfully.” (Dean Foster)

I would like to end with two quotes from Global mum: A Memoir by Melissa Dalton-Bradford, where she describes the reverse culture shock she and her family experienced when they had to repatriate after the events of 9/11:

“Misreading cultural cues, not knowing language signals, not knowing TV lingo or TV personages or TV jokes, feeling alien, foreign, and making up for it each in our individual way” (p.161)

“…we felt strangely alien, unable to share a great past of ourselves with others. One can expect to feel alien in a new or foreign country. But this? Feeling alien in what’s supposed to be your home country? I knew less about being a soccer mom than I did about buying fresh produce from loud vendors in an open market, less about American sports teams than about Norwegian arctic explorers, less about my native country than I did about ones that, in the end, no one seemed to want to hear much about” (p.162).

I never made the experience to live in my passport country and I’m wondering if there is a moment in our lives, where repatriation is “easy” and what would be recommended in order to make it as smooth as possible.

If you are a TCK (or ATCK), a global nomad or an expat: have you ever lived in your passport country? If yes, when and for how long? Did you go back to live there only once or more often? How old were you when you did repatriate? What was your experience with repatriation? Do you think that your nationality or the historical, political or social situation of your passport country makes it easier – or more difficult – for you to (re-)adjust? Please share your experience in the comments.


Some excerpts in this article were taken from Dean Foster’s Repatriation 101: Demystifying Reverse Culture Shock .

33 replies »

  1. Great article!
    The alienation issue is certainly difficult to manage. I left my passport country (Germany) aged 19, and, after more than two decades away, I’m largely disconnected from popular culture there. My English is better than my German. I’ve been living in Spain for the past two years, and whenever someone asks me what the Germans think about X, Y and Z, I can’t give them a satisfactory answer. Not only do I not fit in anywhere, but I’m also unable to fulfill the expectations any other national might have of me.

    • Thank you, ladyofthecakes, for your comment! I have the same “problem”. – To be honest, I don’t think that I (or you) really have the problem, but others do: when I tell someone I’m German (and don’t want to tell all about me…) they usually ask me things about Germany, life and Germany, brands etc. that I don’t know because I simply can’t, not having lived there. This makes me feel like I don’t fit because I don’t fulfill their expectations. Sometimes people who ask me are Germans and I really feel stupid if they talk about something I simply can’t know…
      I usually tell very quickly “I’m German, but never lived in Germany etc.” or remind my German friends “well, I can’t know this, as you (should!) know….” and this works pretty good.
      I think it also depends on how we live our life abroad and how far this “abroad” is from the passport country. I know many Germans here in NL who are still very rooted in Germany, even after 10 or more years in NL. Most of them grew up in Germany and NL is the first (and only) foreign they lived in. They are also less integrated into the local community… I think that they would not have a reverse culture shock if they had to move back.
      I think that there are so many different kinds of being a foreigner, an expat etc. : every case is unique.
      But what I experienced as more confusing is the expectations someone have of me even knowing my background.

      • Yes, those labels are powerful, and they generate certain expectations, overpowering the actual knowledge that people may have about the person. Humans are just not very rational beings 😉
        Like you, I tend to tell people I’m German, but that I haven’t lived there since 1991.
        I don’t only experience culture shock everywhere, I actively generate it in others, lol.

      • I like the idea of causing culture shock in others! It surely feels like that when we tell where we come from, where we lived and how we feel – usually in one sentence – and get that particular expression that tells us that our counterpart is trying to make us fit in some cathegory and realizes that we don’t fit… It perfectly makes sense, because if someone expects us being in a way that’s natural for the specific community, and he realizes that we are not, it makes him probably doubt about this particular aspect of the community. Or would you have another way to explain this?

      • I think there’s a great post in this! “How to cause culture shock in others”. Am going to try and write something… maybe next week… I think I need to stew over it some more 😉
        Thanks for the inspiration!!!

  2. I think it would make a huge difference if you associated extensively with an expat community from your home country. If you rub shoulders with other Germans where you live, you’ll be more fluent in the culture than if you are isolated.

    The first time I returned to the US from Colombia (age 6), I had lived most of my life in a jungle town with no electricity or running water. I was surprised when it rained in Kansas rather than snowing (we got there in summer but I had heard that it snowed in the US), and I addressed my grandparents in a mix of English and Spanish. I don’t remember it being traumatic, because I was with my family in the comfort of my grandparents’ home.

    After that furlough, we moved to a major Colombian city where I went to an American school for missionary kids, had American and Canadian friends, and there was a constant flow of people to and from North America. We read American magazines, watched American movies at the theaters, participated in American sports like softball, etc. We spent another year in the US when I was 11. My brother and I boarded at an American mission base for high school. That was actually my worst experience with culture shock! The people there were more American than the city missionaries, and there were context-specific activities I had no experience with (motorcycles, alligator hunting, etc.).

    Even so, the adjustment to the US was hard when I returned for college. My dorm roommates had different values and a different worldview. I found refuge in a Christian student group (IVCF) and the Latin American Studies program. It took me many years until I felt at home in the US.

    Now in my 50s, I am recently married to a Colombian woman and I return to my childhood home twice a year. My lifestyle is bicultural. I feel more complete than at any other time in my life.

    • Roadkill Spatula, I did grow up in a community of other Germans, but this didn’t help much as they were all expats too… They also experienced their passport culture “second hand”. There were families who did spend most of their holidays in Germany and who did not really adapt to the host culture, and there were those, like my family, who did integrate quite well and who did create the “third culture” (like the one we know from the definition of Third Culture Kids). Personally I did not like the those groups who were “close” and very traditional, who were trying to maintain the culture of their home country. Maybe because it felt artificial to me? I am not criticyzing the attempt to maintain traditions, I think they are very important, but trying to lead a German life in Italy for example, is simply impossible.
      I guess your first experience in the US was easier because you were quite young. When you returned at age 11, this was quite different already. Kids start to be more peer oriented very early (nowadays when they are around 7 / 8 years old): that’s when they want to fit in, to adapt to a group and realize the difference when they move abroad. That can be very painful… Some suffer in silence.
      You mention the different values and worldview: I think this is something very important in our lives. When we move from very different cultures, this can be shocking because the world, as we were used to see, live and appreciate it, does completely change and this makes us very fragile, insecure. We question all we’ve considered normal and feel alienated. It takes a lot of time and energy to find the inner balance to this. The problem is, that it’s difficult to talk about it and to make others understand this disarray.
      I’m glad that you found your balance, because this is what you have thanks to your Columbian wife with whom you can share both worlds. I think this is very important for people who have more than one culture: find someone with whom we can share the many worlds we lived in. – Thank you so much for sharing your experience and giving me so much more to think about 😉

      • Yeah, not many people were interested in my TCK experience. I visited Dallas (where a number of my high school classmates ended up because their mission had a center there) or went back to Colombia at least once a year during college to keep my sanity. It was always a treat to meet other TCKs through IVCF or on campus, even if they were from another part of the world.

        My roommates had to put up with my Latin music whether they liked it or not. I bought papaya when one roommate and I crossed the Mexican border one spring break, and I was very disappointed that he didn’t like it!

        I also wrote a lot of letters to my old friends. (Now many of them are on Facebook, and we still keep in touch 35-40 years later.)

        In my case, my entire career history has been a product of my TCK background: Spanish teacher, refugee worker in Honduras, NGO employee in Miami, missionary/linguistics prof in Costa Rica, ESL teacher, translator… I’ve been in bilingual contexts nearly my whole career.

      • I know how it feels when you try to share something that’s precious for you from one of the cultures and others don’t appreciate (or even dislike). It makes us feel so sad and lonely. I once cooked a ribollita – an italian vegetable soup, typical dish from Tuskany/Florence etc. – and was terribly disappointed when our friends did refuse to taste it. It was delicious, but apparently not appealing enough. It’s difficult to tell who among our friends is open minded and curious enough to try new things. With some friends it took me years to figure this out.
        You are right, nowadays we can stay in touch easily with friends all over the world through fb, twitter etc. and I really appreciate it too.
        It’s interesting what you say about your career history. I just talked about this with some expat friends and noticed the same. Most of us did study languages, became teachers and used our linguistic and cultural skills for work. I always worked in multilingual contexts too and, honestly, couldn’t picture me in a monolingual and monocultural context. At least not for a long time.

  3. What about feeling an expat without leaving your own country? I’m from Quebec (french speaking part of Canada) and I’m living since 4 years in the english speaking part of Canada. Even if I’m in the same country, living in an other province is like living abroad. I can relate to all that you have written. Slightly, I’m feeling a foreigner in Quebec. Even if I can get the same TV shows and I can go 2 or 3 times a year in my home province. I’m starting to see a difference happening more and more… It is very subtle but it is happening… And I don’t know what we will do when my husband will be retired… Going back? Stay here? Living abroad?

  4. That’s a really important point, Therry! Thanks for pointing this out. – You can experience culture shock also without leaving the country. Especially when it is a country that has many different traditions, languages etc.
    I may say that people living in multilingual countries are more likely to experience this. But I guess that this problem is not only related to the languages. Even in a country like Germany you can feel like a foreigner. If you grew up in the northern part of Germany you may feel disoriented if you end up living in the South.
    I have met Swiss people who wouldn’t accept living in certain parts of Switzerland because of the “different mentality” (and you know how small Switzerland is…. ;-)) and it wasn’t because of a different language… – In your case, I guess if you go back you may experience a reverse culture shock. If you stay, you will still feel the difference. Moving abroad may help to not feel the pressure to “fit in” and adapt. It’s a difficult decision. What are the things that bother you the most? The language, some traditions or habits, the mentality? Don’t we all have areas of our lives where we can accept differences and where we don’t necessarily have to agree with or fit in? Maybe you can try to ponder the pros and cons for every option you have?

    • Thank you, Tiffany. I’m sorry that you didn’t find some support back then, when you needed it. I think that repatriates should share more about their experiences. This would really help! I’m planning to write a bit more about this and would be really glad if you could tell me more about your experience with repatriation.

  5. Hi Ute, you are very right about this. I do feel like this. After 10 years of living abroad I don´t feel like Venezuelan anymore but I do not feel I “have a country” anymore. I think I have became knd of a “Frankestein” I have bit from every coutry I have been living in. Great Post! I shared with some of my expats friends.

    A big hug 🙂

    • Ha, Madrexilio, you’re not Frankenstein! You’re a beautiful, colorful “chamaeleon” that has many things to tell and share with whom is willing to listen and understand (and learn ;-)). And about not having a country: we are our own country and this is something precious and unique that we can share with others who experience the same kind of life. – I wish you a lovely weekend! And thanks a lot for sharing! 😉 A big hug!xxx

  6. It is nice to know that we are not alone. I am a Mexican living in Germany since 3 years ago, I have to admit that as much as I love my passport country, I relate less to its culture and mindset every time I go back or meet a new fellow Mexican.
    I am very surprised with myself and the fact that I am seriously considering not going there for Christmas for the first time this year because I will be an alien and get bored.
    The time here has changed me, I am not sure if it has been for the better, but I don´t feel the same anymore.
    I am terrified that this feeling won´t go away and that I might never go back.

    • I know this feeling and completely understand your fear. When we realize that we change, we adapt to new places, habits and see our previous life through new glasses: it can be terrifying but it’s very natural. This can also happen when you live in the same place and experienced a major change. I’ve also avoided going ‘back home’ from time to time for the same reason you mention. It’s a process you’re going through and I’m sure you’ll go back one time and appreciate and like it again. Sometimes it’s good to take some distance in order to re-appreciate what we had/have and already know (or take for granted).

  7. This is a great article! Im an American TCK (born until finished high school in Spain and multiple Middle East countries). I recently graduated with my DVM and through a twist of fate met a farmer from North Dakota. So Im in North Dakota now, and this is the first I have lived in my home country since college. This article is perfect to describe the itch and out of place that i feel ever since I moved here. It’s good to know Im not alone in feeling this way.

    • Dear Ally, I’m very glad that you find this article helpful! I would love to know more about what you’re experiencing. You certainly are not alone and I think others would benefit from what you have to share. – Ute 😉

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