Lucille Abendanon

Successful repatriation: things to consider

27 August 2018

Lucille Abendanon

Written by Lucille Abendanon

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent.

In this article, we explore what to expect if you decide to repatriate and provide some advice for a successful return home.

When considering whether or not to move to a new country, the effects of repatriation are often not taken into account. Yet returning home after years spent living abroad is a transition in itself, and can sometimes be unexpectedly challenging. Repatriation may occur for many reasons, perhaps your children want to return home to finish secondary school or go to university; perhaps after growing up abroad they want to return to their roots; or after years spent living abroad you decide it’s just time to go home.

Lucille repatriated after living in Asia and the Middle East for nine years, and says about her experience, “We tend to do lots of preparation before we move abroad, we research our new country, read up on the emotional pitfalls of expatriate living, prepare ourselves as best we can with regards to what to expect, but the same rigor is not given to repatriation. It’s like taking birthing classes but not learning how to care for the baby once it arrives. No-one thinks they’ll need support going home. We think that going home will be natural. Yet speak to anyone who has been through repatriation and you’ll realise just as much preparation is needed.”

Lucille continues, “but what we don’t realise is that although the place remains the same, we do not, and so slotting back in where you left off is almost always impossible. You realise that you no longer quite fit in.”

Some issues to be aware of include: feeling sad that your international life is over; feeling out of place even though everything is familiar; resenting that people don’t show much interest in your years spent abroad; and a feeling that the ‘magic’ is missing. For repatriating Third Culture Kids (TCKs), the reality of being a hidden immigrant can be a real stumbling block. Your kids look like everyone else at home, they sound like everyone else at home, but on the inside they are completely different, changed by their time abroad. For kids that were born abroad and/or have spent their early years abroad your home country may be unfamiliar to them so the concept of ‘home’ will become more complex.

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Repatriating as a family

Cate Brubaker is the founder of Small Planet Studio, a website dedicated to re-entry, repatriation and reverse culture shock after living, working, and studying abroad. Cate is the author of The Re-entry Relaunch Roadmap and produces regular webinars on repatriation helping parents and children return home with confidence. “The key to successful repatriation” says Cate, “is to view it as a continuation of your global life, not the end of it.” Cate believes that “with the right approach, your return ‘home’ can actually be a positive and growth-filled experience that launches you into even bigger and better things.” Cate offers some great advice for repatriating with kids:

Talk about what it might be like to return ‘home’ before returning home

Encourage your kids to express their feelings, their concerns, and what they’re looking forward to. Make it a part of the family conversation so your kids feel safe expressing how they feel before and during the return. Talk about what they did to find their way around, make friends, and feel settled and happy in their current location (or during previous moves). Be sure to say goodbye to everything and everyone that the kids want to say goodbye to before leaving.

Once back ‘home’, be prepared for ups and downs!

Sometimes the biggest challenges appear weeks or months after the return. Your kids may be really excited to be home, they may be thrilled at being ‘back to normal’, but bear in mind that the initial high will give way eventually.

Find ways to incorporate ‘abroad’ into your life at home

This is a central aspect to successful repatriation. Returning home is often framed as the end of your global life, a return to the local. If we reframe repatriation as the continuation of your global mindset and not the end of it, the transition will be smoother. Plan new family adventures that everyone can look forward to, consciously indulge the sense of adventure you had whilst living abroad.

As parents, ‘model’ re-entry processing

Talk about your own re-entry ups and downs and how you’re integrating the different “global” parts of yourself or dealing with challenges. How kids respond to re-entry depends so much on the child. Some really struggle, while others jump right into their new life with few problems. I always encourage parents to make it a normal part of the family conversation to talk about the transition - the good and bad parts - and to talk about what they miss about their life abroad, what they like about their life at home, etc. Try to balance the positive and negative.

Talk to the school/teachers if possible

Explain to your child’s teachers how tough the re-entry transition can be (since their teachers may never have gone through it) and any special circumstances (eg if the child speaks with a different accent or hasn’t gone to school in their ‘home’ country before). If the child is open to it, talking about how they want to integrate their experiences abroad into their life/school/etc can be helpful. Some kids want to (eg. give a cultural presentation at school) while other kids don’t want to (at least not at first). Brainstorming with kids all the various public and private ways they can retain their “globalness” can be very helpful.

Repatriating for tertiary education

Repatriation with older children who may be returning home to finish high school or begin their tertiary education can be more complicated. Megan Norton is the founder of Intercultural Transitions, a consultancy that specifically focuses on this life stage in a Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) or Third Culture Kid’s (TCK) life. She facilitates workshops and training for both university-bound students and their parents to process how to talk about identity, how to build community, and how to set realistic expectations in university. Megan offers some advice for repatriating kids for tertiary education:

Talk about the meaning behind sacred objects

‘Transfer cues’ or ‘sacred objects’ play an integral role in transition, and are an especially useful tool for children of all ages going through the repatriating process. Transfer cues may include special toys or even mundane objects that mean something or represent a friend or family member who is special to your child. It’s important to have conversations with children about the meanings behind objects because they may symbolise friendships or important places.

I remember one counsellor telling me that a parent was throwing out a bag of rocks her teenage daughter had collected. When the daughter saw that, she screamed, "No! My friends!" A bit concerned, the mother asked why those rocks were her daughter's "friends." The daughter explained that the rocks represented each one of her closest friends from school. Understanding this, the mother instructed her daughter to write the name of each friend on a different rock with one word to describe that friend. These objects that children hold onto represent more memories and feelings than any photo or souvenir could hold. It's important to have this continuity during repatriation or another international move.”

Find ways for holistic closure

For teenagers, closure needs to be as holistic as possible: for the body, the mind, and the soul. A teenager should have the freedom to choose how to say goodbye to friends and places.In my experience, having a ‘spa retreat’ with girlfriends has been a holistically beneficial way to process the transition phase in being surrounded by friends and in practicing self-care. Likewise, practicing different mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation, and relaxation podcasts, can help teenagers to intentionally reflect on the transition process. It’s also wise to explain to teenagers how communication and ties can be maintained once in the new country. Social media platforms are perfect for family members and friends to sustain globally active and interconnected lives.

The “transition from secondary school to university is one of the most challenging for an expat dependent because it’s the first move without the family unit. Without that support system, the university-bound dependent needs to build a sense of personal identity before the first day of school. Sacred objects play an important role in allowing your child to feel that they’re taking their memories and unique identity with them back to their home country.

Once back ‘home’, be prepared for the reality of being a hidden immigrant

One of the key misunderstandings CCK/TCK parents and international schools have about this transition is that it will be ‘easy’ for the CCK/TCK student since they have transitioned their entire lives.

This is an issue many repatriating TCKs face and that there’s an expectation for the university to help out with the transition. However, this is often too late. I argue that the work needs to be done in secondary school. The student needs to do intentional self-reflection and some ‘pre-thinking’ about how he/she will talk about his/her upbringing and what he/she would like to be involved with at university.

Look for a school or university with an international flavour

Finding a school or university with an international flavour is important. Growing up global then moving to a small town where no-one has travelled much can be a tough move for your child who is used to a more international environment. A university or college with an international student body will help your child find people he or she can relate to. The international aspect is important. Stephen Danilovich was born in Belarus but grew up in Canada, the US, Kazakhstan and Iraq before moving back to Canada. “My main issue is finding like-minded people!” he says, “Unavoidably these end up being other TCKs and world travellers - they all have that empathy and open-mindedness that grease the wheels for any interactions you have with them. You may not be able to talk local sports or politics with a TCK, but as a rule of thumb, they make that extra step to see your perspective - which means so much.”

International tertiary institutions will also be used to dealing with students with diverse backgrounds, although successful repatriation depends on both institutional and personal preparedness. Emerging adult CCKs/TCKs have several skillsets that should be highlighted in academic and professional conversations. First and foremost: adaptability. This skill can be applied to multiple situations and be (re)framed in different ways such as skilled at perspective-taking, has a high tolerance for ambiguity, is able to shift behaviour in different contexts. In having the understanding of skillsets and behavioural traits, a CCK/TCK teenager can demonstrate intercultural leadership skills and cross-cultural sensitivity markers. Again, this naming requires intentional reflection and the ability to develop a strong sense of personal identity.

Conclusion

Repatriating after any length of time spent abroad can be challenging, and is often an aspect of international life we don’t realise we need to prepare for. For TCKs of any age, the move from global to local is a transition that should be managed to achieve a positive outcome. Moving home can be seen as a continuation of your global life, not the end of it.

Lucille Abendanon – personal & family profile/professional work

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children (all born in different countries) to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent. Lucille is a British expat currently living in the Netherlands, and has previously lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and South Africa. Professionally, Lucille is a copywriter who focusses on travel and property. She runs the website Expitterpattica.com, posting on the blog on a range of expat topics, including expat parenting and children’s issues. Via this blog, she has guest posted on HuffPo, Global Living and a number of expat blogs and other sites.