Returning Home

By World Family Education

One of the least-discussed transitions faced by families living internationally is the return to their passport country. The return home, also known as repatriation, can turn out to be more difficult than the move to a new culture (suggested by scholarly research). 

That may come as a surprise for those expecting an easy adjustment back to the life they were so accustomed to. Usually that life doesn’t feel so familiar any more once they return.

Families making this transition will face several challenges:

  • Home has changed. With the passage of time, family and friends have experienced life without you. They may have “moved on” physically or emotionally. 
  • Your family has changed. Those that have lived internationally often have a different worldview than the people they know back home. Friends back home may not understand what your family has gone through and how that has changed your perspective. 
  • You have adapted to another culture, and now you must readapt. Many repatriates feel alienated from their home country. They no longer feel as nationalistic as they once did and may grieve the loss of the host culture they lived in. Even if life overseas was difficult, many families returning home still experience a shift in identity and a sense of loss. 

For children who have spent a significant amount of time in another country, repatriation has an even deeper impact. These children often become “hidden immigrants” since they appear to be local but have little experience with their passport country. They face a steep learning curve to understand cultural practices and expectations — and sometimes the language — of “home.” 

Learn more about the special characteristics of these children at the World Family Education page about Cross-Cultural Kids, Third Culture Kids, Global Nomads…What Are They?

Reverse Culture Shock

The difficulty of returning home is often called “reverse culture shock” since it mirrors the culture shock a family faces when they first transition to a new country. (Read about culture shock at World Family Education.) Just as culture shock differs greatly from person to person, reverse culture shock is also a very personal experience. Each person can experience different triggers that cause grief, anxiety, fear, or loneliness to manifest. These can include:

  • food
  • climate
  • language and accent differences
  • relationships
  • work environment
  • schools
  • transportation
  • shopping

Often, in the most unexpected situations, a person who has lived internationally will suddenly feel like a foreigner in their “homeland.” 

Like other transitions, reverse culture shock usually involves four stages: honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adjustment. These are described more fully at the World Family Education transitions page. Most people who experience reverse culture shock do eventually adapt to their “home” culture. Understanding that this experience is a temporary one can help those navigating a difficult transition. 

Make a RAFT

Helping your family transition well back to their home country should begin before leaving the host culture. Saying “goodbye” to significant people and places should happen before your family can begin accepting their new life. 

A good way to bring closure to your experience in another culture is by building a RAFT — a term coined by David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, authors of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. The letters in the acronym describe four steps to help people transition. They are: reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, and think destination. 

Each of these steps will allow your family to prepare emotionally and physically for the transition ahead. 

Responding to Reverse Culture Shock

Once you touch down in your home country, the effects of reverse culture shock will become more evident. These may appear differently for each family member. A few strategies can help manage the challenges your family faces during this transition (some are similar to those that help with culture shock):

  • build a new community — Finding friends that understand your family’s experience may be difficult. But making attempts to connect with others — even when it’s uncomfortable — will help your family slowly build a new community.
  • take care of your health — Focus on healthful eating habits, adequate sleep, and exercise.
  • create familiar routines —This is especially helpful for children to feel stable and secure.
  • acknowledge the grief your family may feel — Be patient and take time to process losses. 
  • find help — Don’t be afraid to seek an experienced counselor or coach for extra support. See the World Family Education page Family Counseling & Coaching, which includes professionals who are experienced with cross-cultural issues.
  • educate yourself — World Family Education has two helpful pages with book suggestions, including some about repatriation: Books About the Cross-Cultural Experience for Adults and Books About the Cross-Cultural Experience for Kids & Teens

More Resources

Coming Back From Narnia: What Re-entry Feels Like — Beth Watkins describes the inability to fit in when returning to her home culture.

When the World Stopped Spinning I Got Dizzy — Beth Goss at Purple Crayon Your World describes the importance of relationships in a new environment. 

Positive Repatriation — In a podcast, Mary Larson discusses the challenges of repatriation for children who have lived internationally (TCKs). Practical advice is offered for parents and caregivers.

Are you going through the process of returning home? Share about it the World Family Education forum.

Sources

Pollock, D.C. & Van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

U.S. Department of State. “Reverse Culture Shock.” Retrieved September 7, 2019, from https://2009-2017.state.gov/m/fsi/tc/c56075.htm#Family.

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