Repatriation blues: Is there a curve for getting over it?

  • young woman feeling lost
Published on 2024-05-24 at 10:00
Seasoned expats know that culture shock and homesickness are not an issue only when moving to a foreign country – they also happen when you move back to your home country. This has been termed “reverse culture shock” – moving back and finding a home that has changed or, on the contrary, remained too similar or static. How can you deal with the repatriation blues?

Be ready for the possibility of repatriation right from the start

The wisest thing to do is to be prepared right from the beginning. This is especially important if you know for sure that your expat adventure will last only a few years (e.g., for the duration of a fixed job contract). 

But even if you have no definite plan to return, it's still good to have a contingency plan. The pandemic, for one, forced many unplanned repatriations. Other situations may lead you to repatriate: the illness of a family member, abrupt immigration changes, your financial situation, or the decision to have children, among others.

Housing is one of the first things to consider in a repatriation plan. If you own property back home, it might be a good idea not to sell it. You could rent it and generate some passive income while you're abroad, at least as long as currency conversion rates and taxes don't put you at a disadvantage. If you need to return home, you can start living there again. 

On the forums, multiple French expats have asked about the process of returning home. Other forum users recommended they make the administrative aspects of the return as easy as possible. Keeping a house in France, for instance, makes it much easier to keep a proof of address (“justificatif de domicile”) and even apply for a healthcare card (“carte vitale”) upon returning.

Other repatriating expats who no longer own a house back home have sometimes been forced to move back with their families, at least for a few months, until they can find a place to rent. That can cause problems in some situations: loss of independence, nosy/interfering family members and interpersonal clashes, lack of a quiet space for work-from-home. These issues can make the re-adaptation process more difficult than it should be.

Also, have provisional plans for potential jobs, education (if you have kids), healthcare, and hobbies in case you need to move back home. These plans might well save you from experiencing a tough and stressful re-adaptation curve.

The “W-curve” of culture shock and reverse culture shock 

The W-curve model, a variant of the “U-curve,” was first proposed by the American sociologists John and Jeanne Gullahorn in 1963 to describe the culture shock experienced by first-year college students who've moved away from home for the first time. It has since been used to describe culture shock in general.

In this model, the first U of the W shape concerns expatriation, and the second U concerns repatriation. When expats first arrive in a foreign country, they experience culture shock (a dip) before starting to adapt (rise). In the first stage of repatriation, things are alright because they are enjoying things like meeting their relatives and eating the local food (to which they probably have a childhood attachment) again.

However, this is unfortunately often followed by brusque dip – when their close ones realize they have changed, or when they realize that their country has evolved (or alternatively, that it has remained too unchanged!). Thankfully, a period of recovery and re-acculturation will follow – although this might take months to years for some returnees.

A mix of cultural and emotional issues can make the recovery more difficult for some returning expats. Some of these issues are the level of cultural difference between their home country and former country of expatriation; how long they were abroad; their gender and sexual orientation; their level of education and political beliefs.

For example, if a woman lived in a foreign country with more progressive gender norms than her own country, re-adapting to conservative gender norms back home might take some time. When interviewed, a Mauritian expat who had returned home after living in China talked about the difficulty of re-adjusting to a lower level of street safety for women at home. Not being able to walk alone outside after dark was a reverse culture shock for her, and it took a few months for her to feel like it's “normal” to stay inside after dark or only drive at night. At first, it felt claustrophobic.

On the forum, another expat talks about an unexpected repatriation blues he faced: feeling like a “regular Joe” (“monsieur tout le monde”) at home rather than someone exceptional abroad. This expat returned to France after a few years of living in the UK and Spain. He thought that life would be better in his home country, so he was not prepared for the sense of loss of power that came with feeling like “employee n°2345” (“employé n°2345”) rather than a unique expat.

Another expat on the forum remarked that returnees might be better suited to work for multinationals back home rather than for local companies or for the government. It might make the transition home smoother because they are now used to working in a highly international environment. Transitioning to a more local work culture might be difficult for them – at least at first.

When interviewed, a British expat who formerly lived in Argentina said that the most unexpectedly difficult part of repatriation blues for her was missing the friends she had made in South America. With the distance between the two countries, it's difficult for them to travel to see each other. The time zone difference also makes it difficult to make unplanned phone calls. She spent the formative years of her 20s in Argentina, so leaving these friendships still feels difficult even 5 years after returning to the UK. It has gotten better over the years, but she is still getting over her repatriation blues.

Tips for facing repatriation blues

As previously said, be prepared for a possible return right from the start.

Consider repatriation as just another expatriation – to a now unfamiliar home. Use the same coping techniques you used when you moved abroad for the first time, but apply them to home this time. Manage your expectations – don't expect the honeymoon phase to last or for your idealized memories of home to materialize. Also, be ready to accept that you might have missed important events while abroad – friends' weddings, changes in local politics, etc.

Communicate with people back home about the experiences, values, and opinions you acquired while living abroad so they can understand how you have changed.

Find practical ways to stay in touch with the friends you made abroad (e.g., weekly scheduled video calls, using the same social media platforms as they do, posting gifts, and playing an online video game together).

Keep doing the same hobbies that you started abroad to avoid becoming isolated or feeling like you are “losing” the personality traits you acquired abroad. For instance, if you started playing soccer as an expat in the UK, find soccer groups back home to join.

Find groups of expats and former expats in your home country. You might find that you now have more in common with them than with fellow citizens who've never lived abroad.

Useful links:

The US Department of State about reverse culture shock 

University of the Pacific, the “W-curve” of going abroad and returning home

Mayo Clinic Health System, the “W-curve” model