Sometimes the scariest journey is the one that leads back home
Expats are old hands at handling the challenges of living abroad, but when the next destination is home, expats may face a range of unexpected obstacles. The process of repatriation comes with mixed emotions – especially if the decision to move back wasn’t planned – not to mention the logistical challenges of setting up a new home and settling children into new schools.
Beyond the loss of financial benefits and the expatriate lifestyle, returnees often miss the exchanges with different cultures and the small expat community where everyone looked out for everyone else. Worse, they sometimes realize that their values have changed and do not match any more with those of old friends and family.
Here are five tips for transitioning back into life in your home country.
• Savor the goodbye
Set aside time to properly to bid farewell to the people who have been part of your Beijing life. This act will give you and your family a sense of closure and allows time to acknowledge what you will miss. If you have children, involve them in this process – ask them how would they like to end the Beijing chapter? Be sure to revisit favorite spots in Beijing: a last toboggan slide down Mutianyu, a final stroll in Jingshan Park, a farewell feast of Peking Duck. All those memories will make a great family photo album and will serve as a memento for your final months in Beijing.
• Keep an open mind
Relocating back home might affect some children more than others. Inform your kids about the move as soon as you can and encourage everybody to speak honestly about their feelings. The sense of loss experienced during repatriation can take many shapes: mild shock, anger, sadness, fear and anxiety. Try to change these feelings into excitement or relief – point out that you’ll be reuniting with old friends and family. While acknowledging strong and painful emotions, don’t neglect to pack in some optimism – focus on positive affirmations about being immersed in your home culture and living closer to family.
• Tackle the tangible
While you can’t control your family’s cultural adjustment, you can take initiative in completing the straightforward steps to relocating as soon as possible. While you should have reasonable expectations of yourself and others in the family, don’t wait for the last minute to organize your move – this will only add to your anxiety and fear about returning home. If you start going crazy with to-do lists, opt for a two-month action plan including SMART goals (specific / measurable / attainable / realistic / time-bounded) and start delegating responsibilities within the family and possibly your relocation agent. For tips, use the web to find useful checklists for your pre-move planning.
• Plan for work re-entry
Don’t wait until you’ve unpacked your boxes before researching your work options back home. Expat spouses might be apprehensive about future work opportunities, and preparation will help assuage this anxiety. List the transferable skills you have gained while living abroad and update your CV. Integrate achievements and skills related to paid work but also to non-paid activities (such as volunteering for charities and participating in PTA).
The working partners in the relationship may also face some setbacks. Expect repatriation to be challenging and that employers might not fully utilize your newly gained skills upon your return.
In both cases, research your future market, identify the opportunities that are waiting for you and establish or re-establish contacts and networks.
• Rediscover home
After living abroad, look at your return home as a chance to rediscover your home country. See everything as new, observe what’s changed, look at the differences between the two cultures and feel connected to the people. And for those who never fully mastered Mandarin, everyday errands such as grocery shopping or seeing a doctor will feel effortless.
Don’t expect your old friends to relate to your international experiences. Your time abroad was likely full of enriching cultural and life-changing experiences, but unfortunately, you’ll find that those who haven’t lived abroad may not fully understand. Be assured that your experience in China has armed you with unique life and coping skills so you are well prepared for future challenges! And who knows? Those future adventures might bring you back to China sooner than you expect.
Jasmine Keel is the founder and managing director of INSPIRED, a comprehensive Life and Career Transition support for China that
offers coaching. Repatriation workshops for expat spouses are held Wednesdays at Grand Hills. Full details at