Monday, April 11, 2016

I am a Triangle: Thoughts on Repatriation and Reverse Culture Shock


I haven't felt like myself since we left Zurich. At first, a lot of things could account for this phenomenon: new baby, chaotic, miserable work situation, moving across the US just 11 months after we moved across the world. Those things definitely don't make for feeling like oneself. But then, the dust settled, we got into a routine, and the feeling persisted. So I went searching. We really are so lucky to live in the age of the Internet. It can be downright magical.



Last week, I took the laptop along with us to Oregon, but only opened it once to do a "Find my iPhone" alert. It certainly wasn't the plan, but it turned out that a week away from the blogosphere was exactly what I needed. With all of that time and brain space, I did something I can't believe I hadn't done sooner. I opened up Google (on my phone;) and started searching for stories, articles and resources on repatriation and reverse culture shock. I can't believe it took me this long to realize that reverse culture shock is what I'm experiencing and why I feel so out of sorts. 


Maybe I had tried, but never used the right search terms, because the first article that I found was in the Wall Street Journal, entitled "Repatriation Blues: Expats Struggle with the Dark Side of Coming Home." I nearly cried when I read the line, "Many expats coming home go through a period of grief...until they “give in to the homesickness” for their host country". Honestly, it felt like it was written especially for me. How simple. Predictable even. But the sense of validation it gave me was real. I continued reading and next came to a first-person account from a woman who said that after repatriating, it took her two years to feel human again. I get that. I feel like a part of me has died and is gone forever. It hasn't quite been two years yet; maybe it could still come back again?


From that article, I went down the rabbit hole that is the Internet to a blog post called "I am a Triangle" by a woman named Naomi Hattaway. Oddly enough, the post was published on my birthday in 2013. If only I had read it then! The idea behind I am a Triangle is simple. Imagine there is a person from circle country who boards a plane and moves across the world to square country. She writes,
Circle Citizen now lives in the midst of Square Settlers, and he or she may adapt to a degree, but will never become a truly Square Settler. At the same time, this Circle Citizen will also start to lose a bit of his/her Circle culture. The normal circle things start to blend together with the new square culture.  
The major holidays in Circle Country might dissipate a bit to allow for the celebration of Square festivals. Favorite comfort foods that remind her of Circle Country give way to the acceptance of new Square foods. The Circle culture never quite gives way to the new Square norms and at the same time doesn’t go away completely either.  
He or she slowly – and seemingly unconsciously – evolves into something completely different. The transformation to a Triangle Tenant begins. Being a Triangle means you have some of your original Circle culture mixed with some of your newly adopted Square culture. You are no longer 100% Circle, but you’ll never be 100% Square. You are left – almost hanging – somewhere in the middle.

Okay, stop right there. That is exactly it. I am a triangle. But she doesn't stop there, she goes on,

Now, imagine that after some time, this Triangle Tenant hops on yet another plane and returns to Circle Country. This Triangle doesn’t revert to the previous Circle status just because repatriation has happened and he has landed home. This Triangle remains forever a Triangle.

Fascinating, right? I highly encourage you to read the entire post (with illustrations!) on Naomi's blog.



Even though I had begun to arrive at all of these conclusions on my own, it all just seemed too crazy or dramatic to really be true. I realized at the end of last summer, that since living abroad, we were doomed to a life of always missing someone or somewhere. Then in January, when I ordered my business cards, I couldn't settle on listing one city, but instead had to list Zurich and Spokane, resulting in the realization that I am a multi-local.


So where does that leave us? Well, to be honest, it leaves us in limbo. But it's comforting in a way to know that as triangles, we are never going to find that feeling of home ever again, so we officially no longer need to keep searching for it. It's strangely liberating! I feel free to enjoy the wonderful things about being in Spokane without worrying that we need to make a decision and be sure that we're staying before putting down roots or creating a network beyond family. Somehow as we wind our way along this weird path, we will know what to do. A year from now, we might be preparing to move abroad again, or we might be buying a house. Who knows!? But the past is behind us. We are not the same people we once were. We're triangles now.


Are you a triangle? Have you found a way to be comfortable hanging in the middle? What worked for you? You might be interested in joining the I Am A Triangle Facebook Group as well!

(Sweet photos of me and Coco by J, circa 2012)

13 comments:

  1. I heart this. I wish you the best of luck in your journey. And remember - no one fits 100% anywhere! Because let's be honest, even if the US is "square" - there are a gazillion different versions of that square around. Same goes for switzerland. Think of adjusting to your life back in the US as adjusting to life in a "new to you" country - cause really that's what it is!!! Best of luck.

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    1. I love the idea of thinking of this as a new-to-me country! I also tried, while in college, to pretend I was just visiting the town I lived in. But I can't do it!!! So I guess we'll just settle in for the time being and see what happens! Somehow that seems more possible than it had before. So nice! xoxo

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  2. I can relate to being a triangle. After years of living in Mexico, my family had to return due to some unfortunate events. I was so depressed and felt more like Mexico was home than the US. It's now been 8 years. 8. And I still feel like a triangle sometimes. I still mix my English and Spanish, I still crave authentic Mexican food and I still expect Americans to behave more like Mexicans. I don't know that one ever truly goes back to being 100% apart of one country. Once you've given your heart to another country, it can only be shared with another. But never completely given away. I am a proud triangle. Thank you for sharing your experience!

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    1. I love that you mention how you expect Americans to behave like Mexicans. I expect Americans to behave like Swiss people ALL THE TIME. It's so frustrating when they don't. Another thing that is hard is when I expect them NOT to act like Swiss people and then they do. One lesson learned - there are jerks everywhere, circle, square, whatever! ;)
      Part of your heart is definitely in Mexico, JuliAnne, just as part of mine is in Zurich. I'm happy you're proud to be a triangle!!! xoxo

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  3. Definitely a triangle over here, and we only lived abroad for two years! Living in CH changed us for the better, but also spoiled us in so many ways. Other than my family, I find it difficult connect with anyone other than other triangles!

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    1. Living in Switzerland ruins us. Completely!!! Glad to be triangles together. xoxo

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  4. I love this blog post!! Triangles unite!

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    1. That makes my day, Naomi! Thank you. xoxoxo

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  5. There's a travel writer (though I hesitate to call him that, it's not really traditional travel writing) that I love named Pico Iyer. He writes about this sense of dislocation and "middle-ness" where you no longer relate to the old home and don't quite fit when you return. I lived abroad for many years too and felt this same sense of loss. One thing that you did not seem to feel is that you (as an expat) never really fit completely with your adopted country either. Anyway. Iyer is fascinating. You should check out "The Global Soul," in particular.

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    1. I am going to get "The Global Soul" straight away. Thank you for recommending it, Shannon! I agree with you about the middle-ness. Even though we loved Zurich and really changed and adapted to a great degree, we were of course, never Swiss and never could be. I think that is part of the reason we moved home, for a sense of belonging and to ensure a shared cultural identity with out children. Since realizing I am a triangle, I also realize that because of living in Ireland and Canada as a kid, I am also a third culture kid. HA! So, I think that worrying about that is a moot point. Just plain having a good relationship with our children is a better focus. ;) Thanks again for chiming in! xoxo

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  6. I keep wondering whether I will feel more at home and rooted when we move back to Canada. The 6 years we have so far spent in Amsterdam, we have always felt like "oh we will only be here a couple more years". As a very homebody person, this sense of temporariness is not entirely comfortable, but I'm deeply aware that we haven't any obvious place to return to in Canada. Family is far flung anyway and I know the car culture in particular will be very hard for us anywhere we choose. Though maybe the unexpected bits of reverse culture shock will be the most jarring because we won't be even intellectually prepared for them.

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    1. Do you have a choice in going back? If so, do you want to go back or does it feel inevitable? That inevitability operated on us and I wish we hadn't allowed it to...sigh! Best of luck. I think knowing that there is an adjustment to be made is so helpful. You won't be going into it blind. xoxo

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  7. We moved to Basel last January and have been home (to the States) twice since then. I definitely felt a bit like a Triangle already, but I know it will be even more pronounced when we eventually repatriate.

    Good luck <3

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