Repatriating? Don't talk about that.

January 9, 2018



A funny thing happens when you repatriate: Very quickly, you learn not to talk about your expat life.

EVER.


No one is interested because it's over and that part of your life is history, so why would you keep on talking about it? And more often than not, they're also offended because they can't help but feel that you're bragging about a several-years-long vacation you just took. Of course, everyone goes on vacation sometimes. You weren't on vacation as an expat, except when you actually were, but it was normal everyday life, just somewhere else! No one wants to hear about it. 



Because you feel like you can't talk about it, and because nothing around you resembles anything you had during your expat life, it's almost like it's gone. Poof. It never happened. All those memories have nowhere to reside. Talking about it is the only way to keep it alive, but when you do, even in the most innocent and genuine of ways, people are turned off, as if you're putting on airs or being pretentious. So you don't and it's the most disorienting thing to have several years of your life erased, and along with them a huge piece of your identity. It hurts like hell.


I can remember so clearly the first time I stopped myself mid-sentence from saying something completely reasonable and in-context about my expat life. We had only been back in the States for a few weeks when J and I were on a dinner cruise on Lake Superior. As we set sail, I looked at him and started to say, "The last time we were on a boat was --" But I stopped myself before I said "in Venice!" and instead said, "before Theo was born!" I just knew saying the former wouldn't go over well. Still, it felt weird to have to edit out the truth in order to avoid awkwardness.


It has definitely made repatriation a lot harder for me not being able to talk about it. It's made it a sad, lonely and isolating experience. Of course, no one is to blame. People don't get together and coordinate reactions to expat stories and conspire to force repats into silence by being so disinterested and offended by their stories. It's just a natural, seemingly universal reaction. But I can't help but wonder if I might have had an easier time settling in and envisioning my future here if that hadn't been the case? I guess we'll never know.

Are you a repat or an expat? How does it go over for you when talking with friends and family about your experiences abroad?

Join the conversation!

  1. As a recent repat, I've had people seem very defensive or offended when I mention something I miss or liked. It's like they have to protect their sense of superiority of their home. It's such a huge formative experience that it is hard not to talk about comparisons or ways you've changed. But unlike say comparing life before and after parenthood, few are understanding of one's need to process the experience.

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    1. AMEN, Allison. It's as life-changing as parenthood. Such a good comparison I hadn't thought of. And yet no one allows you the space to process. So frustrating! :( I'm simultaneously saddened and relieved to hear your experience has been the same. Sigh. And you are so right that people feel a need to protect their sense of superiority of their home. I thought that was just a typical American response, but Canadians, too?! It really is universal. You're not alone! And thank you for being here. xoxoxo

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    2. It's definitely universal! I experienced the same with friends in Australia after moving home from Switzerland. In fact, even now as an expat living in the US, when friends from home visit or when I'm chatting with them on Skype I get "corrected" a lot when I use an American word over an Australian one!

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  2. We have been back from CH for 7.5 years now (!) and were *only* abroad for 2 years, but I totally get this. My mom and stepdad are just about the only people who like to hear about our life there (still!) because they really enjoyed their visit. My husband and I talk about it all the time and even though our time there was so short, it really was a formative time. Most of my friends here are expats or repats, so that helps. Our really good friends here are Brazilian and we met them in Zurich, so our conversations always end up back at experiences in Switzerland, but they are still expats and likely will never repatriate their native Brazil, so they don't quite get what Isaiah and I are still going through. At least my husband and I totally get each other!

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    1. You're so lucky you have lots of fellow repeats and expats around you, Amanda! It most definitely eases the isolation factor. I'm glad you have that. And ditto on the husband factor. I'm so glad at least J and I are on the same page and understand one another. Good reminder! xoxo

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  3. This is interesting to read - and I'm sorry to hear its been so challenging for you! I'm American (and half French), lived in Senegal for six years, and moved to London a year ago - which is like, half-repatriating? It's definitely more Western here and reminds me of my native Boston, but its still a new experience and not my home country. I relate the most to what you describe when I'm home for the holidays with my childhood friends who have a bit of that superiority/insecurity when it comes up. But overall I'd say it helps that my husband and I naturally surround ourselves with fellow and former expats, and that my family travels and is multicultural as well... so it isn't such a taboo topic. But sometimes I do feel weird in London telling new friends... oh yeah, I lived in Africa for 6 years! Its almost too unexpected to broach/explain in small talk.

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    1. Oh, Kim. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you have not half-repatriated at all!!! ;) You are simply an expat in a new locale. If you do ever decide to move home be prepared to be SHOCKED out of your skin. It definitely blindsided me, so I'm trying to help others avoid being so unprepared as best I can. Enjoy London and your expat circle and travel. You're living the life! Also, I can definitely see how you'd avoid mentioning having lived in Africa for 6 years in small talk situations. That's not one people here every day. Thank you for reading and thank you so much for commenting. I'm so glad you're here!! xoxo

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    2. Fair point! ;) I suppose its just a very, very different expat experience and feels much less culturally challenging than living in Senegal (at least when I first got there) with a much less visible expat circle (to me). In London, we don't run in a specific expat circle - we feel more a part of the generally international tapestry that IS the city. (And I can say that's why we love it here, because we fit right in!) Both my husband and I come from two countries - me half French, half American, he half Lebanese, half Senegalese. So the repatriation question is super interesting! Where would we even repatriate to (if/when we do)? Will one of us always be an expat? Is there a point at which you're no longer an expat? I was definitely still an expat in Senegal after 6 years ;) Its been interesting being back in an Anglophone country which is second nature and very comfortable for me but a major adjustment for my husband. There are so many intersecting personal and environmental factors at play - language, culture, racial identity, demographic make-up and more. Lots to think about! I so appreciate you shedding light on the issue and provoking a lot of thought on repatriation in general. I wish your family luck navigating the ongoing and challenging process!

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  4. I've had pretty mixed experiences with this. When we moved back to Australia from Switzerland I was so sure that friends and family would want to know about our life over there. Nope! Every time I mentioned something about Switzerland I was met with one of those "here we go... she's going to brag about her fabulous life in Switzerland" looks. Sure, I wasn't working when I was in Switzerland and we did get to travel to some amazing places, but in general life in Zurich had been harder for me. Not working meant that I didn't make any connections (you know how hard making friends in Zurich can be) and it was pretty lonely for the most part - although definitely a wonderful experience overall. It really hurt that friends back home didn't want to hear about my life in Switzerland and it definitely felt like it became a taboo to talk about it. This only made my expat life feel more lonely. Fast forward a few years later and most of my friends had spent a year or two living in the UK (working holidays in the UK are really common for young Australians as we're eligible for a special visa) and they all wanted to talk about their experiences once they got home. Unlike after my expat experience, everyone seemed keen to hear their stories. I'm not sure if it was because quite a few of them had the same experience, or the fact that they'd been living in an English speaking country that didn't feel quite so removed from home, but there was definitely something different about it. I was truly excited to hear about their experiences but I've got to say I did kind of resent that I hadn't been met with such positivity. Now that we're expats once again in the US, my experiences have been very different. I guess it's not really the same because I'm still a foreigner, but here in Berkeley so many people have been expats at some point in their life (surprisingly, quite a few in Zurich) or are currently expats, and they all seem genuinely interested in each other's experiences. I guess when you're talking to others who have been (or are currently in) the same situation no one takes it as being pretentious.

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    1. That sounds very frustrating. I think the fact that it's attainable for everyone perhaps makes the UK stories less threatening? Just a thought. I love that you have an international circle in Berkeley and lots of repat/expat friends. That is really nice to have lots of people around you who understand. Hooray for that! xo

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  5. Love this post! It really is a struggle!
    I've found myself often apologising for 'bringing it up' again. I often get the sense people think i'm being snobbish when I talk about my expat life but at the same time I can't just pretend it never happened....it was the best time of my life and it changed me. It made me who I am today. They're such fond memories and I really can't wait to do it again. Blogs like this and forums have really helped. I've noticed most people say it takes 6 months to a year to feel better about repatriation but it's been over three years and for me I still feel as homesick as ever (some days more than others).

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    1. I'm right there with you on the timeframe. In fact, this is something I've been asking myself a lot lately. How long is long enough? When do you just say to yourself it's not going to happen and decide to be an expat again? I guess I already decided that! But having things fall through made me think it wasn't meant to be. Still the feeling nags at me. It's so crazy. I'm glad I'm not the only one, though! ;) xo

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    2. I think deep down we know if we're in the right place. Life is what we make it. Keep chasing your dreams :)

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  6. So interesting to read. Being German, I spent a year in the United States during college and when I came back, I felt the same way you described. Nobody wanted to hear about it, except other exchange students, I often got the feeling that people felt I was bragging about my experience. But what was and is worse, I often found myself defending America because people here were (and are) so critical when it came to US politics and attitudes, especially during the Bush administration (this was in 2002...). It happened again after the elections last year that I found myself explaining to people here that not all Americans are right wing anti-intellectuals.
    I agree with the others that it's important to find people with similar experiences. Even after all these years I still find myself drawn to people who have studied or worked abroad for a while or have at least travelled a lot or who have an immigrant background. I find it harder to relate to people who have spent all their lives in the same place. So I guess while yes, the expat experience may be alienating sometimes (especially if you're sort of a forced repat), it also spoils you a bit and I admit that sometimes I do feel like other people have missed out on something important if they have never lived abroad. Do you know what I mean? It's not really a feeling of being superior to them, more of wondering why others don't see the beauty of it and all the advantages it gives you. You should definitely try to seek out people with a similar experience and talk to them so your memories aren't lost. Best wishes!

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    1. Thank you, Meike. I have a German friend, Doris (I featured her in my Expat Mamas series a few years ago) who always had in her email signature this quote from Saint Augustine: "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page." Makes sense to me!

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  7. Wow, so I get this experience even when we go back to Australia even for a three week holiday -- people ask how it ask, ask about the snow and skiing, and then are not interested. Whereas this now is my total identity, and I am a completely different person -- I can never explain that. God forbid we were to ever return :o I really sympathise with you!

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    1. Easy solution, Johanna! Just don't move back. ;) xx

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  8. My sister lived in Slovenia for several years, with her husband and his family. She went through a lot of these feelings when she moved back home, though they were very muddied by the much more widely understood and "socially acceptable" feelings she had about the divorce that precipitated the return home. She was surprised to struggle so much with repatriation, since she had struggled a lot in Slovenia - the language was very hard to learn, and they lived in a small Alpine town rather than a metropolitan area so she was the only American around and just felt very "visible" at all times, almost like a town character, or caricature. Of course there were good times, good things, good people - but as you certainly know, the difficulty about repatriating isn't about whether you "liked" or "didn't like" your life abroad but much more simply and broadly about the fact that it was your life, a whole era in your life.

    My sister never really "settled" back down anywhere - she lived here in NY for a while, then took a job out in Vegas, then got a job traveling the country, and now she and her husband have bought a house in a small mountain town in Colorado, with no real intention of staying there permanently, but they like it for now. I suspect that it is easier to feel like an "ex-New Yorker" or an "ex-Vegas dweller" than an expat, and your post makes me wonder if that is a comfort to her. How much easier it is to talk about living in any of the various American cities she has lived in, than in Slovenia; and how much more accessible, and socially acceptable, that makes her memories and feelings about previous eras of her life.

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  9. This is funny....as someone who has always wanted to live abroad, I would LOVE LOVE to hear your stories! I find other cultures and ways of life so fascinating, so these conversations would be right up my alley.

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