It is now a little over six months since our family repatriated from South East Asia back to Australia. The question I am asked most often is: “Are you settled yet?” Just as Third Culture Kids (TCK) pause to evaluate their audience when asked the question: “where are you from?”, the “are you settled yet?” question prompts the same response in my family members and me. The short answer is “No!” The longer answer requires some explanation.
Moving is regarded as equally as stressful as death and divorce and repatriation is known to be the most difficult of all international transitions. Repatriating is hard. Repatriating is exhausting. Repatriating is a process, not an event. I know this. I have often spoken publically about this. Knowing, however, does not mean avoiding. T.S Elliot said,
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”
…I think he was right!
The process of repatriation began the moment we learned that we would be returning to our “home” country. The knowledge that we were leaving immediately brought about a subconscious loosening of emotional ties – to people, places and possessions. It also brought with it a change in our thinking. For the years we were away, we had consciously made an effort to not dwell on “home” because we didn’t know when or if we would return. Now, we had permission to think and talk about “going home”…the goal of every expat and the one main fact that differentiates a TCK from an Immigrant Kid. Thinking and talking about it as a family, provided time to adjust to the concept, say our farewells, get excited and prepare for the Transition Cycle ahead.
The Transition Cycle
Yes, there is a Transition Cycle when repatriating just as there is when moving to a new host country. It involves four phases – honeymoon, reverse culture shock, entry and re-involvement.
Once on the ground, for our family members, there was an initial Honeymoon phase where we were the centre of attention. It was fabulous catching up with family and friends and enjoying the Australian lifestyle of beaches and BBQs. Everything was going well with our sons adjusting to a new school and working hard at developing new friendships. My husband and I were busy making the necessary steps to get our family “set up” back in Australia and we were oblivious to the fact that people and places had changed. Of course, in hindsight, we knew this must be the case but as an expat, the fond memories we had of what life was like before we left, were the memories that buoyed us on those hard days in our host country.
The slow realization that people (including ourselves) and places had changed whilst we were away, signaled our shift into the Reverse Culture Shock phase. “Home” is a new culture because so much has changed in the years we have been away. Not that we expected it to remain void, but the gap that we left upon our relocation overseas has been filled by new friends and new hobbies and indeed, new ways of life. Life is just so busy here – the majority of families have two working parents, weekday evenings are spent collecting children from various sports or hobbies and the weekends are filled with travelling all over the city ferrying children to and from school sporting commitments before reconnecting and getting organised for the week ahead. Many families have known each other since their children were born, or earlier, and don’t have a “need” to make new friends. There is nothing wrong with any of this. It is we who have to adjust. Now that we’ve been welcomed back, everyone is getting on with their lives so we are left to pick up the pieces and make a new life in our “home” country. How are we going with this, I hear you ask? As I said earlier, it is hard! Actually, it is exhausting and has resulted in us suffering from Cultural Fatigue; that feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from working so hard to adjust and feel like we belong here.
Minute adjustments include everything from deciphering the colloquial language and learning new social norms to educating ourselves about the individual players in the political landscape and catching up on significant Australian events. Even though we have lived here before, we feel like aliens from another planet, learning a whole new way of life. I describe it as a state of chaos. Chaos has the potential to affect us physically, mentally and spiritually. In our case, our physical health has suffered the most. Each member of our family has been sick for what feels like a lifetime, with our youngest suffering the worst – Glandular Fever and Influenza at the same time. Fortunately, he is on the road to recovery now. If I’m being perfectly honest, it has affected us mentally as well. Memory loss and a “fuzzy” feeling in our brains feature from time to time. If you could chart our emotions they would look a lot like a roller coaster!
In contrast, our spiritual health is strong. In fact, it has been central to our capacity to make sense of this chaotic state. Knowing that we are in this place and time for a reason, and that there is a plan for each of us, has been a huge source of comfort and calm. After all, that’s what faith is, isn’t it?
As I mentioned in my introduction, knowing does not mean avoiding. We walked into our repatriation knowing that it would be challenging but also believing that challenges are good. If managed well, challenges help us to develop our problem solving skills and build resilience and, in the right dose, challenges build character and confidence. Transitions are a fact of life in this 21st Century so by working through each step of this transition, it will help our TCKs, and us, to manage future transitions.
Steps we have taken to proactively engage in the repatriation process include:
- Reading lots! See my recommendations at the bottom of this post as a starting point
- Leaving our host country well. Building Pollock’s RAFT before departure
- Reconciling any differences with others,
- Affirming those who have been important to us,
- saying appropriate Farewells to people, places & possessions and
- Thinking ahead – researching and discussing our destination
- Discussing the impact of our time overseas as important foundation stones upon which to continue building our lives
- Watching the new Pixar movie, Inside Out, as a family. Identifying and discussing the important role that each of our emotions play – especially sadness, has given all four of us permission to grieve our losses openly and honestly whilst coming to terms with the new normal in our “home” country. As parents, my husband and I have agreed that we will be real and do our best to model “good grief.”
- Making family meal-time a priority so we connect and share our thoughts, feelings and experiences – the hilarious, the good and the not-so-good of each day
- Extending grace to each other…often.
- Periodically working through Dr Rachel Timmons’ Reacculturation Rubric (2006). Available only from Dr Timmons (see below), I would highly recommend this resource, as a user-friendly self-reflection tool, to help work through the repatriation process. It has been invaluable in helping us to realize that our emotions, thoughts and physical ailments are all quite normal. It has also been a springboard for family discussion – asking questions of ourselves and each other
- Using others’ stumbling blocks as our stepping-stones and vice versa – connecting with other “re-pat” families to share and care. Some of these families we have known from our expat days but others we have met since returning “home.”
Having named and worked through all these steps, we now look forward to embarking on the Entry phase, whereby we will no longer feel in that permanent state of chaos but make the decision that it’s time to become part of this new community and actively go about doing just that. There will still be moments of uncertainty and feeling marginalized but this is a time of optimism, a time when we look for friends, mentors and communities that will help us fulfill our desire to settle, connect with others and function effectively in this “new” culture.
Our goal is to arrive at the Re-Involvement phase. It generally takes between 1 and 3 years to arrive at this point…so we have a way to go! Re-involvement is when we feel like we belong again. We will feel secure and involved in the community and most importantly, where our identity is re-established – not as the individuals we were before we left these shores but the new identity that has developed during our incredible life abroad. I think I will know I have reached this phase when the second dial on my dual time-zone watch is no longer displaying the time in my host country.
Knowledge is Power
In the meantime, we hold fast to the knowledge that repatriation is hard but it is a normal process. Knowing doesn’t mean avoiding but it certainly helps us to pause, take a deep breath and move forward optimisitically. Our exhaustion, physical ailments, thoughts and feelings are all normal and because we know this, it places us in a position to deal effectively with the losses whilst embracing the new experiences. So there you have it, the short and the (very) long answer to that question: are you settled yet?
Knell, M. (2006). Burn-Up or Splashdown: surviving the culture shock of re-entry. 1st ed. Downer’s Grove, USA: Green Press.
Pascoe, R. (2000). Homeward Bound. North Vancouver, BC: Expatriate Press Limited
Pollock, D. & Van Reken, R. (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Amongst Worlds. 3rd ed. Boston, USA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Quick, T. (2010 ). The Global Nomads Guide to University Transition. UK: Summertime Publishing
Schaetti, B. (2006). A Most Excellent Journey. In Pascoe, R. Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World. North Vancouver, BC: Expatriate Press Limited
Sorti, C. (2003). The Art of Coming Home. 3rd ed. Boston MA: Intercultural Press Inc.
Timmons, R, (2006). A Third Culture Reacculturation Rubric: To Assist and Inform Intercultural Transition Process firstname.lastname@example.org
Image – High School Student News. 2015. Reverse Culture Shock. [ONLINE] Available at: http://hs-student-news.ciee.org/2015/06/reverse-culture-shock.html. [Accessed 24 August 2015].