The following handout may be useful to distribute to returned aid workers shortly after their return home.
After working in a different culture, many people find that it takes quite some time to readjust to being back ‘home’. In fact, home may no longer feel like home, as it is so different to what you have become used to.
Although 15% of returned expatriates (‘repatriates’) report that they had positive feelings about returning to their own country (some admitting that they felt relieved to return home), another 25% report having mixed feelings, and 60% report predominantly negative feelings. It is common to feel confused; disoriented; ‘like a fish out of water’; exhausted; frustrated with materialism; overwhelmed by the amount of choice in supermarkets (e.g. by six different brands of diet dog-food!), or to have a sense of loss. Such feelings are sometimes referred to as ‘reverse culture shock’. Some people feel disappointed that expectations they had before they went abroad have not been fulfilled. Others have experienced problems while they have been away, and so have not enjoyed the experience as much as they had hoped. Some people have to return earlier than they expected.
Many repatriates have signs of mild depression for a short period after returning to their own country. These may include a lack of energy; sleeping problems; irritability; difficulty concentrating or making decisions; a change in appetite; tearfulness; feeling unhappy, and feeling overwhelmed by small tasks. Some people find that they think a lot about their experiences overseas, perhaps having pictures about these experiences intruding into their thoughts, or dreaming about them. For other people there is a sense of numbness, and the time abroad seems distant or unreal. Some repatriates feel like they are living in two different worlds, and try to cope by not thinking about their life overseas.
It is important to realise that such symptoms are completely normal after living in a different culture, just as a grieving process is normal and expected after the death of someone you love. Although not everyone has such symptoms, many people do. It is important that you do not criticise yourself for feeling this way, or get depressed about feeling depressed. People who accept their feelings as a normal part of the readjustment process tend to get over them more easily. It often takes between 18 months and three years before people feel completely ‘at home’ again in their own culture. People who adapted most to the culture overseas and were most involved generally take longer than those who were not so involved with the local culture. Rushing back overseas again is generally not a good idea, as this causes more stress, with yet another adjustment, and makes the next re-entry even more difficult. It is generally better to wait until you feel more settled before considering another move, strange as that might sound.
Among the findings of a survey of one group of people who had returned home after spending two years or more working in another country were the following:
Difficult aspects of resettlement: Reported by:
Communicating the overseas experience 58%
Fitting in again 53%
Finding work 41%
Lack of money 32%
Finding accommodation 12%
If you find it difficult to fit in again, you should remind yourself that so do most other repatriates, but they are able to readjust in time.
The most common adjustment difficulty reported was communicating the overseas experience. Most repatriates want to tell their family and friends about the things they have experienced (as otherwise they feel like they are a stranger at home, as no-one really knows them or understands what they have experienced). But communication is often difficult. Be prepared for the fact that many people won’t seem interested in hearing about your experiences abroad, and their eyes may glaze over as soon as you start talking, or they may ask seemingly stupid questions and appear to miss the point. There are a number of reasons for this, and it does not mean that you are boring!
Many people find it hard to imagine life in another culture, and so do not know what to ask (especially if they feel that their questions would reveal their ignorance). Try to imagine how you might react if someone started telling you about a topic you understand little about. You might ‘drift off’, and that is what people tend to do when you start discussing a different culture. Some people may feel that their lives are boring in comparison with your life, and they may choose to opt out of the conversation as they feel unable to compete (and perhaps feel inferior, or jealous of the opportunities you have had). If you have been living in a less developed nation, some people will feel guilty about their own affluent lifestyle, and want to avoid further conversation on the topic.
To deal with these reactions, it is useful to prepare a 20-second description of your lifestyle overseas, and then wait for the response. People who genuinely want to know more will ask you questions. Otherwise, it may be easiest to let the conversation drop. Friends may be eager to tell you their own news. If you listen and ask them questions, they may be willing to listen to you once they have finished talking. People have a limited attention span, so let your stories come out gradually, telling people a bit more each time you see them, rather than trying to share everything at one sitting.
It is worth seeking out people who are interested in your experiences abroad. Otherwise you could feel very isolated and as if your life has two disconnected parts, ‘then’ and ‘now’. It can be worth getting in touch with others who have lived abroad. Repatriates tend to understand each other, even though they may have lived in very diverse places. The organisation you travelled with may be able to put you in touch with other repatriates. Some organisations run conferences, reunions or re-entry seminars for returned overseas workers, which can be a great way of having fun, sharing experiences with people who are interested, and learning that your reactions are normal! Some areas have local groups for repatriates. It might be worth forming one if there is not one already in your area. An advertisement in a local newspaper can be used for publicity. Email and telephone contact can be helpful if there are no local groups.
Whether your experiences were positive, negative or mixed, relating them to someone who understands can help you move on to the next step in your life. As well as talking with friends and family, many people find it helpful to have a more formal debriefing session. Personal debriefing has been defined as “telling your story to someone who understands, until you are heard in such a way as to bring ‘closure’ to your experience, so that you are free to move on”. Personal debriefing is recommended for all repatriates, as it can help you reflect on your experiences overseas, clear up any remaining issues, and enhance self-understanding and personal growth. To request personal debriefing, contact the organisation you were working for, or a travel health clinic.
If you experience symptoms of stress or depression, take special care of yourself. Do not berate yourself, as such symptoms are a normal part of re-entry. Moving cultures is exhausting. It is important that you take sufficient time to rest and relax on your return. You may need to sleep more than normal. Try to avoid making major decisions until you have had some time to readjust. Even if people keep asking, “Are you going to go back?” or “When are you going to get a job?”, do not feel forced into making decisions too soon. It may be helpful to turn down some invitations at first, and take things slowly for a while. On the other hand, it is important that you do not avoid all forms of activity. Prioritise the things you want (or need) to do.
Doing things which you enjoy and which give you a sense of achievement can help defeat feelings of depression. Spend time with supportive people, and look for opportunities to laugh. Moderate exercise, like walking, helps to reduce feelings of stress, and acts as a natural anti-depressant. To look after your health, try to eat a balanced diet. Avoid increasing your alcohol intake or using recreational drugs or excessive caffeine, as these can interfere with your readjustment. Cry if you feel like crying – it is a healthy thing to do. Do not take on too much, but set yourself small, achievable goals. Recognise when you are under stress and do things which help you to relax. Accidents are more common at times of tiredness and stress, so take extra care, especially when driving (remembering that driving in your country of residence may be quite different from driving in the country you visited).
Try not to dwell on negative thoughts. Think about what you achieved and learned through your time overseas. This is not to deny that there may also have been negative experiences, but it can help you to see that the experience has not been meaningless. Some of the positive results which people often mention are new friendships; being of help to others; personal growth; a deeper appreciation of the simple things of life; a sense of achievement, and greater confidence.
If you have no difficulty thinking about the positives overseas, but feel very negative about returning home, try to remind yourself of the good aspects of being back home (and some of the things which you missed or did not like about being overseas). Try to see both cultures in balance, the good and the bad. Consider writing down your thoughts and feelings about your time abroad. If you like to write, also write down how you are feeling now that you are back. If you do not like writing, find someone to talk to about it instead. Research has shown that writing or talking about thoughts and feelings has both physical and emotional benefits.
After having allowed yourself some space to adjust, begin to slowly build up your level of activity again. If you are spending a lot of time alone, gradually seek out ways to meet people. For instance, could you invite friends or neighbours round, or go to a gym, or join a club, or get involved with a church or other group, or volunteer to help with a charity?
There are lots of ways you can maintain links with the culture you were living in. One is to see if you can meet people from that culture within your home community. Is there a local society for people from that region? Can you offer hospitality to students from that area? In addition, try to stay in touch with some of the friends you made overseas, and keep up with news of any project you were working on. Does the organisation you were with have a website, bulletin board or newsletter? Keeping in touch can create a sense of belonging. If you were working for justice, environmental issues or poverty issues abroad your may wish to channel your skills and interest into continuing to addressing such issues from where you are now.
If you want to return to your professional work but have lost confidence because you have been away for so long, consider going on courses to update your skills. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
If you feel physically unwell, go to your doctor and tell them where you have been, so that they can test for any relevant illnesses (some of which can appear months after your return home). If you are worried about the possibility of being HIV positive, seek confidential counselling to determine whether you would like to be tested. If, after you have been home for more than six weeks, you still have recurrent thoughts about your experiences overseas which are interfering with your ability to get on with life, seek professional help. Psychological treatment can help you overcome such difficulties and feel more in control again. Ask your doctor, your employer or a travel clinic to arrange this. Also speak to your doctor if sleeping problems persist, or if symptoms of depression prevent you from getting on with life, or if you have other concerns about your reactions. Realising when you could benefit from outside help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Seek help with practical matters as well, if this is likely to be of benefit. Careers advisors and financial advisors can help make adjustment easier. On the financial issue, you may find it useful to draw up a budget, as most repatriates have to be careful with money at least initially.
Although this description of difficulties might sound very negative, most people readjust relatively easily after they return to their country of residence, and most say that they would not have wanted to miss the experiences they had overseas, despite any negative feelings they may have on return. Even those who experience depression or stress symptoms completely recover when they receive help. It is important to remember:
Having some difficulties fitting in when you first return is normal
Adjustment takes time
It is best if you do not bottle up your feelings or criticise yourself for having them
Talking about your experiences can help
If you are worried about any difficulties, or if symptoms persist, contact someone for help
You have coped with transitions in the past, and you will get through this too.
You may find the following books and websites useful:
Knell, M. Burn up or splash down: Surviving the culture shock of re-entry. Waynesboro GA: Authentic Books, 2007.
Pascoe R. Homeward Bound: a spouse’s guide to repatriation. North Vancouver, BC: Expatriate Press, 2000. (Especially written for non-working partners of those working abroad.)
Pollock DC, Van Reken RE. Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009. (Excellent material on growing up in another culture – useful for older children and parents.)
Storti C. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press; 1991. (Excellent general book on re-entry, including specific sections on exchange students, volunteers, military personnel, and missionaries and their families.)
General expatriate sites
Military personnel and their families
www.womenoftheharvest.com (for women)
Expatriate families / partners
Third Culture Kids (TCKs) – i.e. expatriate children or teenagers, and adults who grew up overseas
Children of missionaries
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