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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When It Hurts to Leave

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Home. For some expats, the idea of it looms during their stay abroad.

Home isn't where they've been posted, it's the place they came from, where they belong. It's an idealized opposite to a difficult life overseas.

But returning home after foreign service can be far more troubled than such expatriates anticipate, psychologists and experts say. Adults can't simply step back into their old lives, and for children who grew up overseas, the home of their parents may be completely alien.

"Most people moving to new countries -- they understand there will be cultural differences," said Dr. Anne Copeland, executive director of The Interchange Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. "And all the time they're living in another country, they're thinking and saying unconsciously, 'I don't really understand what's going on here, but I'll go home where once again I'm mainstream and fit right in.'"

"And they're surprised when after one or two years, they've changed like everyone, and changed dramatically because of their experience, and so has home, and so have their friends."

Returnees must grapple with culture shock like in any new cultural environment, Copeland said. Just as expats arriving overseas are subject to a cycle of initial euphoria, then an extended period of low moods, adaptation and finally adjustment, so can it strike after the journey back.

The changes to a person during their stint abroad may be minor, but enough to herald a feeling of discombobulation, or non belonging.

"You've been affected by all your experiences," said Jo Parfitt, the author of five books on expat issues. "I now cook with dates, as I did in the Middle Eat. I'm used to people taking shoes off in the house, like in Norway. When you go home, you find that you don't fit in anymore. "

And there are losses, like friends left behind, or a certain freedom you had away from the place everyone knows you. Material benefits -- higher wages and assistance with housing and school payments -- are given up. Also, perhaps hope is lost, said Ruth Van Reken, author of a book on children who grow up abroad.

"You lose the dream of the world you're going to go to: 'When I go back, it will be wonderful. Life will be great.'"

It's common for people who lived abroad to feel stifled by old friends who are uninterested, perhaps, in hearing stories or looking at photos of a place that means nothing to them. Some returnees realign their friendship groups, and elect to spend time with other former expats.

The benefits of having lived abroad usually outweigh any problems, Copeland and Van Reken said. Intercultural and language skills have been gained, and they're valued by employers: A 2006 survey by U.S. executive recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles found that 80 percent of FTSE 100 CEOs had experience of international assignments.

"Just recognize that [reverse culture shock] is a known phenomenon, that lots of people go through this and you're not crazy," suggested Copeland.


Mikhail Fomichev / Itar-Tass
Going home after a foreign posting can cause feelings of loss.
For children who've spent their developmental years away from their passport country, returning home might herald a crisis of identity. They're known as 'third-culture kids,' integrating elements of their parent's culture and the one they grew up in, without having full ownership of either.

"I'm from anywhere and nowhere all at the same time," said Skye Fiedler, 28, a Moscow teacher who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Switzerland. "I'm from wherever I am at the time."

Fiedler only spent a few summers in Colorado, the place her teacher parents identified as home. She speaks with an American accent, but says she would never live there. Moving to Minnesota for college, she said she was a "hidden immigrant" -- she possessed little of the cultural knowledge her peers did, though she seemed no different to them.

"What do you do when the car breaks down?" she said.

"I got there and had to do everything by myself -- check book, insurance on my own, find a job on my own. All that safety net, nuclear family plus extended family plus friends, all gone. No one there to help you. All this sink or swim in a place that was really bizarre, where you can kind of fit in and hide it."

Van Reken said many third-culture kids had to deal with unresolved grief later in life for a world they suddenly lost -- as they would if they'd been unable to grieve for a family member.

"I realized than when I left Nigeria at age 13," she said, "my world died but it never had a funeral."