The Eternal Expatriate: Why Many Repatriates Feel The Desire to Go Back Abroad

By CHANTAL PANOZZO from Wall Street Journal


The author’s American family celebrated Swiss Independence Day in Chicago with some alphorn music on Aug. 1. Chantal Panozzo

CHICAGO — Should I go back to Switzerland?I ask this question every time potential American employers narrow their eyes when I ask for four weeks of vacation time, the legal Swiss minimum. I ask this question every time a motorist cuts me off when I’m riding a bike around my Chicago suburb. And I ask this question every month, when I insure my toddler’s health at a rate four times the Swiss cost of doing so.Repatriation isn’t easy.

Lindsey McLean, an American repatriate now living in Spokane, Wash., echoes my sentiment.

“Some days I want to have a pity party for myself. Other times I’m positive. Other days I’m angry. Looking forward one day and back the next day. It’s a real roller coaster of emotions. Going abroad is like this too. But the highs and lows are even more extreme as a repat,” says Ms. McLean.

According to Dr. Nan M. Sussman, Professor of Psychology and Dean, College of Staten Island, City University of New York, the better you’ve adjusted overseas, the more difficult it is to repatriate.
Welcome to my American living room, where my American husband’s Swiss alphorn leans against the couch, a symbol of both our successful Swiss adjustment and our struggle to readapt to American life.

Many days I want to go back abroad. I am not alone. Even repatriates like American Shawn Adamo, who has been back in the U.S. for 20 years, feel the desire to return abroad.

“It’s like dress styles. It goes away but always comes back,” says Mr. Adamo. Now that his two children are older, Mr. Adamo, who lived in Gabon from 1991 to 1993, is looking for opportunities that can take him back abroad to what he calls “a great lifestyle.”

Carol Merchasin, author of This is Mexico, felt the similar draw to live abroad later in life, after living in Greece for 3-1/2 years in her early 20s. Decades later, after repatriating to the U.S. for many years, she moved to Mexico.

“I missed something about the foreign experience. That sense of being alert and awake because you’re an outsider. I never lost the desire to experience that again,” says Ms. Merchasin.

Other repatriates can’t wait 20 years to return to the expat life. For Australian Franca Serratore, who left Switzerland after a five-year residency in 2008, one year back in Australia was enough.

“The first eight months I was back in Australia I felt weird. Like foreigner in my own country. I was back in Switzerland a year later. I think you need at least a year or two to adjust to your own country. But the question is, do you have the patience?”

Dr. Sussman’s research confirms that it takes at least a year to feel comfortable at home again. In addition, she adds that a successful repatriation also largely depends on the country the expat is returning to..

According to Dr. Sussman, expats returning to Hong Kong, for example, have few problems repatriating. Hong Kong society is welcoming of people with various cultural identities. It used to be a British colony, most people are of Chinese ethnicity, and many have gone overseas. The culture also welcomes a variety of work habits.

On the other hand, Dr. Sussman says, the U.S. is not very flexible about cultural identity. “You have to act 100% American or you’re viewed suspiciously,” she says.

To explain her point, she discusses how President Obama’s childhood is viewed in America. “Obama lived in Indonesia as a child. But instead of Americans viewing this as a positive experience in shaping a child, he’s seen as inauthentic.”

Dr. Mark Goulston, Principal at China Foundations, which coaches expats and repats and focuses on cross-cultural integration between American expats and Chinese workers at Fortune 500 companies in China, has also found American repatriates having difficulty. “

All our client’s friends in Tucson asked her why she went to China and asked her if she ate dog. Her friends seemed so superficial and ignorant that it turned her off about them,” says Dr. Goulston.

This kind of cultural inflexibility spills over into American workplaces—even the very ones that send employees abroad.

“One American I spoke with had worked in Tokyo for an American bank. But when the bank brought him back to New York, he quit within a year because they didn’t take advantage of the knowledge he had gained abroad. Instead, they assigned him to a domestic unit. So he went back to Japan and worked for a different bank instead,” says Dr. Sussman.

Olli, a Finnish expat now living in England, who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons, returned to Finland to care for an ill parent after living for a decade in Norway and then in Germany. He also found the job hunt as a repatriate disheartening.

“My experiences abroad were seen as a threat rather than an advantage,” Olli says.

After his father passed away, Olli returned abroad, satisfied he had answered the question, “Can you go home again?” with a resounding, “No.”

Others, like American Kathleen Cremonesi, author of Love in the Elephant Tent: How Running Away with the Circus Brought Me Home, had successful repatriations.

“They say once you leave you can’t go home again, but I believe you can,” says Ms. Cremonesi. Ms. Cremonesi spent 2-1/2 years in Italy before repatriating to Oregon.

Ms. Cremonesi credits her successful return with her recognition and understanding that things would be different.

“I knew my friends and family had changed while I had been away and I respected that they had had experiences without me too,” says Ms. Cremonesi.

For repatriates who experience high levels of stress, Dr. Sussman advises them to eat well, get enough sleep, exercise, and not drink too much. She also recommends that repats maintain their ties to their former culture to avoid a complete sense of loss. This can mean reading a local paper, getting in touch with expat groups if you live in an urban area, and maintaining linguistic fluency.

Despite having done almost all of these things, however, I still find life as a repatriate challenging. Joel Young, an American repatriate living in Washington State, perhaps sums up the repatriation challenge best: “I feel like I’m doomed to a life of always missing somewhere. Always.”

Like myself, Mr. Young yearns to go back abroad someday too.

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