Repatriation: What is reverse culture shock?

Repatriation refers to an expatriate’s return to their home country. While most people have heard of the culture shock which accompanies moving to a new country, the reverse culture shock is rarely spoken of. The psychological, emotional and cultural aspects of reentry can be extremely difficult for some returnees, depending on several factors including how long they have been away from home.

Why is repatriation so difficult?

It is to be expected that spending several years being immersed in a different place with different people, customs, values, languages, foods and even smells will change your identity. You will find that your definition of home shifts from what it used to be as you become accustomed to a new, different way of life: you will form new relationships, opinions and routines. Consequently, when you return to your home country, you will view everything through a completely different lens. For this reason, it is likely that you will find yourself being critical of things you found normal in the past and you may even feel misunderstood, alienated and alone.

In addition to the change in your identity, your home country will have changed too. That is, the physical space will have changed as your town may have grown/shrunk, the people will have changed and even the language may have evolved. These changes further contribute to your feelings of alienation as you find yourself returning to a place you no longer recognise. What we define as home stems from what we find familiar, comforting and what best fits in with our identity. As a result, returnees often have to redefine what home is.

Apart from these changes, what makes the experience of repatriation even more difficult is the fact that your heart is always abroad. Over the years you have spent away from your home country, you have undoubtedly formed strong and meaningful connections with people who you can no longer see and be around. This is difficult and upsetting, especially when paired with the fact that your relationships with people in your home country are probably a lot weaker than they once were.

It can take weeks, months and even years for a returnee to find their footing and feel at home again. Admittedly, it will be a difficult journey and you will have to remain positive. Numerous returnees have given advice on what can be done to alleviate the feelings which accompany repatriation and reverse culture shock:

  • Change how you view home: Viewing your home country as a foreign place with cultural differences which you have to get used to can be helpful.
  • Let go of resistance: Initially, you will feel resistant and critical of the life and people in your home country. It is important that you let go of this resistance and allow yourself to be more open and accepting.
  • Create a multicultural environment: If your hometown is large and multicultural, surrounding yourself with people who understand your feelings and experiences can help ease your reintegration.

Most importantly, have faith and know that everything will work out – even if it does take a little longer than expected.

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