They say home is where the heart is… but what happens when your heart is in two or more places?
Global citizens are roaming the world, and more than a million Aussies live and work overseas. Back home, workplaces are packed with expats living the Aussie dream. Until recently, I was one of them. But what was so strange about returning to my homeland Norway after a decade on the Aussie shores was that I suddenly felt more like an expat than I ever did in Sydney. What the heck was going on? I had no idea. Suddenly I found myself lost in translation in the country that I had missed for years. I didn’t fit. The surroundings didn’t fit me. I felt trapped, lonely, confused, and homesick… for the beach, my friends, my local barista, heck; I almost missed rush hour in the CBD! When I told an old colleague on Skype, she smiled. “It’s a classic case,” she said, “of re-entry repatriate shock.” I shook my head. “No, not me. I’m used to change! I thrive on it! I’ve never struggled before… I’m an expert expat!” She nodded.
As my own words sank in, I knew she was right. For 14 adventurous years, I had been humming along to Marvin Gaye’s words “wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home”. I had felt a belonging to the big beautiful world. Returning home, I expected to grow deep roots in an instant, but instead, I felt more lost than ever before. The Skype conversation reminded me of the vast literature on the topic – a topic I foolishly had assumed would never apply to me. But according to researchers, returning home is far more stressful than transitioning into the unknown. They call it the reverse culture shock, and ironically, the more successfully you adjusted to expat life, the harder it can be to return. Why? The answer is quite simple – the ones that thrive the most overseas are also the ones that change the most in terms of values, attitudes, behaviours, ideas and perceptions.
Returning back home, they have to integrate this new identity and self with the old surroundings – which of course have also changed. Ouch! This is an issue for more than just me. My good friend – and Naturally’s sub editor Sam – still feels the ache of her life in England after decades at home in Sydney. And this feeling isn’t reserved for international expats; it can feel as violent for the Queenslanders returning to the Sunshine State after years in the Sydney smoke, or the Melbournites returning to their beloved pebble-stoned streets. Because unlike when you move abroad or interstate, returning home doesn’t always bring fresh new beginnings or exotic discoveries. If you relocated with work, the end of your expat life may even bring you back in time into your old role.
You start all over again, and while you made the decision to return for a reason, right here, right now, that doesn’t bring much comfort to the loss you feel, the grief you’re going through, over the life you built and thrived in – and that you left behind. So to all you returned expats out there; ride the storm with me! Allow yourself time to transition. To feel the pain – but with an acceptance that feeling sad is part of the game. Why not bring out that personalised expat toolbox that helped you flourish abroad in the first place?
Approach life the same way as you would when living overseas – with curiosity, enthusiasm, acceptance and importantly, no self-judgment or comparison. If things are getting rough, seek out expat coaching to help build a bridge that allows you to integrate both worlds in your life. Stay true to your values and beliefs, keep up the activities that make you happy, and stay in touch with those who make you shine. Don’t try too hard to fit in though; allow yourself to be different. Dare to be different… to continue as YOU no matter where in the world you are. And remember to have a laugh along the way! After all, wherever you lay your hat, that's your home...