Expat repat - four thoughts for a smoother landing back home

Updated: May 5

Visiting The Great Ocean Road for the weekend - one beautiful benefit of living back home in Melbourne

In the face of COVID-19, more expats than usual are expediting plans to repatriate themselves. This article shares some of my lessons-learned after one year back home.

The expatriate life has changed. As developing markets mature, multinational companies increasingly rely on local employees to lead key senior functions. Notwithstanding the impacts of globalization (which undoubtedly created more expats), the importance of localization is driving businesses to develop tailored solutions for increasingly affluent overseas markets. Short-term impacts, like the current coronavirus crisis, stem or reverse the flow of expats, and other expats just see their time overseas reach a natural conclusion. The result is a continual flow expats with traditional expat packages returning home – a process known as repatriation.

When I returned home to Melbourne in March 2019, after more than 11 years as an expat in Seoul, I thought I was well prepared. In reality, however, I underestimated how accustomed I was to the Korean way of living and working.

Here are four things that expats should factor into the repatriation process:

1.      It will take a while to re-establish your old networks and to grow new ones

It will take time for relationships to be back to where they were before you left. People will have developed closer bonds with others while you were away. Therefore, be prepared to make the effort by reaching out to people, being the one who follows up, and seeking out new introductions; you probably have some experience in this area as an expat. However, making friends as an expat is relatively easy – you already have the expat experience in common. It takes more effort back home!

Before arrival, contact close friends to let them know you’re coming home. In conversations, listen to figure out what’s important to people. While you no doubt have some great tales about your overseas adventures, it is unwise (and a bit self-indulgent) for those stories to be the basis for all your conversations. Also, be prepared for some people to contact you soon after your return saying, “I can’t believe you haven’t contacted me since you’ve been home!” You may forget to reach out to a couple of people; people often place the onus on you to initiate contact. Consider making a list of people to contact, so you avoid unintentionally slighting anyone.

2.      Remember that it could cost more to maintain the kind of lifestyle you’re accustomed to

Many expats lead glamorous lifestyles. Well-heeled ones can enjoy diplomat-type perks such as housing (often in foreign enclaves), drivers, domestic helpers, and other luxuries that you may not be inclined to pay for (or afford) yourself. Expat salaries are often lucrative. Given the cost, it’s not surprising that companies are sending expats home!

Unless you lived in a very high-cost city or come from a low-cost locale, most things will probably cost more back home. Little things like taxi fare and bottled water, and bigger things like a trip to the dentist or an evening out for dinner and a movie – they can all cost more. I hope that you saved some money while overseas, because when you get back, you’re probably going to need to buy some big-ticket items like a car and home appliances. Make a realistic budget for what the reentry phase will cost, and for on-going living expenses. If arriving home to a new job, enquire about a relocation allowance before accepting the position.

3.      Don’t expect people to be impressed by what you’ve achieved overseas

Your overseas experience may not be valued as highly as the equivalent local experience. Fair enough, too: it can be hard for people to relate to something that has no relevance in their world, and while you’ve been kicking goals overseas, they’ve been getting on with their own lives.

For example, if you’ve made a sale to a company overseas, that’s not going to be as valuable as if you’d done an equivalent deal for that same company at home; the local experience is more relevant. Similarly, if you managed a business with X number of employees while overseas, it’s not going to as impressive to most people as if you had managed a business with X employees at home. It may well be more difficult to accomplish these feats overseas (in your opinion, anyway), but it’s simply not as relevant to the local market.

This doesn’t mean you should discount your experience. Instead, see it in the context of your new surroundings. You could point out how your expertise is relevant to specific situations, or offer ideas and solutions that draw from your experience. Just be mindful not to brag or big-note yourself: come from a position of humility and look for ways to help.

4.      Consider the impact that the move will have on your family

If you’re not single, it’s not just you who is going through the repatriation; it’s your significant other, too (and possibly children). Try not to over-burden family with your work issues. Instead, identify common challenges and support each other through the readjustment.

My wife and I met in Seoul, and she has moved to Melbourne for the first time (a different experience to repatriation). I have tried not to burden her with my repatriation pains (but, of course, we’re there to support each other when needed); if anything, put your family’s challenges first, as helping them may put your own adjustments in context.

On the other hand, one impact of my arrival home is that it has had a positive impact on my relationship with other members of my family – an offsetting upside. Moving back home means being closer to those from which you have spent time away.

Final Thought

Being an expat can be great for your career, presenting opportunities that are unavailable at home. It provides you with experiences that are different from those of locals and tourists, and you gain a broader perspective that lasts a lifetime. Some degree of reverse culture shock during repatriation is probably inevitable; however, the extent to which it will be a challenge depends largely on your preparation and state of mind. There are heaps of things to be excited about when being repatriated. The more time taken to prepare, the smoother the landing back home will be.

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