Culture shock is something we think happens when we arrive in a new country. But as Dipali Kumar discovers, sometimes it’s harder to go home.
As I would settle down for morning coffee with my circle of expat friends, one discussion would always come up: how wonderful it would be to return home. Some of us missed family and friends, others the changing seasons and the familiar sounds and smells.
But the last time I settled down with my coffee group – bright, articulate women from various far-flung countries – the mood was different. The Starbucks was no longer the busy, bustling place it was, but now seemed gloomy.
We related stories of people we knew who were packing and leaving. It seemed to us that all the movers in Singapore had their vans parked on our streets. The financial crisis had changed many lives – some had found better prospects back home, while senior executives were taking early retirement. For others, contracts were not renewed. One close friend was closing down the business she ran with her husband in Singapore, with no idea of what lay ahead.
As the stories came tumbling out, the apprehension and concern grew. But why, when we had all dreamed of going home?
Heather Lewinsky from Sandy, Utah, had been an expat wife for twenty years. Despite the feeling of alienation and the loneliness, Heather had learned how to make dim sum in Hong Kong, write calligraphy in Shanghai, and developed a passion for gold jewellery in Dubai. She met new friends and slowly found her way around a new culture. All of this was facilitated by American Association offices in every city she went to.
But when Heather was relocated back to Franklin Lakes in the US, there was no American Association to help her out. “This was supposed to be what we had been working for – my husband becoming the CEO of the company that had sent us around the world. But I was so used to people reaching out, especially at my last posting in Singapore. Everyone had been seeking out new friends in foreign places, but back in the US, getting to know people has been much more difficult. Now, I think it’s easier being an expat.”
Despite our complaints, life as an expat has enormous benefits – travel opportunities in a region we would otherwise not have visited, helpers who leave us free to pursue hobbies, and a fresh chance to start a new life. That is what we forget when we say goodbye to our near-and-dear ones each year. If we did a reality check, a lot of us would find that the quality of life is better as an expat.
Karin Christiansen from Bergen, Norway, looks back at the life she had for the past five years, as movers pack her collection of teapots. This is a life she has not truly appreciated, she says “I want one more year to enjoy my life here.”
Karin knows that, once she returns, she will have to revert to her old life. This will mean juggling three growing boys, a job, and shopping in freezing weather, all without hired help. No more tennis, yoga, and certainly not enough time to spend with her boys.
“I used to rollerblade with my eight-year-old, Harald, every Saturday at East Coast Park,” Karin says. “I would spend hours in the pool every day with three-year-old Yonas, and had my evenings free to help Eric, who is 14, with his projects. I never thought I would lose that so soon. Of course, the boys will see more of their uncles and aunts, their cousins and grandparents, but we have enjoyed being a nuclear family.”
The weather in Singapore is a joy for many expats. Sue Hardy says she hasn’t had to buy as many toys as she did back home, given how much time the kids spend outdoors. With Olivia, 10, and Thomas, 9, on the soccer field or in the swimming pool, she has not had any demands for the latest PSP or even a new Lego set.
Even expat children develop a new sense of confidence and freedom as they play unsupervised in condominiums, cycle to a friend’s house, and even take a taxi on their own. Many parents are concerned about how their children are going to readjust to life in their own country with a more limited sense of freedom and safety.
Jennifer Mils from Oxford, who returned to the UK a couple of years ago, says that her children turned rebellious with the new curfew rules.
For Mamta Kulkarni, who returned to New Delhi, India, after 15 years, says that the situation with two teenage daughters was more grim. “I wasn’t able to explain to them how different things are here, how careful a girl had to be without scaring them.”
Re-entry problems are not limited to stay-at-home moms and kids. Men and women who are part of the workforce also report a sense of isolation on their return. In some countries, people have a problem qualifying for government health and social security programmes. Others say that companies do not make use of the skills and insights of those newly repatriated.
Kevin Dunn, a marketing executive, was amazed when the company that had posted him to Singapore did not consider the foreign assignment period in his review.
According to a Global Relocations Trend Survey, 40 percent of repatriates leave their companies within two years.
Reverse culture shock, or re-entry transition stress, is well understood by scholars who liken repatriation to a space shuttle flight – a spacecraft experiences far more resistance on re-entry than it does when going into orbit, and astronauts enjoy weightlessness but return to Earth weaker.
Many problems arise because expatriates tend to romanticise their country, their lives and their relationships with friends and family. Returning home means seeing their homeland from a different perspective, that it’s not as ideal as they believed.
Others find that their world view has changed. Societal problems and cultural traits that were once not noticed are now apparent. Old friendships can be strained when those we were once close to cannot relate to our experiences, or are not interested in them. Friends and relatives might expect us to settle down fast, not understanding the life changes we have been through or how lifestyle expectations are different.
“I had a big argument with my sister. I used to keep talking about what fun I had in Singapore and she told me off and said I was spoilt,” relates Natasha, from Omsk, Russia. “Since then, I only talk about Singapore when I am online with friends from there. I thought I was just sharing stories about my experience, but I suppose it is difficult for everyone to understand that.”
Maria Malone from Lexington, US, sums it up well for herself. “Moving to another country, another culture, anywhere but home seems a better option.”
Expats once, expats forever?