“Nobody gets it. It’s like having somebody dying and there’s no funeral and you’re not supposed to talk about it. You feel guilty talking about it.” Expat therapist Lois Bushong who is also a founding members of the group, Families in Global Transition.
Here’s the thing about repatriation, or the act of moving back to your “home” country after living abroad: for most people who have lived overseas, moving back to one’s home country is the most difficult part of the entire experience—even harder than combatting the language barriers or culture shock or bureaucracy of living in another country in the first place.
If you are an expat who is afraid of or anxious about moving home; if you are an expat who has just moved home and is having a hard time transitioning; or if you simply know an expat who is going through either one of these things, then this post is for you. Repatriation is a really hard thing to understand if you’ve never been through it, and it’s a really difficult thing talk about with other people who simply cannot or do not want to understand it. In a way, it’s a vicious circle. Repatriates may be perceived as selfish, or spoiled, or anti-American; as unreasonable; resentful; ungrateful; overdramatic, or just ridiculous. But the truth is, repatriation is extremely hard, and the feelings and fears that ex-expats experience are very real. Most expats who return home go through a period of grief. It’s also not uncommon for ex-expats to find themselves experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD-like symptoms. I know I did. Coming home from France in spring 2010 was literally the darkest period of my life. I had feelings of anxiety, depression, and grief for the better part of a year (and I never really got over it until I knew I was coming back.) I didn’t have a lot of support from anyone. I felt like I was completely alone; that I was the only one feeling what I was feeling.
With that being said, springtime is one of the most stressful times of years for expats. It’s the time of year where many of us realize our contracts are ending, the school year is coming to a close, and it’s (once again) time to deal with visas, and make life-altering decisions about the immediate future (Can I renew my visa? Do I want to stay? Do I want to go home, or move on, or try someplace new? Do I want to pursue a different kind of visa? OMG I’m out of viable visa options, now what? Shall I apply for citizenship? Am I eligible? Am I only settling in x country because I’m too afraid to move home?)
The majority of my friends here are expats; many of the blogs I read and Facebook groups I belong to are written by or geared towards expats. So lately, I’ve been talking to a lot of my friends, and reaching out to a lot of readers or group members about repatriating, about what it’s like to repatriate, and express my personal worries or fears in regards to repatriating. And during my research, I came across an article– an analysis—written by an ex-expat. I feel that it just sums it up perfectly.
The author, Naomi Hattaway, wrote the article, I Am a Triangle and Other Tips for Repatriation. She sums up repatriate struggles into the analogy of different shapes trying to merge and fit with each other (most specifically—circles, squares, triangles, and stars). On one side of the world, Hattaway explains, you have Circle Country, and on the other side you have Square Settlement. The Circles live in Circle Country and the Squares live in Square Settlement. Both places have their traditions, holidays, languages, cultural norms and expectations, but they are completely different from one another’s.
One day, a Circle citizen moves to Square Settlement. Naturally, the Circle, who has always been a Circle and whose background and experiences come solely from Circle Country, begins to adjust and blend in with the Squares—taking on new traditions, trying new foods, learning a new language, amongst other things. And eventually, this Circle begins to slowly and unconsciously evolve- but not into a Square. Instead, s/he evolves into somethings else–a Triangle. They carry some original Circle-ness, blended in with some new Square-ness. Triangle is never going to be 100% Square, but will also never again be 100% Circle.
Eventually Triangle leaves Square Settlement and moves back to Circle Country. Now, Triangle needs to find their new normal. And that can be really, really hard, because even though Triangle is back where they came from, and they want to fit in with the Circles, their people, again, the straight triangle edges no longer mesh with the smooth arched circles.
That’s exactly how I feel about coming back to the United States. Even though it’s my home, it now feels foreign. I want to be back with my Circles— I love Circles; according to my passport, I am a Circle. It’s not that I don’t want to come home, but in some ways, I’m afraid to; I’m afraid to deal with all the emotions that come with repatriation; I’m afraid of the possibility of not ever being able to come back to Square Settlement. But, what’s most difficult is not being able to talk about it, or not being understood or taken seriously when I try to talk about it. I think a key part to repatriation is having that connection with fellow Triangles.
My time in France has been the best three years of my life despite family deaths, and individual hardships, and missing friends weddings/graduations/children’s births. There are many parts of the French lifestyle that I am so glad to have experienced and adopted into my own life, but there are other times that I find myself thanking the universe that I am not, and will NEVER be French. As I take the next few weeks and months to figure out where I’ll go next, whether that be France, the United States, or elsewhere, I take comfort that there are many, many other Triangles out there, and that we are not alone in our feelings or struggles.
I highly encourage my fellow Triangles to check out Naomi’s Facebook Group: I Am A Triangle.
Are you a Triangle? I’d love to hear your story.