What not to ask a repat, but you will anyway

Have you lived around the world? Beyond your passport country? Have you repatriated? Have you moved back?

This list is for you.

This list is also for those of you who know someone moving back from living elsewhere in the world. You may not know these questions, but we do. We hear them OFTEN. And usually in a semi-specific order. You think I jest. But there is a fairly standard set of inquiries repats get when returning from their life lived abroad.

Note I did not say – return home. To have any measure of success when choosing to thrive in a place different from where you grew up, one must consider it “home” in each place they land. I said – move back. To return. To a place. Repatriate.


verb ree-pey-tree-eyt; noun ree-pey-tree-it ]

verb: (used with object), re·pa·tri·at·ed, re·pa·tri·at·ing. to bring or send back (a person, especially a prisoner of war, a refugee, etc.) to his or her country or land of citizenship. (of profits or other assets) to send back to one’s own country.

verb: (used without object), re·pa·tri·at·ed, re·pa·tri·at·ing. to return to one’s own country: to repatriate after 20 years abroad.

noun: a person who has repatriated.

WORD ORIGIN FOR REPATRIATE: from Late Latin repatriāre from Latin re- + patria fatherland

Source: Dictionary.com

There will be questions

There are a series of questions that people ask when you move back from living abroad. It’s not just me. I ran a straw poll in the Facebook group “Grumpy Repat” – it’s a thing. Look it up. Especially if you are in a similar situation needing a little common validation. And while I wouldn’t say that I’m grumpy per se – I’m definitely processing the stages.

Anyone who has moved abroad or might make a life across borders has probably seen the curve, been shown the graph. The first part – a glorious honeymoon phase of that glorious new place. How did we ever get so lucky? Surrounded by such history and serious fairy-tale charm. At least that’s what we felt moving from the west coast of the United States to Copenhagen, Denmark.

Graph source: Archer-Relocation.com

You made it through the expat adjustment curve

That initial first expatriation high hits an eventual clunk, down the other side. This is what the experts call a valley or “crisis” – commonly known as culture shock. The majority of us find some sort of stride and rise back again as we initially adjust. Others might dive deeper into cultural issues, have trouble fitting in. But with time, some determination, and a shot of gumption – the bulk of us recover and begin the integration phase in that new space and new home.

What many of those graphs and experts fail to include though – is the reverse acclimation. When you decide to move back. Don’t want to scare off the new hire. But it happens. The peaks and valleys hit hard in reverse. And while you’re processing – you’ll get a series of questions. Mostly from well-intentioned (or possibly clueless) friends, family and acquaintances. Here are a few that we’ve heard. More than once. Over the last 6 months. (Please keep asking – we know you are curious and just trying to engage. And we do appreciate that.)

Are you so happy to be back?

First up and most popular… “Are you happy to be back?” This one is laden with an assumption that the answer will most likely be yes. And even if you chose and pursued the repat path yourself – this answer can be fraught with complication and nuance. Thank you to those who can contemplate the difference. Especially when your time abroad was filled with loads of positive experiences.

Are you happy to be “home?”

This is the alternative to question one, but slightly different in implication. With this query, the bias lies in where the asker defines “home.” This is commonly presented to us peeps who have repatted back to the exact same place they originally left. Like us. The people who usually ask have not moved away. This place was, is, and continues to be their “home.” And while you did share that community, that space with them previously – it feels like it negates that you’ve made a home somewhere else.

Are you back for good this time?

Next up – a doozy. “Are you back for good?” For our family, it often comes with an addendum – you said you were leaving for just two years. That turned into seven. (Are you judging?) And maybe for some repatriates, this answer is easy, simple, and fairly secure. Don’t hate me friends, but once you’ve been opened to the world, the wanderlust never is cured. And if this experience has taught me anything – it’s to never say never. For friends and family reading – don’t worry, we’re planted for good. For a while.

What is the one thing you miss the most?

From that place that you left and the life – that you lived somewhere else. Insider tip – find a pat answer and make it easy to digest. Most people asking don’t want a deep dive into cross-cultural comparisons, they’re just having a chat. The simplest answer for me? Coming from the bike-savvy life of living in the Danish capital city, it’s American car culture here that hits us the hardest. I miss being able to pop on my bicycle and be across town in twenty minutes. The freedom for my children to meet friends for a swim or just hang in the park. Of course, there is so much more. But that’s a WHOLE ‘nother post.

Why did you decide to move back? Wasn’t it better there?

Props to the person asking this question. And it obviously depends on the particulars of where. Where you moved from, to, and then back again from. But it means they have potentially been following along. Seen snippets of your cultivated and happy life lived abroad. It might mean the asker is capable of comparing and contrasting bigger aspects of the disparate countries. Want to know why we moved back? I’m still working on that answer. Stay tuned. It’s bigger than a paragraph.

Hey repat – have you been asked this?

When I polled the Grumpy Repat group – I had a few amusing additions to my initial list. How about “how was your trip?” I assume this was for smaller lengths of time spent away, but it exposes a lack of awareness or an amount of snark on the asker’s part. Or this one. “Is it so nice to understand everyone around you?” Honestly? I’ll share an answer to that. It was kind of nice to exist in a bit of a bubble and not be able to understand everyone’s opinions and perspectives. Also? Americans are LOUD. There. I said it. The last addition to the list… “Have you been in prison?” And while it only received one vote – it made me snort out loud. That’s a story I’d definitely like to know more about.

Keep asking the questions

Ask away. Please do. We all want to talk. Engage and reacclimate. The last takeaway I’ll share from the online small survey was that some people moving back get absolutely no questions asked. Crickets. Like no one cares. And while you may not be able to relate to our experiences far away, it has become part of our identities not wiped away having left. This is not a blanket allowance for ad nauseum stories, but a small, gentle space to embrace our differences and unique personal narratives. I’m still processing, but grateful for the support. And the questions. Keep asking.

Did I miss an inquiry that you get posed? Or maybe you haven’t yet moved back? I originally posted about common things posed to an expat – to which you can probably relate. You can read that piece here. Until next time, cheers from Oregon. Back from around the world.


6 thoughts on “What not to ask a repat, but you will anyway

  1. Dorothy Dougher

    It seems to me that after being away from family and friends for several years that there has been developmental progress that can be surprising and must be acknowledged.
    No small task!

  2. Pam Halvorsen

    I wish I had had this information for when my daughter moved TO Paris and then again, 6 years later, when she moved back here.

  3. Susan

    I find myself in the opposite situation. Married a Dane who decided to stay in the states, although I introduced my best friend to his brother and she moved to Copenhagen 30 years ago. 2 of my 3 children moved to Copenhagen after college…ostensibly for the free grad school I wasn’t willing to pay for. I thought the undergrad liberal arts program in the States was more vigorous, and they might agree. One has now bought an apartment and has a nice job and has been there nearly 7 years ??? Coming back? (No girlfriend/wife as yet). The other is returning to Copenhagen from study abroad with a job and degree in March 2023. Let’s see if this becomes her permanent abode. I love Copenhagen and the Danish way of life, but I see equally the benefits in the US. At the age of your kids, maybe less freedoms it’s true, but mine are a decade older and making true friends or even small talk with strangers is far easier in the US, a much more open and less provincial society (according to my husband, the Dane). I agree that the issues are nuanced…in both directions. I lived in Scandinavia (Sweden) on a Watson Fellowship back in the early 80’s and recently found the journal I kept. Many of my perceptions now remain the same. I always thought shangri-la might be a place incorporating the best of both places! Good luck with your continued re-acclimation.

  4. Susan…again

    Oh, right, as an aside, I have spoken to Danes from Danes Worldwide who have lived in the States for quite a while and then return to Denmark. They find many Danes don’t appreciate their experiences either. Must be a universal phenomenon….but Danes Worldwide is a nice organization to link up with and connect with others in a similar situation.

    1. I will check it out – thanks for the recommendation. I believe that no matter which way you move, if you speak with others who haven’t lived abroad, it’s just difficult for them to understand the experience. They don’t know what they don’t know. That’s been my point of view anyway.

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