Leaving a Life Lived Abroad | The Emotional Toll of Repatriation

What does it feel like to walk away from a life lived abroad? Simply put? A lot. Today marks 18 months since we boarded a plane back to the US. After seven years of living as a Scandinavian – Oregon is seeping back in, getting under my skin. I’m embracing the spaces, places, and people we missed. I won’t sugarcoat it, there have been overwhelming moments, days, and maybe whole months of deep grief. Someone remind me next winter that this time of year is just as difficult here as it was in Denmark. I don’t believe in ignoring those hard feelings and I let them wash in. Safe in my experience that those tides (eventually) roll back out.

I’ll admit, I thought I’d be further along by now. Still, I’m squarely in the middle of processing my move “home.” But Copenhagen was home too. For seven years. So from the beginning, the emotions are complicated and twisty. Let’s get into it. But first, let’s start with the definition of repatriation.


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


“Zincing Man” | “ZincGlobal: The Key to the Future” at Toldbolden Copenhagen, Denmark
REPATRIATION BY CHOICE OR EMPLOYMENT

For some, the experience of repatriation involves no personal choice. I realize my family’s privilege to choose so – both moving abroad and back again. This piece reflects my personal account. While working through my own emotions, it turns out I’m not alone. In fact, the topic has been studied and written about extensively. For me, consuming others’ experiences has resonated and helped.

I loved this article from Kisha Solomon writing after years of living in Spain and returning to the United States. Her post “How To Deal When You Head Back Home: 6 Stages of Adjusting After Living Abroad” was quite insightful and helpful.

… unlike many other major life transitions, repatriation doesn’t always come with its fair share of support and understanding. The opportunity to live in a foreign country is often seen as just that – an opportunity. Something that you’re lucky or blessed to be able to do.

– Kisha Solomon
Cyclist outside the King’s Garden and Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen Denmark
REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK

Solomon takes the reader through the 6 stages she feels happen upon repatriation – beginning with reverse culture shock. Emily Primeaux, another fellow American repat writes after returning from eight years around Europe that she often felt “overwhelmed by choices, noises and [the] immediacy” of life back here in the US. Solomon again sums it up nicely,

From the moment you step off the plane, everything about your home country seems familiar, but in an eerily unfamiliar way. It’s like you’re in The Truman Show or The Matrix. You recognize it all, yet it all seems just a little bit off.”

– Kisha Solomon, “Expat Problems: 6 Stages of Repatriation”

When people ask me what it’s like, I often refer to this quote. It feels especially pertinent to our family situation as we moved back to the exact place we left. Into the exact same house. In the exact same neighborhood. But exactly the same, it was not. Part of that is the place – it’s the same, but it’s different. New buildings and restaurants and houses we don’t recognize, built-up next door and around the block. Part of it is simply the people we’re not anymore.

According to Dr. Cate Brubaker of The Re-entry Roadmap Podcast, re-entry is not about readjusting back to the status quo you left behind… even if you wanted to, you couldn’t go back to the home you left behind as it doesn’t exist in the way that it did before.”

Intellectually I knew this. But sifting through the realities of a place you might have romanticized on the bad days abroad – while recreating and redefining your life in that space is not for the faint of heart. Call it re-entry, repatriating, or even just moving back – all of them conjure the sense of going backward, but it’s not.

I share this reflection from an American friend made in Copenhagen, who moved back to Michigan soon after our own repatriation.

“I think in some ways it is even harder to go back to a place you once lived than starting anew. You simultaneously mourn the loss of one home and how the return to home is not the same as when you left and you no longer fit in the same because of how much you’ve changed. It’s hard to go back after living a bold life abroad.”

– Maia Hausler of @wandergather , fellow American expat in Copenhagen
IMPACT ON IDENTITY

Looking for more little digital gems of validation, I stumbled upon the US State Department website regarding reverse culture shock. It’s a surprisingly spot-on list of insights about the re-acclimation rollercoaster for many moving back from abroad. “Your overseas experience has significantly impacted your identity. As you immersed yourself in a new culture, you broadened your perspective and opened your mind to new ideas. Once you return home, you realize that tensions exist between your new identity and mainstream society. You no longer feel like you fit in.”

For me right now – as I process in this new space – I am experiencing a healthy fear of missing out. I know it seems crazy. You chose to move back. And yes. We did. But when touchpoints with a culture you adopted as your own for close to seven years are complex and far away, it tugs at your heartstrings in a weird reverse way. Seeing friends connect when you physically can’t. Watching the seasons turn with the tastes you can’t taste.

What I wouldn’t do for a mug of Christmas gløgg while wandering cobblestoned cuteness festooned with twinkly lights. Or seeing my feed splashed with all this year’s fancy fastelavnsboller and semla buns inducing massive bouts of nostalgia indeed. Yes, I know the dark days of a Danish winter weren’t easy. But when you survived it seven times, you strangely miss it. This is apparently all part of the natural process towards re-acclimation.

Cyclist on Østerbrogade near The Lakes, Copenhagen Denmark

RELATED: WHAT NOT TO ASK A REPAT, BUT YOU WILL ANYWAY

MISSING THE “ME” I’D BECOME

I will forever miss things about Copenhagen and our little corner in it. What do I miss the most you ask? Truthfully? The me I’d become. It sounds odd to say it like that, but it takes a minute to reinvent yourself with each move. Maybe you jumped right into a job that hastened your process. Or maybe your role as a caregiver helped define that course as soon as you landed.

I’ve had to rebuild networks from scratch, and my part in them. I’m not keeping score, but I have moved a bunch. Domestically (six times – who’s counting) and then most recently to Denmark. And now back. Creating an empowering and satisfactory life took time and effort in each place. For myself and my family. Double that time when in a foreign country.

I found this quote by Azar Nafisi, the Iranian-American author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” on a fellow expat’s (@migratingmiss) website.

You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place like you’ll not miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.

– Azar Nafisi, Iranian-American author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

Of course, I miss the friendships and people we met in Denmark, still, that second bit resonated with me deeply. I liked the “me” I’d created in Copenhagen and have found it a challenge to remake her fully over here. At “home.” That identity doesn’t fit or make as much sense in this place. At least, not yet.

Monument to Admiral Ivar Huitfeld | Langelie Park, Copenhagen Denmark

Other expats I’ve talked to have also noted the strong sense of a special parenthesis marking their time abroad,

“What was the hardest about leaving was knowing it was a snapshot in time…If I were ever to go back it would never be exactly the same, some would have moved and new people arrived. It was leaving and hugging [friends] I knew I may never see or hug again…that was what was the hardest part.”

– Lori Moll Buchanan American expat in Switzerland, back in Connecticut.
DON’T IGNORE THE MOURNING OR GRIEF

Another person who paid it forward for me was Emma of TheSojournies.com – a Brit who lived in Denmark, Germany, and now back in England. She reminded me that “the only people who truly get how you might feel are those that have done it themselves.” In writing about her own repatriation, Emma brought up the idea of creating an “acceptable state of alignment” in your new normal. She has a great guide for those processing repatriations, “12 Tips for a Successful Repatriation.”

Even reading it before I left didn’t prepare me for the depth of these feelings. For you who know it, it can seem like disenfranchised grief. Lyndsay McLean of the blog Swisslark.com writes “I can understand that from the outside looking in, it may seem genuinely frivolous or irrelevant like it’s not even a thing to those not experiencing it.” Having moved from the US to Switzerland to the US and back, she knows what she’s talking about. Listening to podcasts and consuming writings about others’ experiences of “moving back” helps, even if it doesn’t lessen what’s felt.

Cyclist on Langebro on Copenhagen Harbor
FIRST SEASON OF A PERSONAL REPATRIATION

I’m still in the first season of my personal repatriation. The starting cast was already lined up. The (emotional) budget without space for special effects and the lighting honestly – pretty low cost. Some of the scriptwriting was done right on the spot. But good news, this show has been renewed for additional seasons, so here’s hoping we build on the best bits from this past year and a half. And just in case you think my quotes are unfairly slanted towards the American expat experience – here is evidence in reverse – from a Dane who lived in Oregon.

I feel the same towards Oregon which was my home for a year and many summers and winters after that. All the moments, places, people and [that] version of myself, will stay in Oregon forever in my heart.

The good thing is- you can always visit.

– Mie, born and raised Copenhagen girl
Mute swans in The Lakes, Copenhagen Denmark
FINAL STAGE OF REPATRIATION?

I’m working through the process and just sharing the emotions. Thanks for reading. I will forever have a red and white Denmark-shaped stamp on my heart. But slowly, it’s turning mossy and green, full of mountains and an evergreened Oregon coast once again. All things I missed while living over there. As Kisha Solomon writes,

In the final stage, you recognize that you don’t have to completely abandon everything about your old life in order to adjust to your new life. You begin to adapt the things you gained from your expat experiences or things that you miss about your life in your former host country to new contexts and your new locale.

– Kisha Solomon

So please share – have you done it? Chosen a life lived abroad and then back again? What was the roughest bit? And what got you through it. I’d love to know. And if you’re still in the muck of it, please know – you are not alone. It helps me to read, talk and write about it with people who’ve felt it. Happy to discuss if you need it.

SIDE NOTE: The photos were all taken during the beginning of pandemic lockdowns in Copenhagen and are part of a greater project I’m working on about the isolation of being behind closed borders during a life lived abroad.



14 thoughts on “Leaving a Life Lived Abroad | The Emotional Toll of Repatriation

  1. Donna M Hass

    In 2017 I lived in Koblenz, Germany for only 3 months. It was so sad to leave. I loved it, I felt I belonged in Germany and still do to this day. I had visited Munich since and this year plan to visit Sweden, Prague and Berlin. Visiting is so much different than living there. I miss my independence of living there. I hope I will be back in two years. If I can’t live there I will take a trip when I can.
    I do not think this feeling would ever leave me.

    1. Emma

      I have just returned home to Manchester. UK following a 5 year stay in Canada. I lived every minute of it apart from Christmas. When I was so lonely I decided to come back. I have been for only a week and I’m feeling so sad. I made the decision. So I’m finding it hard to communicate my feeling to family or friends. I feel lost and that I don’t belong. I read the article and feel I am now going through the grieving process. I don’t want family and friends to think I am ungrateful or don’t want to be here but I have so many emotions..

  2. Whilst I can’t say that I have properly repatriated, in my experience with leaving Copenhagen to move to Australia, to then being forced by visa issues to move back to Copenhagen and then eventually 8 months later, back to Australia (for what is likely for good), I recognize a lot of the feelings and thoughts you describe. Both in relation to the short time I moved back to Copenhagen, but also in regards to when I now visit. It’s still home, but it’s not, I miss the life I had there, but at the same time I love the person Australia has helped me become, and I don’t quite feel that that person fits “back home” anymore. I dream of one day moving back (though I know that that’ll only potentially happen if partner passes away before me), and at the same time I dread moving back – knowing that I or Denmark won’t be the same.
    It’s all so complicated, and yet very simple, it’s definitely full of a lot of emotions… and sometimes I feel this unbearable pain of knowing that I’ll probably never get to call Copenhagen and Denmark “home” again.

  3. I know how you feel 😊
    For me and my family it was just the other way around. I have been an expat to the US for two Danish companies. First time in Florida (Fort Myers) and second time in Texas (Houston).
    Our frustration coming home to DK again both times were – NOTHING had happened and no one were interested in learning about what had experienced and how we felt we had changed perspectives.
    After second expat period I wrote a book about becoming, being and expat and returning. The book was based on more than 40 families feedback to me. They all got a long questionnaire from me and they returned it, some even with documentation and photos.
    As one described, after they had been away for some years in Asia: “When I walk down the street and entering my old supermarket, everything was the same, the milk was at the same spot – nothing had changed. When I met people I know, they just start talking like I had been on a two week holiday / vacation. They did’t see I had changed.
    Also returning to the old company is hard. My research showed that more than 60% are leaving the company within one year after returning. And not a few leaves shortly after coming home. The person returning has “grown” a lot. Through a very steep learning curve you have gained valuable knowledge, seen things from a different perspective and maybe even made the local company flourish. Now home again you are expected to fall back into your old role and have the same perspectives as the home-organisation. This does often not work.

    For sure there is a lot of things I love in Denmark but after been not only travelling business wise and for leisure, I can see my own country in a different perspective and I also see the USA in a different picture, for good and bad.

    To re-adapt is maybe easy on the surface of it but deep down it is hard and it takes much longer time than I would have expected before I had the opportunity to live abroad.

      1. Thank you for reading my comments. And yes I wrote the book in Danish (unfortunately). I considered early on if I should write it English but since almost all 40 responders were Danish and I my HR-experience at the time was Danish I decided to write in Danish. But I can see all the issues and emotional elements are universal.

  4. Erin, such a moving and beautifully written piece. I’ve never lived abroad, but I have moved 8 times and do understand starting over in each new home, neighborhood and place. The strangest had to be moving back to SoCal after being gone for 9 years. We moved back to our old neighborhood and everything felt so familiar, yet different. We thought we knew our way, but got lost, we thought we knew the people, but most of our friends are now new, yet… when visiting our old cities our friends seemed to have moved on without us… it took me quite a few years to find my place, but 6.5 years in and it feels like my forever home. Still, I know I’ll forever morn those friendships and times in my life.

  5. I have never left the United States before. I would love to, but it just hasn’t worked out yet. I have only ever lived in two states, and I did not move back to the first state at any point. So I have not repatriated anywhere, but I can imagine it would be difficult. Really great post! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Liz

    I found this really helpful. I am returning to UK in 18 months after 25 years in Australia. I really appreciate the honest appraisal of this experience. I’m pleased that your findings resonate with what I think will be big hurdles. I get a strong sense that it will be helpful if o treat it as though it is a move to a brand new place. Rather than a “return home.” I am trying to think about ways I can stay in touch when the Australian me – because it is the only me I know after all this time. I’m exploring lots of ideas and doing investigations of the things available. An example – in Australia I have become interested in gardening and sustainable living. I’ve joined community Facebook groups with similar focus back home and have started to participate in posts.
    Apart from a small handful still in the area, most of my stronger connections live a long way away or in other countries – so I wont have to deal with a sense of rejection!
    Mostly though, I know it will be massive and my reactions and emotions will be many and varied. So I’m trying to counsel myself to feel the feels. At least I have plenty of evidence that I have managed to survive every other adversity thrown my way in life; so I will survive this one too!
    Thank you again for taking the time to share your experience. It IS helpful.

    1. Definitely give yourself space to ride the emotional roller coaster on which you might have just bought a ticket. It’s not all bad, but some days can be rough and feel very isolating. Lots of good energy to you in this next transition. Cheers from Oregon.

  7. T Ann

    I’m glad to have come across this article in a moment of feeling desperately isolated (yet surrounded by people). After 20 years abroad in 5 countries, one of which is still “home”, I feel like an expat in my birth country. It doesn’t help that this lovely city (SF) doesn’t have much of an expat connected network. It can be really tough to be the outsider, especially if people know you’re leaving again. If we had bought a house and planted roots, the community would organically develop. I wish there were a stronger connection amongst repats who may be in different places, but can be there virtually at least to share the “rehoming” experience!

    1. First off, thanks for reading and commenting. I found it helped me to take in other’s experiences as I waded through my own complicated emotions. Sending you lots of good energy to find your space again. Two years post my own repatriation, I’m still reinventing myself. Hang in there! And if you create that network / let me know! I’m in! Cheers from Oregon.

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