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Home truths

Living abroad has its expected ups and downs. Eventually however, the time comes to head home - or for the home country anyway. Melak Foster talks to families who have made the move.

Depending on how long you have lived abroad, your heartfelt ‘home' may actually be that hut you slaved over for decades in Botswana; the beach house getaway on your adopted coast of Cyprus; or that old style villa in Umm Suqeim that they have been threatening to tear down for years.

Home is where the heart is but that does not mean your passport, age, job status or family responsibilities won't dictate where, or when, it is time to make tracks for the home country.

As aware of this inevitability as anyone is, moving home can throw the most stable and sensible expat into shock regardless of the actualities of whether ‘home' encompasses all our childhood memories and the essence of who we are or is simply where we ultimately qualify as citizens.

The change from expat to ‘repat' can bring on anything from cheers to chills and the whole ‘going home' process has been blamed for bringing on everything from the stages of grieving, to a mid-life crisis (“I've come home to die!”) and serious depression.

Most distressing is the limit to which the issue of repatriation is addressed when, in fact, it is infinitely more challenging to move back to your home country than it is to tolerate, accommodate and grin and bear a foreign one.

Feeling foreign at ‘home'
Being an expat means you are part of a smaller community, with individuals tending to stick together and rely on one another. Also, being so far from family members creates strong bonds of friendship between expats that would either take longer to build or never develop at all on home ground.
Moving is isolating anyway and moving back to the support base of friends you left a few years ago can be very disappointing. Ex-Dubai resident Laura Phelps, had high hopes of getting back in sync with her Houston friends. Six months after her move, however, she says: “After all the effort we made to keep in touch while I was away, we hardly see each other now that I am back. Perhaps the ‘good old days' of our friendship sustained us until I moved back to the US.”

The experience of being home has been dubbed ‘re-entry shock' and is the reverse culture shock that comes with the frustrations associated with trying to fit in where you should but can't; trying to get along with people you used to enjoy but now don't; and attempting to feel comfortable in old familiar places where you aren't. Everything is just a little off kilter, misunderstood, out of focus, alien and terribly depressing.

But why are we altogether less forgiving of this situation than of countless others in countries far away? Because abroad one expects to feel foreign, something you don't expect when you come home.

Re-entry shock varies in extremes, as do the issues at stake. Wolfgang Vogeser returned to Germany after two years in Dubai and says: “Getting used to the low service level in Germany compared to Dubai was a bit of a hurdle. It was like moving from the desert to the desert of service. Re-enrollment in the German health care system was quite a challenge as well.”

To ease his move back, Wolfgang says he should have looked more precisely into the ramifications of health insurance related issues, as well as sought comprehensive consultations on all tax related questions - labour laws and taxation having changed the most in the time he had been away.

Cultural isolation
For Kami Dellinger, who returned to the United States after eight years, the geographical and cultural isolation of her home has been the hardest to bear. “I have this feeling that all my travels have come to an end,” she says. “The US is so far away from the rest of the world in so many ways and in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I now live, some people don't even know that the USSR doesn't exist anymore!

“People do not have the same concept of things that I am familiar with, and at the same time there is the expectation for me to share their common knowledge, values and interests. There is no ill intent in these expectations, it is just that they are wrapped up in their own worlds with little interest in anything outside of it.”

Another hurdle for Kami has been going from the ‘land of plenty' in Dubai to adjusting to the cost of living in the US. “After being away so long it is hard to get used to paying taxes again,” she says.

After two and a half years, Sarah Sabry was transferred with her work back to her native city of Cairo, Egypt. Sarah says: “I left Dubai on Monday evening and started work on Tuesday morning in Cairo. Although Cairo has not changed, it has taken me about six months just to get re-adjusted to living in a huge city which is disorganised, so crowded and where it takes a while to get anywhere in the traffic.”

Other repatriations are more difficult and give rise to the anger and rage often felt by returning citizens. After living for 30 years in the Middle East, Nina Maalouf returned to her native Texas with her husband. “I was expecting re-entry to be difficult, but was really quite unprepared for the total alienation I felt from life in the States.

“I could not relate to the Texas mentality. I was excited to share my experiences in other cultures, but as a rule no one was interested. I was stunned by the closed minds of Americans regarding ‘the rest of the world'. Also, my points of reference were gone. I was totally unfamiliar with the cultural icons currently in vogue nor did I have a clue about American television programmes, American fashions or local or national issues of political significance. My world view was different.”

Even trivial issues caused frustration: “I thought in terms of kilos and centigrade, of telling time in 24 hour segments, of operating in different currencies and running a household with a completely different set of equipment, spices and staples. I was shocked by what I had to re-learn and I was often angry and frustrated with people I met whom I felt were biased and brainwashed.

“In fact, as I look back, I was angry at the culture. I had had a chance to see us as others see us and I was upset by the waste, extravagance, triviality, arrogance, and the oblivious views so many well-meaning people maintain. I just could not relate or communicate with my fellow Americans, and that was before 9/11.”

Coping with repatriation
Reactions to re-entry shock typically follow a four-step pattern: elation at being back home; a crisis period when the initial euphoria gives way and reality sets in; flight which can manifest itself through attempts at isolation or looking for a way back out and finally, the period of re-adjustment when some control and organisation are introduced into the new situation.

Anxiety, alienation, insomnia and depression are also characteristics associated with re-entry shock which can last as little as three weeks and as long as, well, forever. Typically though, this period of readjustment lasts from one to three years.

For Ahmed Maalouf, Nina's husband and a naturalised American citizen, the adjustment period has been prolonged. He says: “We returned to the States for retirement in February 2000. I think I was just beginning to get my bearings and feel more relaxed in the environment and then came the attacks on September 11th. That has changed everything. I now believe that I will always think outside the masses and have a different set of priorities. I have been a US citizen for nearly 35 years yet now I feel more like a foreigner than a citizen.”

Regardless of the emotional chaos associated with repatriation, most agree that being closer to family and friends is the best thing about living back in your own country. Kami Dellinger observes: “Although I have still not settled in Pennsylvania I am aware that the greatest change since I left has been in myself.”

Perhaps the answer is not to try and squeeze into the mould of who we once were, but to create a new one based on the people we have become in the course of our travels.

The whole ‘going home' process has been blamed for bringing on everything from the stages of grieving, to a mid-life crisis and serious depression.

Life in the Emirates

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