When Reverse Culture Shock meets Covid Shock

The Repat Journey Interview Series Part I

“Every goodbye calls for preparation, but most times, life takes us by surprise.”
Elisabetta Gnone

Many of you will be aware of the term “expats” who are usually good at preparing for their next glamorous post, whether it take them to Portugal or Panama. They study the language, find the ideal place to live, read up on the food, the climate, and everyday culture. But the deep, dark secret of the expat experience is the coming home – repatriation – which can actually be even harder than leaving.

Last month I shared my Five V model of Repatriation, a reverse culture shock model for those returning home after living abroad for many years.

Vanessa’s 5 V Model of Repatriation

As a seasoned repat myself by drawing the curve it helped me to understand what I was going through and has helped other repats understanding the confusing feelings that many experience. It often seems as if your home country has changed (and it will have changed as the world is constantly undergoing change wherever you happen to be) but more likely it’s you who’s changed, you’ve grown as a person, an employee, a parent.

One thing repats tell me is is that they had a very mixed bunch of friends living abroad and when they get home, they just slip into their old network and then they realise they feel quite foreign amongst familiar faces! This is a big part of reverse culture shock.

Repat Chat

Anyway, this month I decided to tap into my network and interview some different repats and tell their stories. Like all things cultural reactions to coming home are very individual but most people go through some difficulties or are living with someone who isn’t finding the repatriation process easy.

The first person I interviewed was one of my favourite interculturalists on Instagram, Globalbonez, aka Torhild Liane H Skarnes, Area Director for the Philippines for an NGO. Being an interculturalist herself she knows about reverse culture shock, she’s been through it before and she also knows about it from studies and courses as well as debriefing people herself.

Torhild Liane had to repatriate from the Philippines to Norway 5 months ago during lockdown which is like a double whammy – moving quickly, saying no goodbyes and feeling that leaving part of herself in Manila. Dealing with Covid shock and reverse culture shock was extra hard.

I asked her how she had experienced coming home after living abroad:

We were evacuated because of Covid19, coming home this way was a shock on several levels.  I really love Manila where we lived. Leaving Manila is leaving a part of myself.  I know I’ve gained values that people here don’t hold and I react with slight annoyance and sadness that people here seem to think they know best (and I don’t think they do 😆).This is specifically related to education and schooling. It’s also related to Covid-19 responses.  

I also notice that I’m way more alert than what is required of me to be here. I immediately notice cars that are weirdly parked and feel uncomfortable if someone is walking behind me etc. This is because I had stay alert in Manila, but Norway is really super safe so staying this alert is not necessary.

How long did it take for you to settle?

We are not settled yet! I’m guessing it will take a year or two. Last time it took me about two years. I think I have grown in my ability to hold and give space for different parts of myself. I don’t feel that I need to give up everything I grew into, but am more inclined to integrate my growth into who I am here. 

What do you miss about your expat life?

  • Speaking English and Tagalog
  • Relating to Filipinos and the richness they bring into relationships
  • Knowing how things work!
  • Having a soundproof house
  • Dance classes, seeing friends several times a week 
  • Life as full-time 360-degree learner (being a foreigner is 360-degree experience when it comes to learning)
  • Traffic- like having time that you can’t use for anything else than what you can accomplish in a car 
  • Life in a big city

What do you appreciate about being home?

  • Nature
  • Connections and relationships here
  • Safety
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Fast services (getting things done quickly)

What advice would you give to someone returning home after some time abroad?

Set off time for reflection and processing. Integrate what you bring with you into your new life (don’t shut it out and don’t get stuck in the past). Start investing in your new life (grow your place attachment, do it intentionally). Find someone who’s going through the same thing. Become part of the expat community in your city (I love the FB group here as it gives me the expat perspective on life where I am now. This helps me build those internal bridges). 

Conclusion

Torhild Liane’s advice is invaluable – it’s about letting go and re-rooting yourself at the same time, holding on to valuable experiences that have become a part of you and  connecting with people who know where you are coming from. When I moved back home I also found someone who understood me and a career coach who helped me align my skills to my “home” job market (I’d been away for 23 years!). Having people to talk to helps and injecting somethings from your life abroad is important. Later down the line when you are settled and reflect on your life and situation, you treasure all of these experiences living abroad, you realise how much you have learned. You have become more resilient, you have a broader worldview, you have more creativity in problem-solving and you are more curious about new people.

Now over to you: are you going to repatriate? And if you’re back home already, do you have a lesson you’d like to share? Should you feel disoriented or lost in this period of transition, please contact me for some individualised support. I offer a special 1-1 hour of REPAT CHAT which you can book here.

And there are various articles here at Paisley Communication which can help you work through the different issues you may be experiencing right now (living abroad or coming home):

Vanessa’s Five V Model of Repatriation  – A clear description of reverse culture shock

Bringing children up bilingually              – How to bring up children bilingually

Experiencing culture shock                       – Culture shock and learning from mistakes

Next month I’ll be talking to another repat with another take on the art of coming “home”.

The Repat Format, supporting the repatriation process

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