Expat Families Coming Home

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Morning Zen Guest Blogger ~ Nina Sichel ~

They come tumbling out, personal stories of having to relocate, to move on, cascades falling from websites and blogs into a growing pool of expat memoirs. The ones I have seen tend to praise the expatriate life, even though it is often made up of cycles of goodbyes, cycles of hellos, and lots and lots of starting over. Starting over with everything if they are the ones moving on; starting over with new friends and sometimes a whole new social circle, if they are the ones left behind. They tell of the challenges of life outside the home country, the comparisons to former homes, the accommodations to the new one, the languages and customs and food and expectations they need to adapt to, often over and over again every two or three years. They tell of the way coming home on furlough or summer vacation can be a welcome break, though just a temporary stay.

Sometimes they experience a reverse culture shock in returning to the familiar. They come home and they’ve changed, or home has changed -- they don’t know if they can slip back into the old identity like they can the old bathrobe, still hanging on its peg in a parent’s closet, their childhood bedrooms turned into guest rooms, and now they are the guests. Their friends and family might ask about their time overseas, but they have the feeling they don’t really want too many details. So they step gingerly around the questions, concerned they might sound like they are bragging about their international experience, concerned about seeming to lecture, worried that others might feel judged for their lack of worldly expertise, attuned more, sometimes, to the feelings of others than to their own. This is one of the things they’ve learned as expatriates, a sensitivity to how others might regard them, as foreigners.

They think they’ve prepared their children for this return as well. They believe they have immersed their children in their own home culture, so that it should be familiar, it should seem theirs. The children have heard the stories, myths and history growing up. They’ve learned the home language and celebrated the home holidays. They’ve been led to believe it is their culture, too, that despite their moves around the world, this is their real home and this is where they belong.

But their children experience a very different return because for them, it isn’t really coming home. It’s coming to their parents’ home. Home for these children, raised on the move, is not a place, it is a context. After the initial excitement -- similar to the way they feel at every move, in every new place -- they are anxious to leave again, dive back into the mobile stream. Because for them home, really, is the place where they swim with others like them, not rooted in a particular geography but floating among international, mobile communities.

Sometimes it is when the children finish their school years and are ready for college or the workforce that the strongest shocks are felt upon return. It is often at this time that the return is considered permanent. Their lives have reached the point where they can no longer trail their parents, and they must set off on their own.

Repatriation is foisted upon them. Sometimes it is when they turn eighteen and, as military kids, they are sent away from the bases where they lived, their resident privileges taken from them. Or they are no longer included in their parents’ embassy circles, or missionary communities, or the corporations with their social networks, or other groups living in expat bubbles.

Moving back for these kids can be overwhelming. They call it reentry, as though they are plunging back to earth from outer space. It can be the toughest move they’ve ever had to manage. Many struggle with feelings of invisibility -- they are used to being different, recognized as other outside their country of origin and bound to others like them. And here they are, apparently just like everyone else, except that they know they’re not. They’re expected to be native, but they feel more like immigrants. It’s a kind of isolation they have never known, it’s a different kind of move, and there is no community to relate to.

Some international organizations have begun to look more closely at reentry, and to provide the kind of support for returning families that they offer for those relocating overseas. Some colleges and universities have begun programs to identify and support these particular students. Skills assessment, career and personal counseling, academic and workplace adjustments, assistance in establishing new networks, all are helpful.

Above all, it is important to remember that reentry is another transition, and that these children, unlike their parents, are not moving back. They are moving on. Raised overseas, they are moving once again to a new environment, and this transition, like all the others, will have its rhythms and tides. They will be experiencing similar ups and downs and cycles of adjustment as they adapt to this, their new place. It is a profound change, this plunge into new waters, and the children, more than any others, need to be buoyed up till they learn, again, how to float, and then to swim. 

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ninaNina Sichel is co-editor of the collections Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011) and Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2004). She leads memoir-writing workshops in the Washington, DC area and continues to collect stories and research about international and cross-cultural childhoods. For more information on TCKs, readers can visit her Facebook page, which includes links to articles of interest, book recommendations, and connection with other TCKs.


  1. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
    | Permalink
    Many thanks for your comments, Cheryl -- I'm sorry it has taken this long for me to respond!

    It sounds like you are doing all the "pro-active" preparation and follow-up that you can… I am a bit dismayed to hear that professionals in HR do not understand the needs of teenagers and young adults, much less are aware that transitioning to adulthood seems to be taking a longer course in general these days…

    I hope your reputation, though based on your many successes in navigating as a trailing, or accompanying, spouse, isn't another way for the organization to define you and establish unrealistic expectations. Hard enough that you are juggling the needs of your family members, dealing with aging parents far away, and having to come to terms with your own career changes -- I'm in awe that you still find the drive to try to educate others about the needs of relocating families. Thank you so much for the work you are doing raising awareness!

  2. Cheryl's avatar
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    So well said! We have managed through sheer determination, to include our young adults in the last 5 year placement in Australia. This to ensure they were not left on their own too soon and to see them through their first uni degrees. One child with Juvenile Diabetes and the other with clinical OCD. As a family therapist/trailing spouse it was clear that leaving them to launch "back home", which was only partially "home" thanks prior relocations, would have left them unravelled. Now, we face another overseas move to central Asia, to a place where any trailing spouse will have a tough time finding meaningful identity. What to do with young adults not launched due to valid reasons that just don't really fit into the expat model? One needs to complete graduate studies here in Australia and the other is needing to recover from a depression, only partially treated. Reading the limited research on these issues and your commentary on the realities of re-integration to "home" has been reinforcement for the cautions to pay careful attention to risks and to think hard about supports. "The Company" thought that at 17 and 19 they should have been entirely launched when we made the last move. Uni/visa supports were included thanks to excellent negotiating skills. My career ended to make it all work for everyone, including aging parents back in North America. Now however there is little understanding that wrapping-up life in AU will they do not have the tools to navigate the looming complexities of visas, health insurance, uni tuition which is 5 times the cost of "home" with no options for program transfers, and then making their own way back "home" where we will not be living. A sudden crumbling of family structure which is doable - with the correct supports! The HR people have never lived outside of the small head office city, and the boss has no children. Multiple expat moves provides a plethora of context to advocate, but its another language some days! Reading your comments Nina is a shot of confidence to keep the important issues on the negotiation table and to help people learn that there are valid reasons this proposed next placement has been unsuccessful for the previous assigned executives, and that my reputation as a "trailing spouse who can make it work" comes with the experience of advocating to set it up for success - and success at this posting will take absolutely every effort imaginable to not sink the future for a marriage and launching adults. Thank you for the validating comments!
  3. Nina Sichel's avatar
    Nina Sichel
    | Permalink
    Thank you both, Rebecca Grappo and George Patrin, for your responses. It is my intention, in posting these notes, that children and families are better able to navigate the challenges and enjoy the rewards of living internationally. Please feel free to share!
  4. Rebecca Grappo's avatar
    Rebecca Grappo
    | Permalink
    Well said, Nina. I'm glad that you are raising awareness of this issue of repatriation and the effect is has on kids. I will be sharing your article with other parents of TCKs.
  5. George David Patrin's avatar
    George David Patrin
    | Permalink
    Well said. Global "re-entry" is a very real form of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) for our children who at not "moving back," but "moving on, forward," on their own two feet. Hopefully, the resilience they developed will help them put down roots...somewhere. Thanks for this post reminding us all there are support programs our communities can implement to assist and 'welcome back' our 'expat citizens."
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