An honest repatriation update (14 months): 5 things I was afraid of and how things actually turned out

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It’s been 14 months since I moved to Estonia after 15 years as a serial expat, on top of being a Third Culture Kid.

Here’s an honest reflection from me on what the last 1 year and 2 months have been like, leaving out the part about living through a global pandemic.

In case you missed it, here’s a 2-month update and a 8-month update.

So without further ado, these are the 5 things I was afraid of when it came to repatriating (in no particular order) and how these things have actually turned out.

1. FEAR OF LOSING MY INTERNATIONAL IDENTITY

WHAT I WAS AFRAID OF

I’ve lived abroad over half of my life (click here to read more about my story). What’s more, different cultures, countries and traveling in general have made up such a big part of my life that “living internationally” has been a big part of my identity. 

Just like moving abroad can mean that you have to redefine parts of who you identified as back home in order to adjust to a new environment, I was afraid that moving to my passport country would mean that I would have to give up my international identity.

HOW THINGS HAVE TURNED OUT

In fact, it was only during the first 3 months after repatriating that I gravitated towards local expat communities.

I guess it was my comfort zone and it helped me deal with the first shock of repatriation.

But I discovered, to my great surprise, that I was actually tired of the expat scene and I didn’t want to learn about Estonia through the eyes of expats.

I wanted to rediscover Estonia through locals and thereby make space for discovering “my people” in this country.

In that sense, my life has taken a 180 degree turn. I rarely speak English, which used to be my everyday language for 15+ years, I don’t have any non-local people in my life and I’ve also chosen not to work in an international company.

No one is as surprised about all this as I am.

I also realized that I no longer need to have an international flavor in my life because it’s already there and no one can ever take that away from me.

I will always be international through the memories of my travels and adventures, not to mention many of my closest friends and family who live all over Europe. That’s more than enough “international” for me.

2. FEAR OF NOT FITTING IN

WHAT I WAS AFRAID OF

The feeling of not fitting in has haunted me since I was a little kid. That’s simply par for the course for any Third Culture Kid.

But I was particularly afraid of sticking out like a sore thumb in a country where the way I look, my name, my ability to speak the local language and more-or-less understand the local habits would all suggest that I’m a local.

The thought of still being the odd one out after years of being “the foreigner” was terrifying.

HOW THINGS HAVE TURNED OUT

I do stand out because it’s not possible for me to fake that I’m 100% a local. But it turns out that nobody cares.

Of course, people have been curious at first about why I don’t know certain things about life in Estonia, but then they forget about it and we simply go on about our shared activities. I suppose it helps that I generally do pass as a local.

Of course, I’ve also been very selective about the social settings I’ve decided to associate myself with.

There have already been two occasions where I had to pick up my courage and exit a social/professional setting. It took some time to admit it, but I could see that it just didn’t feel good for me to be with those people.

Exiting was a great decision because it made space for a much better set of people to enter my life and I couldn’t be happier about how things have turned out.

Another observation to share is that I often seem to subconsciously gravitate towards other Estonian repats.

I don’t know this about them beforehand, but sooner or later it turns out that the people I click with the most typically have lived abroad for a long time themselves. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but definitely a trend I’ve noticed.

Which makes sense –

Other repats simply get it. Even without having to explain it, they get what kind of life you’ve led without finding it weird, enviable or something worth commenting on.

They also get why I chose to put down roots in Estonia rather than somewhere else, even if I myself might still struggle to put it into one coherent sentence. What’s more, they also get that a part of you will always be left behind somewhere else.

In short, I suppose you only want to “fit in” to social situations or groups when these don’t entirely fit you to begin with. It just may take a while to realize that and require actually taking action based on that information.

3. FEAR OF GETTING BORED 

WHAT I WAS AFRAID OF

Although this blog mostly addresses the hard parts to expat life, I didn’t become a self-initiated serial expat because I wanted to torture myself.

I simply didn’t know that expat life can be a tough path to choose.

Many people don’t know what they will be up against as expats. Even if they do read up on what to expect, the reality of it will hit everyone differently.

Regardless, the good parts about expat life are still things that get me excited.

Exploring new places, trying new foods, meeting new people, learning new things. These things still fill me with joy.

With the borders mostly closed and travel being a pain in the ass during an ongoing global pandemic, I was afraid that I’d be bored to death very soon because I’d only have Estonia to get to know.

HOW THINGS HAVE TURNED OUT

I think the jury is still out there on this one because the first two years abroad can often be the most exciting (and draining) years.

Since I’ve treated my repatriation as a move to a foreign country, it’s fair to say that I’m still very excited about everything that life here has to offer.

However, since I do like to keep myself mentally engaged, I’ve set new goals for myself that have taken me out of my comfort zone without requiring a flight or a passport.

In the last year I’ve been working towards getting a driver’s license, I’ve learned about and started investing in stocks, I decided to start offering coaching services through Bad Days Abroad and I’ve been trying out all sorts of new recipes.

All of these things have kept me on my toes, although I’ll be the first to admit that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of getting off a plane/train/ship and finding yourself in a totally new environment.

4. FEAR OF FALLING BACK INTO OLD ROLES

WHAT I WAS AFRAID OF

Repatriating after a long time abroad can feel scarier than moving somewhere new.

That’s because you’re moving back to a place where you used to be a different person at a different point in time. You may not be the same person any longer or even want to become that person again.

Some people in your life may even expect you to fall back into old roles and reintegrate seamlessly into the old way of things.

But life abroad may have encouraged you to become more YOU.

Although I have very few people in Estonia in whose mind I returned to Estonia, and they have stayed close to me throughout my years abroad, the fear of reverting to an old version of me when I last lived in Estonia definitely terrified me.

HOW THINGS HAVE TURNED OUT

It has taken me some time and a bit of trial and error, but I realized that at the core of this fear of falling back into old roles is lack of practice in living according to your own values, setting boundaries where necessary and learning to deal with the discomfort of disappointing someone as a result of your boundary.

In other words, we’re dealing with overcoming people-pleasing tendencies here.

When I think back on the person I was when I last lived in Estonia, even though I was very young, I genuinely don’t want to be like her again. In fact, I am so far from who I was back then that it’d be pointless to even compare.

But there’s something about familiar places and types of people that can trigger you to forget who you have become.

This is the trap that I found myself in on two separate occasions in the last year.

It’s only when I’d started to complain about certain new people in my life (which is unusual since I’m more of a fixer than a complainer) that I realized how I had subconciously reverted into an old version of me.

It took some strategising for me to gracefully exit those settings, and the people involved weren’t all that happy regardless of how polite I was about it all, but the relief I felt afterwards was priceless compared to the degree of their disappointment.

Almost as a reward for setting healthy boundaries and taking care of my interests, new people who fit me that much better entered my life soon after.

5. FEAR OF REGRETTING MY DECISION

WHAT I WAS AFRAID OF

Since there was no way I could predict the future, there was also no way for me to know beforehand that repatriating would in fact be the right decision for me.

If you’ve made it this far in the post, you already know that I had a lot of fears around repatriating, all of which could have easily turned out way worse than they actually have.

Leaving a place that you’re familiar with, even if you’re not happy there, is hard as it is.

But realizing a few years down the line that the path you chose to take instead was not the right one either can really debilitate a person from making any kind of decision, myself included.

HOW THINGS HAVE TURNED OUT

I owe 100% of my happiness and contentment today to all the self-reflection I did around why I wanted to leave Denmark, why expat life wasn’t working for me anymore and why I wanted to move to Estonia.

Of course, this may sound stupid.

As if most people who move abroad or back home don’t try to think things through beforehand.

The problem is that we may get so stuck in our fearful thoughts, as I did, that we fail to make a decision at all.

The problem is that we want to make sure our choice to move will leave us with zero regrets. Rationally, I knew I couldn’t predict the future so I simply had to the risk of finding it out for myself.

I continued to do a lot of self-reflection even after my arrival as I slowly tried to feel my way through establishing a life in Estonia.

I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t always comfortable.

Alongside the excitement of being in a familiar place and starting a new life, I was also adamant about making sure that I hadn’t “pulled a geographic” or that I wasn’t about to do it should things not go well immediately.

What’s “pulling a geographic”?

It’s actually a term used in drug/alcohol recovery language and refers to one’s subconscious belief that switching locations will solve one’s life problems, when the problems are actually rooted in unresolved emotional pain within oneself.

While I’ve never dealt with any kind of addiction, over the past year I’ve realized that travel/living abroad has definitely been my poison of choice.

Except travel/living abroad is seen as glamorous and socially acceptable, so I never truly had to stop and wonder: “What am I avoiding in my constant cycle of uprooting myself and trying to settle in?”

That’s why repatriation has been, on some level, a confronting experience. As a result of this, I’ve been able to put those loose ends to rest that had been subconsciously driving me – because they no longer serve me. 

As a result, I don’t regret any of my choices.

There’s wisdom in hindsight, yes, but that wisdom does not give grounds for judging my past self for the things I was not yet ready to face or humanly could not foresee.

And so it is with making far-reaching decisions as well.

We can’t know what the future will bring nor can we predict how we’ll one day feel about our past decisions.

We can only make a calculated decision based on the limited information – about ourselves, other people, external circumstances – that we have available to us today.

If you would like a fresh perspective on whether you should continue expat life or move back home, check out my email and live coaching services to help you get out of stuck.

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