Although Vanessa has spent much of her career working as an intercultural communication trainer, she was not immune to reverse culture shock when she repatriated to the UK after 23 years living in Austria.
How do you decide to move back to your ‘home’ country after over two decades in another country? What are the thoughts and feelings that can go through someone’s head in such a situation?
Keep reading to learn how Vanessa navigated her decision to repatriate to the UK, with two kids in tow, and how she has managed to find her comfortable bubble in a country going-through an identity crisis.
Please tell us a little bit about your life and expat journey so far.
I’m Vanessa. I was born in Tanzania, raised in the UK, lived in Austria for 23 years, now repatriated to the UK. I have two children (22 and 19) who are bilingual and bicultural (half Austrian and half British).
I never saw myself as an expat in Austria as I chose to live there and wasn’t on any international posting. I always thought this word was rather negative in fact. I don’t any more as I have more life experience and I suppose I felt fully integrated in Austria having lived there for so long.
I went to live In Austria in 1991 as a language assistant in two grammar schools in Vienna. I literally had three days to decide if I should go or not as someone had dropped out and they needed a replacement.
I had just graduated and also had an interview lined up as a Marketing graduate trainee for L’Oréal in London. My mother influenced me here as she said I had one job offer (Vienna) and an interview which was no guarantee of a job. So off I went! I was always quite adventurous. This was a big decision for sure. I made it rather lightly!
In Vienna I fell in love there so I decided to stay! I lived in Vienna for a few years and worked as a radio journalist (1992-1994). It wasn’t the plan but it ended up that way.
There were ups and downs, and I ended up moving into the field of intercultural communication as after years of teaching Business English and English for Academic Purposes, I realised that working across cultures needed so much more.
I completed my Masters in Communication Studies, certified as a Developing People Internationally (DPI) trainer and then combined this with training English and running Xplore Programs to India and Russia, taking intercultural learning beyond the textbook.
I still do this (online at the moment). I am happiest when working with language, culture and identity!
When did the “should I stay or go?” question come up for you?
I remember when I moved from Vienna to Vorarlberg in 1994 I went through culture shock and I was very unhappy. I hadn’t experienced this in Vienna. I could have left but that meant failure to me so I stayed and I was very down.
I think I may have suffered from depression but I was only 24 and I was such a happy-go-lucky person before this happened. However, I settled, and the relationship ended as my partner couldn’t really cope with me not liking his home region.
“I stayed as I felt I owed it to myself to make it work! My mum was trying to get me to come home and I felt I needed to prove to myself that I could make it work.”
And I did make it work – I set up my own business, got married and had kids, was involved in the local community and had a lot of friends.
The next time I faced a big decision was after the relationship with my husband ended. In 2013 the thought of repatriation cropped up again. I was considering when I was thinking about moving back to the UK with my kids as I was divorced, struggling as a single mum and had met my current partner in the UK (he was an old school friend who I hadn’t seen for 25 years!).
I made the decision to move “home”. I tested the waters with my children first. Of course they were not overjoyed.
I decided the time wasn’t right and thought I had made the decision on ill advice and rather quickly.
“However, it kept eating away at me and I felt I had to do something as not knowing is really unsettling.”
It was in 2014 in India when the penny dropped and I knew I had to make the decision as it was causing me a lot of stress.
I was having a massage and my shoulders were so tense. The masseur said, “Madam, your back is not good!”. My reply was, “Well I go to posture classes, work out, stretch, what else can I do?”.
Her answer was simply, “Stop thinking so much.”
So I did and I made the decision that it was time to start a new chapter. It felt good.
“It’s not been easy but I have learned that making a decision is better than not making a decision at all. And also that sometimes we have many options, not just A or B!”
I am still living in the UK (where I grew up), repatriation has been difficult but I still work in Austria and some of my best friends are Austrian. I love the lifestyle and I still get to experience it. But it’s hard living across cultures, for sure.
Besides your partner, were there other reasons for why you considered moving back to the UK?
I was thinking of moving back before I met my partner. I just hadn’t really decided where I would move to as my family lives in different parts of the UK and I felt unsure about looking after myself and my kids on my own (financially and personally).
I had had enough of the “repeating a school year” (sitzenbleiben) element in the Austrian school system. I am well aware that all school systems have their strengths and weaknesses but I find this harsh – why punish a child because of failing in one subject?
I hated helping my kids with Maths homework in German!!! I found single-parenting hard.
I was afraid of growing old alone in a different culture. I felt it was time to go “home”.
How long have you been back in the UK and what has that experience been like for you?
I have been back for 7 years. It’s been a rocky experience in many ways. Me dealing with reverse culture shock, kids dealing with culture shock.
And BREXIT! I was looking forward to coming home to a diverse and open-minded culture. That hurt a lot!
But we are settled and everything is much better now. I switch between cultures, as do the children and they both study here and visit their Dad and family in Austria regularly. I work there too.
We tend to code-switch (compartmentalise those two lives). We have a lot of Austria in our home and in our cooking. I love listening to the radio without having to concentrate!
I realised that I still did that in Austria, despite speaking the language. We miss Austria, of course we do. It is a big part of my life and I miss my friends.
What I like most about the UK? Pop music and concerts, the “live and let live” attitude, Friday night at the pub and humour.
What I don’t like? That people are quite private, driving kids everywhere (this has improved in the pandemic) and there could be more local produce on the supermarket shelves (I say Brexit!!!)
How did you realize you were going through reverse culture shock? What helped you self-soothe?
I was totally expecting it as an interculturalist and I knew it would be hard.
I found everything dirty in the UK, I didn’t like the coffee-to-go and takeaway culture, the coldness, the darkness.
A general feeling of not being established professionally, I didn’t like that feeling. I missed my friends.
I found solace in joining a gym and going to concerts, walking in the Chiltern Hills, going back to where I grew up, seeing my family more.
What’s the best advice you would give your past self now?
I would have visualised my decision-making process and different options on paper – different scenarios. I should have leaned on others more to make the decision maybe?
23 years is a long time. I was part of the landscape, my friends were very sad and some incredulous that I would ever leave.
I think I considered the outcomes and made my decision based on practicalities and emotional reasons. I think it was made harder as it wasn’t just about me.
I don’t regret the decision. My career has taken off in all kinds of exciting directions.
I do find the UK hard though right now – UK has an identity crisis going on. Brexit hasn’t helped me settle back in.
I try to focus more on me and my intrinsic needs – and I love this time of year. It’s nice being home again when schools start and conkers are on the pavements.
I like to help people in this situation now.
Katherine is a clarity coach for expats who can’t decide whether to stay or go. She has combined her PhD research on internationals dealing with change, professional expertise in change management and insight from serial expat and repat life into a powerful signature coaching method. Katherine’s mission is to help expats create fulfilling lives that feel both fun and secure (yes, that’s possible!).