I first wrote a post about my repatriation experience at the 2-month mark. Since then life has been busy, surprising (in all senses of the word) and full of all sorts of new situations.
Still, as I’ve shared on my Instagram account, repatriation has been a relatively smooth process for me. But this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been things that have surprised me along the way.
So here’s a list of ten surprising repatriation experiences I’ve had since moving to Estonia in 2020.
1. I can’t speak my first language well
Since I left Estonia as a late teen and I didn’t keep up with my Estonian skills during my 15 years abroad, from day one I’ve had to work on expanding my “adult” vocabulary in Estonian.
Even though I had a strong foundation to build on, it seems that over the years I’ve adopted the logic of the English language into my way of speaking.
The result – Estonglish.
Even though things are getting better and better each day, I’m still far from being able to express complex thoughts in exactly the way that they sound in my head.
That’s incredibly frustrating for me as I enjoy sharing ideas and having long conversations. These days I feel quite shy about going into deep conversation in Estonian. I hope this changes over time.
2. I’ve adopted “foreign” habits without realizing it
Sometimes you only realize how much you’ve internalized the logic of life in another country once you leave it. This applies to mindsets that now seem normal, rules and regulations that you operate by on autopilot or even culturally situated behaviors.
It’s only when you come across a local that dares to point out that what you are doing/thinking/saying seems alien to them that you realize –
“I have changed without having realized it myself.”
Let me share an example.
About a month after moving to Estonia, an Estonian client of mine asked me why I was so positive and encouraging in meetings as it seemed fake and American (apologies to all my American readers!).
Considering that a typical Estonian is indeed very stingy with compliments and encouragement, I had never stopped to consider that my (new) way of being may not go over too well with some locals. When has a well-deserved compliment ever offended anyone?!
Regardless, I’ve been determined to not lose this habit that I picked up somewhere along the way. This is my way of maintaining my international identity and my sense of self, even if it comes across as odd to some.
3. People have been overly impressed with or jealous of my living abroad experiences
I’m very cautious about mentioning how many years I’ve been abroad. That’s because unless that person has lived abroad and been changed by the experience themselves, they are much more likely to either glorify you for having done it or put you down because “who do you think you are”.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it has been my experience in this small but very ambitious Estonian society.
On the bright side, I’ve experienced several professional doors being opened for me because of my extensive “international experience”.
On the flip side, I’ve had people relating to me as if I thought myself to be better than others because I’ve dared to leave the country.
In short, all I can say is that people are strange when it comes to their ideas about life abroad and you never know what their reaction is going to be.
4. I don’t know how things work anymore
Since I was away for more than a decade, and Estonia changed a whole lot during that time, even the smallest of errands have turned into a whole ordeal.
As a former expat, I’m fortunately well versed in dealing with such situations. Thankfully, speaking the language also helps a great deal in the stress of trying to send a parcel, interacting with state institutions or dealing with home maintenance issues.
In this very practical sense then, I also feel that this has been a move to a new country rather than a country that I know well. In fact, it has helped me a lot to treat this repatriation as a move to a new country. It has forced me to maintain an open heart and mind.
5. Local friends and family don’t really care about my past life abroad or my repatriation experience
I’d heard it from others many times – people in your clan, so to speak, really won’t care about your life abroad or even your repatriation experience. It’s something that I also knew based on my annual trips to Estonia.
While it does sometimes make me feel as if I can’t show up as my full self, so to speak, I know they don’t mean ill.
When people haven’t experienced what you have, you can’t possibly expect them relate to nor know to ask about your expat/repat life in the same level of detail that you may be ready or wanting to talk about.
It can lead to some serious moments of isolation if you’re not in the right state of mind.
What has helped me a whole bunch though are long chats with my expat friends who’ve also gone down the repatriation path.
At the end of the day, I don’t need my extended family or local friends to care about my international life or my repatriation experience, even if it were nice if they did. They are already providing me with a sense of having roots which is invaluable in itself. I can’t possibly expect them to be my everything.
6. I’m out of touch with local references
Other big moments of isolation are served up by times where someone makes a local cultural reference, drops a name or refers to some important event in year 20xx and all I can understand is… well, none of it.
Fortunately, I have managed to gather people around me who have accepted my “alien ways” and immediately help me to get up to speed when they see an error.exe look in my eyes.
Still, it takes concerted effort to explain to new people that I genuinely don’t have a clue and they shouldn’t expect me to know local references.
Word of advice – if they can’t accept that about you, they’re not your people (at least not for now).
7. My world feels really small somehow
The things I loved about expat life the most were opportunities to meet interesting new people from around the world (some of whom often shared my curiosity about the wider world), being exposed to different ways of thinking and behaving, as well as eating new foods.
As a repat, much of the above can be satisfied by going on vacations, if traveling were an option. But due to Covid-19, we all know that’s not on the table.
So with vacations out of the question, my world has slowly started to feel quite small.
For me, living in a small society where I’m primarily surrounded by locals means that I’m surrounded by “can’t-see-past-my-own-nose” issues and people running after status symbols to seem better off than their neighbours.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m also concerned about my own little life as much as anyone else on a day-to-day basis.
What I’m referring to is that expat life gave me the opportunity to escape such “small community” concerns.
I knew that I would be giving up this escape by repatriating so I’m at peace with this decision, but it deserves to be mentioned as well.
8. But a quiet life feels surprisingly good
I’ve dedicated such a big part of the last 15 years to studying, growing as a person and exploring the world. Those were the things that were my driving force until I hit my 30s and my priorities started to shift – subconsciously at first and then manifesting as a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with what I’m doing and where I’m potentially headed if I were to continue on this serial expat path.
Having kids, owning a home or even a summerhouse, getting married – none of those things were high up on my priority list up until recently.
So now that I’m mentally and emotionally ready for a quieter life, I’m surprised to find myself perfectly content with my non-expat life.
Still, I can only say that because I had the privilege to get all the traveling and exploring out of my system. Though I do miss getting on a plane, I now also know that I’m not missing out on anything if I’m not doing that anytime soon. I’ve seen enough to quench my curiosity for a good while.
9. The disconnect between what I remember and what is
Estonia has changed a lot in the years that I’ve been away, as have I. Still, memories are a powerful force and I can’t help but find myself comparing today’s Estonia to the Estonia I remember. Much like first-time expats who compare everything in their adopted country to how things are done where they’re from.
I suspect some of the difficulties some repats have in adjusting to life in their home/passport country stems from this disconnect between what they remember (thus, what they think their life is going to be like when they return) and what they end up experiencing.
It’s disorienting to realize you don’t really know the place you’re supposed to know well.
Although I didn’t have high hopes that I would know a whole lot about today’s Estonia, I’m still amazed when I find myself comparing what I see/experience today to what existed 15 years ago.
I guess it’s hard to lose those ties with the past, even if those ties only exist in our heads.
10. I still don’t know where I belong
And that’s just a normal day in the life of anyone with a global identity, I guess.
Fortunately, I didn’t expect to feel like I belong because of the amount of years I’ve lived in other countries. But I’m still human and alienation is something I definitely deal with on a daily basis.
All of the things I’ve described in the above list can trigger a sense of isolation in me. On some days it’s just a fleeting moment in my day, but on other days I need to find some quiet time for myself and give myself a hug.
In moments like the latter, I tell myself – it’s okay to feel alienated, it’s okay to be scared by everything that’s new and unknown, it’s okay to feel disappointed that people don’t always get me and I have to explain myself to be understood.
And thank goodness I can always make a video call with my repat(-turned-expat-again) friends and talk it through.
In general, it’s okay to feel all sorts of crazy things while adjusting to anything new in life.
With that in mind, I hope that if your repatriation experience is taking you for a spin (or you fear that it will be hard), make sure to seek out people who’ve been down that path and who can listen to your repatriation experience with empathy.
If you’re struggling to find clarity on whether moving back home is the right move for you then check out my coaching services. Let’s untangle that knot of issues making you feel stuck so you can move forward with confidence instead.
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!).