A phenomenon very similar to culture shock occurs among a great number of expatriates after repatriation. Often, this psychological after-effect of returning home from an international assignment is simply called reverse culture shock, but it’s probably better to understand when described as re-entry shock or re-adjustment issues.
Faced with repatriation to their home country, many expatriates are not prepared for the reverse culture shock they will have to deal with. After all, repatriation simply means going home – how difficult can it actually be? However, the same expatriates then often realize that re-adjusting can be harder than they would have expected.
First of all, it is important to realize that, next to the actual length of time spend abroad, an expatriate’s reason for repatriation can be a deciding factor in regard to the scope of re-adjustment issues. Re-entry shock often hits particularly hard those expats who decide to return home prematurely and for whom repatriation happens faster and earlier than originally intended. Having to repatriate prematurely due to, for example, overspending, medical problems or family issues can be hard enough. However, this might additionally worsen the effects of reverse culture shock, since it allows for less mental preparation time. At least, that’s how Nasreen (51) remembers her family’s repatriation from Mexico City.
For them, repatriation was not the end of a successful expatriate assignment but a blessed relief. Her husband felt overwhelmed by his responsibilities as a production manager in a chemical plant in the Distrito Federal, and Nasreen herself was fed up with the local infrastructure and concerned about their daughter’s health problems. With a heavy heart, the frustrated family eventually opted for repatriation – unaware of their coming struggle with re-entry shock.
In the beginning, Nasreen was relieved to return to London: “When we made the joint decision to break off the assignment, I was so glad to leave – and then I just felt exhausted and confused when we finally arrived home.” Not only did Nasreen struggle with feelings of failure for not seeing the assignment through, London too seemed suddenly much more chaotic than she’d remembered it. Instead of simply coming home, she and her family once again experienced culture shock, facing feelings of alienation and anxiety.
Even if the expat assignment itself goes according to plan and ends on a positive note, repatriation can lead to a reverse culture shock nonetheless. Although you will probably feel that your last few years abroad were a “success” rather than a waste of time, this doesn’t necessarily make re-entry into another culture any easier. Your perception of yourself and your environment will undoubtedly have changed during your international assignment and home might at first not seem all that familiar after all.