CHAPTER 12 COMING HOME
Returning home from your overseas assignment won't be as severe as an astronaut re-entering from outer space, but there will be some adjustment both for you and your family. After living abroad, however good or bad the experience was, you and yours won't be the same when you arrive home. You should realize that many things have changed while you've been away, starting with yourself. The language, your schedule, your manners, your living arrangements, and most of all, your job have been different than the US version. Your family has experienced changes also. You all have finally become comfortable in dealing with local food, customs, daycare/baby-sitters, school, servants, and entertaining. The children have made friends, school's not so bad after all, and they have substituted the local snack of choice for their favorite version back home. All in all, although you and your family may have begun the assignment in chaos, for the most part your lives have now adapted to what was once foreign.
The fact that the overseas assignment is over is often bittersweet news. To get things started, you begin compiling the endless lists all over again, this time in reverse. But at least this time, if you are returning to your home country, you know something about where you are going. No new language to learn, no strange foods, climate, schools, or transportation. It will be work, but not as many uncertainties . . . change is the status quo in international work.
You wind down your duties on the job, file your final reports, and begin the round of good-byes with your international friends. The family begins the same processes in their lives. Your spouse terminates her duties and memberships and the children's school is notified to send the records. Decisions are made on what furniture and clothes to take and what to leave behind. You're out of here!
You finally arrive home to the old homestead or a new one. Unfortunately, upon your return you may find that it's not the same as you've long imagined. When you are abroad, you carry a perception of "how things were" back home. When you return you discover that it's somewhat like going back to a high school reunion-your best friends have not only changed physically, but mentally. You don't have the same interests, perceptions, outlooks, or experiences as you did when you were friends and school mates in years past. Your old friends back home may fit into this category following your international experience. After you listen to the same local gossip, play golf at the same country club, visit the old neighborhood, it's just not the same somehow. It has nothing to do with your feeling superior or more rounded. Like it or not, you've been reshaped, and it may take awhile to be shaped back into a US version again. The longer you've been away, the longer it usually takes to successfully come home.
As the working partner, your return to the company headquarters may be not quite as you pictured it. They've possibly restructured or redecorated. Your former office has a new look with a new face. The managers have changed along with their objectives. Your overseas project may or may not be numero uno on their priority list. Procedures may have changed. Profits may have been less than expected. Several of your colleagues at the home office may have taken advantage of an early retirement package offered by your company in an effort to downsize.
You should be assessing your position at the company. They remember you when-you remember them when. Make sure that your international experience is remembered by the company and fits into their future plans. Many multinational companies include career counseling as a way to bring your needs and expectations in line with the current realities of your company. If your company does not offer this benefit, you might request it.
At home your family finds many changes. Even the local grocery store has become a super store on the edge of town with a new manager and new systems. They have replaced the old check cashing card system with a computer system. Even though it's good to be home, it still takes time to turn on the water, gas, and electricity which power all the appliances and conveniences. The kids return to find that some of their friends have moved and those who have stayed are "different" than what they remembered. In fact, the whole community may not be quite like they remembered it. The hangouts they used to haunt have been taken over by the younger crowd. The new "in" places are unfamiliar. TV shows have come and gone, new pop artists have pushed aside the familiar. The old shoes that were so comfortable three years ago aren't comfortable today. In fact, they're out of style and don't even fit anymore. Nothing is the same, neither you nor they. Time marches on.
BEST ADVICE-PLAN TO RETURN BEFORE YOU LEAVE
The successful re-entry process begins with the plans you make while still in your own backyard. One of the best things you can do to alleviate many of your re-entry difficulties is to have communicated regularly with all your home-based support systems while you were abroad. Communication between you and the people in your office, between your partner and friends, between the children and their friends is the best safety net you can set up before you leave.
Keeping in touch with your home office is vital. The global proliferation of electronic communications media such as faxing and e-mail has made it relatively easy to keep current with home office developments and to continue to maintain a presence there. Participate in discussions regarding strategy and opportunities. Determine a contact person with whom you can share information. Encourage your family to maintain communication with their friends back home also. What's new in your neighborhood? Did the local government change? How did the local teams do during the season and in the playoffs? Do they have a new coach or manager? Again the use of e-mail, faxing, and the World Wide Web is an excellent way for all of you to keep in touch with friends back home and to follow the latest "hot" news and "cool" trends.
Two-way communication is the best way to alleviate the reverse culture shock you will experience upon returning. Travel opportunities during your assignment might be used to return home to catch up on things. Frequent trips back to the plant, when possible, will keep you updated on new changes, faces, and priorities. Taking your vacation time to go home may be disappointing when contrasted with a visit to ancient ruins but will certainly keep alive the realities of your home base. Assuming you have stayed in close communication with both your job and your neighborhood, your re-entry process should be less chaotic.
Once you know you will be leaving and the date is on the calendar, try to wind things up quickly. A long, drawn out departure will be difficult for both you and your overseas friends. You will begin to wonder if you are ever leaving and so will they. Delayed good-byes just defer the re-entry process. Attend your farewell parties. Say your good-byes to all your co-workers, your neighbors, your friends, your children's friends. Grieve for the loss of the good times so that you can close this chapter in your life. Try to resolve all the outstanding issues that tie you to this assignment. Remember it well and move on.
Realize that the return home will have unexpected turmoil even in the best of times. The readjustment process will present challenges and difficulties. The reconnection process will take time. Don't minimize the effects this will have on you and your family. While you are dealing with the uncertainties of your job and finances, your spouse will be fielding your concerns along with hers and the children's. Try not to be unrealistic in your expectations that everything will return to normal automatically. Effective communication among all family members is a necessity not to be overlooked.
Children may become depressed and despondent. Their immune systems can break down and they may experience frequent illnesses. They may have anxiety about school and their peer relationships. On the other hand, now that they are back home, they may want and expect more freedom. Moving from country to country as a teen may be turbulent at best and possibly may have colored your children's self esteem. It is important to continue a dialogue with them especially under difficult circumstances.
It may take a full cycle of seasons and holidays for the reconnection to the old neighborhood to finally take place. After the family becomes re-involved in local functions, the children settled in school, old and new relationships with friends and neighbors rebuilt, and routines established, the domestic setting often comes together. You and your family will never be quite the same as before you left home nor view the world quite the same again when you return. Who's to say-you may yearn to do it all again. Certainly you will have grown mentally and emotionally from the experience.