The Continental Divide

worldmap.jpgby Pamela Weinsaft (New York City) Getting a plum expat assignment overseas is a sure sign you’re on your way to making it. Your company will likely give you an orientation to that new country – the “do’s” and “don’ts” to make sure that you fit right into your new, albeit temporary home. You immerse yourself in a different culture and possibly different language, noting all those things that are different and surprising things that are the same. But what happens when it comes time to return home? The transition may not be as smooth as one would expect. So says Irenee French, an Irish woman from London who just returned to the United Kingdom after 17 years of living and working in Northern California. When she spoke with The Glass Hammer recently, Ms. French quickly listed many things that have challenged her upon her return, including the relative lack of space in both her apartment and the overcrowded Tube line which serves her neighborhood. But more than the superficial differences, it was the cultural differences that threw her for a loop. She was shocked at the change in work culture in the years she’s been away, and in particular at the brashness that seems to have permeated the office. “I can’t believe what these girls in suits are coming out with: vulgarity, baseness. They’re cursing up a storm and talking in detail about their sex lives. That’s something they definitely would have been written up for in California.” Samantha Anderson, a New York professional who spent 7 years working for a Japanese company in Tokyo, spoke to us of the difficulty reintegrating into the U.S. culture after having successfully integrated into the Japanese culture. “There is a pride in one’s work in Japan–a drive to do a job, whether it’s bagging groceries or making a department-wide presentation–to the best of one’s ability, which is often lacking here. It can be frustrating here to deal with the apathy–and, dare I say it, incompetence–at the grocery store, the post office, and at work.” According to Anderson, other things from her life in Japan remain. “Although I grew up in a culture that was all about hugging a kissing hello and goodbye, I quickly became accustomed to bowing instead. Now it is so ingrained that I often have that awkward moment when greeting friends or saying goodbye to colleagues where I pause, wondering whether to kiss, bow or shake hands. And I still bow constantly, even on the phone. Boy, does that make colleagues and family members laugh.” Others talk of the loneliness that comes from being the only one in a town or among her group of friends with the life-changing overseas experience. Carol, a poster on a repatriation forum on, wrote about the troubles she faced when returning to Ohio after several years in Germany: “I thought I was prepared for–and expected–the “reverse culture shock” but in spite of it, found myself driving home from the office sometimes in tears at the end of the day during my first few weeks home. It’s getting better now, but I miss Germany so much and the friends I made there. It seems that I really can’t talk very much about my experiences abroad to people here. They really just don’t understand. My perspective has broadened on political issues and culture in general, but it just doesn’t seem to matter back here.” Another poster, Julia, wrote, “In the process of adjusting to Finland, I ultimately rejected many things American, sometimes forcefully in my desperation to make sense of life over there … now I find it much more difficult to reaccept American life than it was to accept the Finnish way, because I’ve already actively rejected it, replaced it. And I feel weak when I allow myself to do things I rejected, like eating fast food, or telling little white lies; normal parts of American life, no big deal, yet I feel like if I go back to the way I was, then it will truly all be for nothing.” ExpatExchange posters shared these tips for returning home: 1. Keep contact with those who shared your journey overseas, whether they’re work colleagues at home or abroad. 2. Reach out to meet people who have lived a substantial period abroad, even if it’s not where you spent your time abroad; they will understand your experience in a different way than someone who has never lived abroad. 3. Make friends with people from the country you visited who are living in your area. You can help them feel more at home here, and they can help you feel less “homesick” for your adopted home. Finally, however great the temptation, don’t withdraw because you feel misunderstood. Keep reaching out for the connections that ease your return home.