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Monday, August 23, 2010

Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge/Cornerstone #3

"The Semi-Invisible Traveler,"
by Bruno Catalano (Camden Arts Centre, UK)
Congratulations! You have almost completed the series of cornerstone posts on the themes of this blog. But in order to reach the finish line, you must undergo the experience — full of promise but mostly full of peril — of coming home again after seeing an "elephant."

In the previous post, we became acquainted with Eddie Expat, who has seen an elephant or two in his time — and lived to tell the tale. But for the final phase of this discussion, we will turn our attention to Ramona Repat, who unlike Eddie has packed in the elephant-seeking adventure and trundled back to the land of her birth.

You might think that knowing something of Eddie's story would help you to anticipate what Ramona will have to say for herself. But think again. Just as the expatriate's life is another country (or two), the repatriate's life is another country (or three).

#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" … Encyclopedic version
#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat

#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge

Ramona Repat is back in the United States after a decade-and-a-half in other countries. I invited her to be a guest blogger, but she prefers to have me speak on her behalf as she has family matters to attend to, which she neglected during her time abroad. Ramona says it has taken her some years to come to grips with the challenges of repatriation — also known as "reverse culture shock" or "reentry syndrome." What follows is a summary of her key observations.


Ramona's Top Ten Observations on Repatriation:

"The Prodigal Son,"
by Gerard van Honthorst (1623)
1) At first Ramona objected to the title of this post, saying it was too repat-centric, since the first thing every returnee must realize is that it's not just about them any more. After all, this blog does not cover prisoners of war or refugees that are being sent home. On the contrary, the blog's focus is on the kind of repats who have voluntarily spent their lives seeing elephants and whose stories are therefore closer to that of a prodigal son (or daughter). Even if their homecoming is joyous, they may still face a reckoning not unlike the one in Rudyard Kipling's poem:
My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechises me
Till I want to go out and swear.
In Ramona's view, repats would do well to rise above their personal histories in acknowledging all those who have, in essence, underwritten their elephant-seeking adventures:
  • Your family couldn't always depend on you for support at critical moments, as you were too far away to be physically present (being present in spirit isn't always enough).
  • The government had to sacrifice some portion of your income (as you didn't pay much in taxes).
  • Politicians couldn't rely on your support for their campaigns (at most, you probably voted by absentee ballot, and only in the presidential election years).
  • The working world had to carry on without the benefit of your input and experience.
  • The environment, too, suffered: all that galavanting around the world has left an untidy carbon footprint.
2) Ramona further advises patience: just as you couldn't see an elephant overnight, it will also take time to earn back your compatriots' trust. She warns in particular against assuming you can easily sell yourself with an elephant-seeker's résumé. Most potential employers could not care less about how many wrinkles the elephant has. She read somewhere that if you move abroad, you lose four years of your career, as you can't take your networks with you and have to start again with zero contacts. Well, job hunting as a repat is not for the feint of heart either. So, Ramona suggests getting a dog, if you don't have one already. (If ever there was a time to benefit from a canine's unconditional love, this would be it...)

Statue of Rip Van Winkle, Irvington, NY
3) Who are you, what have you sacrificed? Ramona admits, however, that a certain amount of navel gazing is inevitable for repats like herself. It's not uncommon, she notes, for them to develop a Rip Van Winkle complex. Rip Van Winkle got himself into trouble by proclaiming himself a loyal subject of King George III, having snoozed through the American Revolution. Likewise, most repats possess some major cultural lacunae. Ramona remembers thinking, for instance: since when did this fad for home schooling take off, and what's this I keep hearing about charter schools? And, though most repats don't come back with long white beards (they are more likely to sport a perennial tan), they must nevertheless come to terms with the loss of their former lives (and youths) in the mists of time. And for 21st-century American repats, there is an additional counter culture shock in realizing that your nation — and in many cases, your family as well — has become highly dysfunctional in your absence. Ramona often reflects on how far times have changed since Thomas Wolfe wrote his book suggesting that if you went home, you might be seen as a failure in the eyes of your family and friends. Now it's the other way around. You might be tempted to judge them harshly: good grief, what have you done to this place?!

4) But if Rip Van Winkle is a convenient role model for many repats, Ramona recommends taking a look at the Chinese version of the tale, which in some ways rings truer to their circumstances than Washington Irving's. Irving based his story on an old German folk tale of a goatherd named Peter Klaus, who awakens from a 20-year slumber after drinking fairy wine on the Kyffhäuser Mountain, to find his village dramatically changed. (This tale has parallels to the old Jewish story about Honi M'agel.) But in the Taoist tale that was told in ancient China, a woodcutter ventures into a forest and encounters two old men playing go (weiqi). He falls into a trance and when he comes out many years later, his axe handle has rotted to dust. Japanese (who also have their own Rip Van Winkle, Urashima Tarō) found the Chinese story fascinating, as evidenced by this 9th-century poem conveying the woodcutter's thoughts upon returning to his village:
I've come back home.
There is no friend to play go with.
That place far away
where an axe handle turned to dust -
how dear to me it has become!
Ramona, too, can relate to the woodcutter's feeling of longing. Seeing elephants is an all-absorbing adventure beyond compare. Is it any wonder that so many repats become permanent malcontents? Ramona has to keep reminding herself not to come across as a Ra-MOAN-a.

5) On a related note, Ramona says that one of the most difficult adjustments for repats is a feeling that their horizons are shrinking. Ramona recalls, when she first came back to this country, being drawn to a book on display in a chain bookstore: Seeing the Elephant: Understanding Globalization from Trunk to Tail. The book concerns global financial strategy, but its title really spoke to Ramona. She recalls saying to herself: "Okay, so you've seen everything from trunk to tail. But how do you go back to seeing just trunk again — or being around others who do?" (Not surprisingly, the book was on the half-price table.)

6) As a result, most repats end up with an elephant (or two, or three) in the room. They refrain from speaking out on issues they feel passionately about for fear of being labeled raving lunatics. Ramona, for instance, still can't get over how many cars there are on the roads compared to when she left, of which an unacceptably high proportion are SUVs. In her day, only the military and the police were allowed to drive such gas-guzzling vehicles. How she would love to get up on her soapbox and preach about her years of living in countries where people get around perfectly well using public transport and driving fuel-efficient cars. But she knows full well that, by the time she has cleared her throat, most of her listeners will have bolted for their Range Rovers.

7) That's of course assuming that Ramona could deliver an effective oratory given how challenging she sometimes finds communications with her fellow citizens. Clueless? Well, yeah. "You go, girl," "smokin' hot," "wife beater," "fugly," "rad," "yo," "yadda yadda yadda," "whatever," "as if" — Ramona is in a perpetual state of incomprehension. Vocabulary aside, she still struggles with daily interactions. When someone tells her to "have a nice day," for instance, there is a visceral sense of familiarity coupled with a sense of strangeness. After wrestling with her conflicting emotions, Ramona has at long last reached a place where she accepts that she is now a hybrid personality and will never be fully re-assimilated. She and several of her repat friends now think that the only country where they will feel at home is the one they create for themselves in cyberspace, so have set up blogs. (Ramona calls hers "Ramona's Much-Expanded World" in honor of Ramona Quimby, that rambunctious 8-year-old heroine. Ramona projects she will leave Portland eventually.)

Isabella Bird, 19th-c. explorer
(print by Stephen Alcorn, 1991)
8) As a repat, Ramona also finds herself much more sensitive when someone shows intolerance or bigotry, than she was before her travels. She recalls an incident that occurred the first summer after she came home, when she was walking down the street in the blazing heat carrying a sun umbrella she had picked up in Japan. Suddenly, a car went by honking its horn and with someone leaning out of the window yelling that people "don't do that in America." Ramona noticed it was an SUV with Virginia plates. At times like these, Ramona wishes she had been born in Victorian England, where people who traveled and saw elephants were held in high esteem, however eccentric they became (and women carrying parasols was de rigueur).

9) But despite the many trials and tribulations, Ramona urges new arrivals to have faith in the repatriation process. Cultivating your own back garden can be immensely entertaining after so many years on foreign soil. When she first got home, Ramona spent hours roaming the aisles of her local drugstore, supermarket, and bookstore, feeling like a kid in a candy store. And who knew that the U.S. had so many superb vacation spots on its borders? "Mexico and Canada, here we come!" she is fond of exclaiming.

10) A fan of cinema, Ramona is also not one to shy away from the grand gesture, and she thinks the grandest gesture of all for an elephant seeker is to come back home. So what if you have to eat humble pie and spend some years carving out a new niche for yourself in your homeland? "Hang it all, you've seen an elephant!" The words of the farmer whose cart got knocked over by the circus parade are a mantra that has sustained Ramona through her readjusting pains. Not to mention the idea that if all else fails, she can go abroad again and work on a sequel ... (Joke! Ramona insists she is here to stay, even if it necessitates frequent visits to the pachyderm house in the local zoo.)

Question for repats: Can you relate to Ramona's story? Has she left anything out?
Question for expats: Can you imagine coming home again after hearing what Ramona has to say, or has she scared you off completely? (Pls note: That was not her intention!)


awindram said...

I like the umbrella story. In fact, I was just reading an interesting article about Italian parasols.

ML Awanohara said...

Although Ramona isn't me--she is an amalgam of me and other repats I have known over the years--the umbrella story did happen to me. The setting was the nation's capital, no less, where summers are particularly brutal (it having been built on a swamp) and an extra layer of sun protection therefore seemed warranted.

But thanks to your wonderful link, I now see that I'm not the only one to be ridiculed for bringing home an umbrella:
"The traveler Jonas Hanway, who acquired a Piedmontese umbrella in Leghorn (Livorno), was for many years held up to ridicule when, in about 1750, he returned to London with one."

p.s. My maternal grandfather's family came from Northern Italy. Perhaps I have ancestors who were ombrellai--or, more likely, ombrellaio? Come to think of it, my grandfather was rather difficult and surly! That would certainly help to explain my inordinate fondness for such accessories, even to the point of withstanding mockery.

p.p.s. One good thing to come out of this summer's heat: parasols are starting to be in, at least in NYC! The fashionable people are carrying the Chinese kind, not very practical but pretty...

Anonymous said...

I would add a twist to this insightful post – does not the "repat" experience have a lot to do with where you were (then) and where you are (now)? And, I suppose, when you came back?

I was an expat for many years in Tokyo. After returning to the US and undertaking an MBA at NYU, I had expected to be able to repurpose my experience in Japan to new and exciting career opportunities in the USofA. Not to be. When looking for a job after B School, I was told again and again: "Oh, you are a Japan expert. We don’t need any Japan experts (the Japanese economic bubble had just imploded); why don’t you look for work in Tokyo?"

I looked at my resume and saw superior experience in marketing communications and banking; they saw Japan. I asked myself, "If I had gotten this same experience in London or Paris, would hiring managers be as focused on the geography?" I have to think not. Hiring managers tend to be single dimensional and focused on "why not this person" far more than "why this person." I could see them struggling with my resume: "Oh, Tokyo... I don’t understand Japan – it is sooo foreign ... Therefore, I don’t understand his experience and my clients won’t either. I mean, exotic experience is not relevant experience, right?"

American professionals who work for a while in Japan are well aware of this Truth. Many are careful not to get pegged as "the Japan person."  They know that once you are "the Japan person," there is no easy way home. Therefore, many choose to leave after a couple of years, even to inferior employment back in the US, in order to climb out the rut before it is too late.

I know several people with MA degrees who have worked in dead-end (low pay and no benefits) teaching jobs in Japan for 30 years because, like a spaceship spun out of orbit, there was no longer a trajectory home.

(Even if they tried to get a teaching position in a public school here, their teaching experience in Japan would not be counted as work experience. "Sorry, Japanese schools are not certified by the US DOE.")

I would imagine those whose time abroad was spent in Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, anywhere in Africa, etc., would have similar experiences. On the other hand, those whose expat experience was in Western Europe or Canada would have a smoother reentry. What is your sense?

As for the Rip Van Winkle effect, that was true, but no longer. Thanks to the Internet, global news services, the great number of international travelers, etc., it is very hard to accidentally disconnect oneself from what is happening in the West wherever you are nowadays.

Thoughts for the pot...

ML Awanohara said...

@Anon: My aim w/ these cornerstone posts was to distill what I've learned (from my own experiences, from those of others I've talked to) into a set of observations that would apply to most elephant seekers—regardless of where you go, precisely how long you stay, or the particular moment when you elect to end the adventure.

As far as repatriation goes: I honestly think that the longer you stay abroad, the more difficulty you will have with selling yourself in the United States. There simply isn't any get around the fact that the United States is a very insular country that does not especially value time spent abroad. Consider some of the evidence:
+ Only about 28 percent of the U.S. population has a passport (2008 stat, U.S. Government Accountability Office).
+ President Bush famously had not traveled outside the continental US before he became president. The same is true for most congresspeople and senators.
+ President Clinton had to gloss over the fact that he'd spent time at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and as for President Obama, living in Indonesia has been nothing but a liability, with a number of his political enemies still trying to prove that he isn't an American citizen.

You said that if you'd gotten your work experience in Paris or London rather than Tokyo, employers might look at your CV differently. But remember that many Americans look down on Europe as the land of socialism. Japan, which behaves as America's little brother, is in some ways closer to us.

I'd actually be curious to hear from Europeans who've gone back to their countries after working in the United States: do they find it any easier than we do? I imagine they still confront certain practical problems: you can't take your work networks with you, and will a potential employer want to call a boss in a completely different part of the world for a reference?

On the Rip Van Winkle complex: I take your point about the availability of information via the Internet, but in my view, that can be no substitute for living in a place, and so far no one has managed to devise a way to live in two places at once.

Let's take a language example (see #7). By now I know what "yadda yadda yadda" means, though I had no idea when I first got back to the United States. To this day, though, I'm not sure where this slang expression came from or why people started using it. (I just now looked it up and see it comes from Yiddish, and became popular in the 1990s after it was featured on the popular TV show Seinfeld—can you believe I've never watched an episode?!)

Since language is a living organism that evolves over time, it's impossible to keep up that evolution if you live far away (especially in a place where the native tongue isn't English).

Here's another example. One of the things I loved most about living in England was theatre. But I can only barely keep up with the trends now that I'm living back here. Indeed, it was only by chance the other day (I was taking some newspapers out for recycling) that I learned that London's two smash hits this summer were an operatic version of The Duchess of Malfi and You Me Bum Bum Train. I happened to notice a New York Times article by Ben Brantley reporting that these two East End (no, not West End) productions "purport to redefine what it means to be part of an audience in the early 21st century."

Now what if I'd gone to London this summer without knowing any of this, and overheard people talking in a pub about going to see something called "Bum Bum" and having their bodies shaken, tossed, and turned upside down? That would have been a true Rip Van Winkle moment, particularly for a woman who thinks she has seen it all!

Maryline said...

In response to ML Awanohara, I'm a French expat in the US, have lived here for 7 years and I cannot imagine working in France again. It's not even so much the network, the opportunities... All I can think of are the limitations of employment in France, labor regulation is really another animal!
That and most stores are closed on Sunday, who are they kidding! :)

expatriatelife said...

Ramona is right about repatriation requiring TIME and PATIENCE. It is definitely the hardest part of the expatriation cycle. But yet it is good to be back and worth enduring in order to have seen the elephant.

ML Awanohara said...

@Maryline: I am interested in what you say about France. Some years ago, we were friends with a couple here in NYC: he was a French expat, and she a mix of nationalities (mother French and father Cuban). He always said that he would never go back to France for similar reasons to you: limitations of employment, particularly if you aspire to be an entrepreneur (he was setting up his own business).

But then they had two kids and the next thing we knew, they packed up all their things and moved to Paris! Nowadays they claim that they wouldn't want to raise their family anywhere else and that Paris is much better for family life than NYC was. Go figure!

ML Awanohara said...

@expatriatelife: I think I can speak for Ramona in thanking you for your empathetic comment. I further appreciate your courage in tackling this topic on your blog: Repatriation - One Year On. If only more repats could write as honestly as you do!

Canada to Azerbaijan? Well, that was quite an elephant!!! If it any wonder that upon your return to Canada, you wanted to curl up w/ a blanket over your head? But it's great you've emerged to talk about this phase of the story. An inspiration to us all!

Kym Hamer said...

I moved to the UK 6 and a half years ago from Australia intending to stay for good - maybe something happens over time but I just can't imagine living in Australia again. I just don't feel like I fit there at all. Or that I can talk about all the things my life's about now even during visits - I don't feel that people 'at home' really get me any more.

It feels really disconnected but liberating to at the same time - which in itself is a confronting cycle of sadness, relief, joy, guilt and loneliness.

Mum said when she visited recently that Aussies tend to 'decide' to come home after about 10 years...never say never, you never know what life brings and all of that...but right now they feel like cliches that don't apply to me.

Kym Hamer said...

I found this article in an online 'newspaper' here in London called The Australian Times - it described so exactly some of the feelings I've experienced, I thought I'd share it:

ML Awanohara said...

@Kym: Now that I'm going deeper into the expat blogs and discussion boards, I found some Americans who emigrated to Oz in 2001 (after Bush took office) and claim to absolutely love it. Chacun à son goût!

Interesting what your mum said about the ten-year mark. When I was in Japan, the rule of thumb was that if you stayed any longer than three years, you were in danger of becoming a "lifer." It was thought that people with strong ties to their home country would opt to go home at that point (if not before).

I'm not advocating a return to one's native land for every Eddie Expat, but I do think we all have the potential to make that choice and be at peace with it. That said, it requires no small amount of mental and emotional strength, and I'm never surprised to hear when a Ramona Repat decides they've had enough of home and looks for another expat gig.

I love the Australia Times article you found on expats facing mental health risks. I hope we can explore some of London psychologist Greg Madison's points in this blog, for instance: "Individuals leave their home because they never felt 'at home’ in the first place." 

Almost American said...

I went back to the UK after 3.5 years in the USA. I'd come over here to get a Master's degree, and ended up staying a little longer as I got a short-term job teaching in a private high school. When I went back to the UK I wanted to continue teaching. (I was fully certified as a teacher in the UK before I left.) I spent several months job hunting, and did not limit myself to teaching. Nothing. The only interview I got was for a job as a technical writer at Digital. Didn't get the job. I got offered 2 jobs back in the US, so I came back. I had been warned before I left that schools would not value either my Master's degree ("You won't be able to get back down to the kids' level") or the time spent abroad ("We suspect you'll disappear off overseas again at the first opportunity.")

ML Awanohara said...

@Almost American: Thank you for that story. I believe there has been a considerable brain drain from the UK to the U.S. when it comes to jobs. (Indeed, people often joked that I was doing a "reverse brain drain" when I went to the UK to study.) So perhaps your potential UK employers were right to suspect that you might get a more lucrative offer back here? You don't say when you received the two job offers, but was it before the recession? The irony is, I'm not sure America could offer much better than the UK at this point.

On a somewhat related note: I have a theory that those whose CV includes elephant seeking are particularly vulnerable in these recessionary times. When times are tough, xenophobia is rife, a topic I began to explore in a recent post (and will return to again before long).

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. You have a very cool blog, and I see you recently posted some cool maps from a digital artist's blog showing the geography of prejudice. Being who I am, I particularly like Europe according the USA.

Erin in Costa Rica said...

Thanks for the link to this post - great read! I can definitely relate, just having gone back "home" for a 3 week visit, not even a permanent move. "... an additional counter culture shock in realizing that your nation — and in many cases, your family as well — has become highly dysfunctional in your absence." - very well put. One of the most shocking things that I didn't even mention in my blog post was the way things have disintegrated in the US. Seems to be hitting my hometown very hard right now and everyone is so depressed and complaining all the time. Definitely makes me want to stay away!

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks for coming in, Erin! I found it interesting to read what you say about your home town in a state of disintegration, as it were. I haven't seen any stats on American expats recently, but I did see an article reporting on a survey of British expats, conducted by Lloyds TB International in February 2011, saying that 67 percent of them have cancelled their plans to move back to the UK, up 11 percent from six months ago.

Of those, the large majority think that their financial prospects are rosier in the country where they're residing than in "Austerity Britain."

Is it any wonder they feel that way?

Hmmm... What is the job situation like in Costa Rica?! Perhaps we Americans should head to points south...

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. I said it would make you feel better, right? :-)

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