October 22, 2015

Return from expatriation

International Mobility

The taboo of culture shock in your own country!

Return from expatriation

To echo the “tribulations of an expatriate woman in Brazil”, Monique Cumin talks about her return from expatriation and talks about the taboo of culture shock in her own country. Flashback to 2009: after 10 years spent in 3 countries (United Kingdom, Thailand and Czech Republic), Monique decides to accept a professional opportunity which allows her to return to France.

A return under the best auspices

On paper, this return promises to be under the best auspices: my partner and I both have a good job in Paris; in my case, it is even a great promotion. Our three children are delighted to finally be able to discover their own country, while continuing to study in English in an international school. We quickly found the house of our dreams, a stone's throw from the school. We are excited to reconnect with friends and former colleagues lost over the years. What more could you wish for ?

As soon as I return, my friends ask me THE question: “So, how does it feel to return to France after all these years spent abroad?”” I am almost surprised by this question. After all, we are in our own country, where we master the language and codes, why would it be difficult to readjust there, especially in the almost perfect conditions of our return?

The first months pass. I reconnect with the pleasure of buying my daily baguette, I rave about the choice and quality of fruits and vegetables at the market. We rediscover the pleasure of wandering around Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I am investing myself in my new job, which is a job creation whose scope must be defined. Without knowing it, I am fully experiencing the euphoric phase of culture shock.

A reverse culture shock

Then reality catches up with me: a sort of diffuse feeling of not being in my place. A feeling of incomprehension regarding the reactions of some of my French colleagues. A frustration of feeling that my previous experience is not really valued. This is what we call reverse culture shock, the one that can be felt when you return to your own country.

The feeling of being a foreigner in my own country. I no longer know how to fill out a tax form (expatriation makes the declaration more complex), it is true; I no longer understand anything about French politics: it's a bit as if I had gone from season 3 to season 8 of my favorite series. New characters have appeared, others no longer exist; I missed 10 years of French song, films and TV presenters. My children speak adult French and do not know the typical expressions of teenagers. As for me, I can no longer speak French with my colleagues in business discussions; my frenglish surprises them every day.

The difficulty in communicating what I experienced. How can you summarize 10 years of your life in 3 very different countries, a tsunami, a coup d'état and many other adventures? Where to start ? But actually, are the people who interview me really interested in all my stories?

A shift in ways of working

A cultural gap in the ways of working: I rediscover with new eyes the endless meetings that start at 6 p.m., to the defiance of those who have family obligations. People who take 4 weeks of vacation in a row in August while leaving international projects behind. The months of May when bridges and RTTs paralyze business. Pay slips illegible and incomprehensible. The armada of interns. The leaders who are always right and who must decide everything. 500-page analyzes to…confirm the current strategy.

The impression that professional experience in emerging countries is not really valued. Best practices from emerging countries are often treated with little consideration by my French colleagues. It seems unthinkable to them that we could replicate in France an idea that worked well in Brazil, China or Tunisia. Likewise, the CVs of employees who have spent several years in emerging countries are often considered less attractive than those from developed countries. Prejudices still die hard.

Why neglect the return?

Here are some symptoms of return culture shock. In my case, this discomfort was relatively temporary and my adaptation skills allowed me to get through it after a few months. But for many, the situation is not so idyllic. In the event of prolonged difficulties, it is desirable to offer former expatriates space to speak in order to take a step back from their experience and better absorb this shock. However, support for expatriates in multinationals is most often focused 100% on the “before” (intercultural training, language courses), and very rarely on the “after” (return management). Something for HR to think about!

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