Why repatriation is so hard


Out of all the cultural transitions, most TCKs will tell you that repatriation is usually the most challenging of all. Repatriation is when the TCK (and perhaps the globally nomadic family) moves to their passport country/culture for a sustained period of time.

Typically, repatriation for TCKs is prompted by distinct events, such as:

  1. Emergency – this is when the family or TCK was not planning to repatriate but due to an emergency, such as political unrest or a serious illness in the family, repatriation becomes unexpectedly necessary.
  2. Educational needs – this is when the TCK is ready for the next step in education and the passport country is deemed to present the best opportunities or be the most convenient option. The TCK may be starting university or finishing off secondary education (high school). The family may repatriate with the TCK, although this decision would need to take many factors into consideration – job changes, the other children and parental life goals.
  3. Employment change – this is when the parent(s) have a change in their employment or roles within the sponsoring organization, which necessitates repatriation.

When I write about “repatriation”, I use the word in the sense that is it a process that involves adapting culturally (acculturating) to the passport culture where the TCK may only have superficial knowledge. Although repatriation can be thought of as a moment in time, when one steps off the airplane and presents one’s passport to the immigration officials at the airport, it is important to acknowledge the long time it takes to adapt to any kind of change. For some TCKs, the repatriation process took one or two years; five to seven years seems to be a more typical length of adjustment. The end of the repatriation process is not obvious; instead, it often is a slow realization that there are many things in the life that you have built that are familiar and give you a sense of comfort and satisfaction.

The psychology of repatriation:

TCKs typically grow up expecting to repatriate at some point. This knowledge shapes their sense of belonging within the host culture, even if they are not aware of it. This is particularly true for TCKs who have low global mobility patterns, i.e. they grow up in one or two cultures during their childhood. Although the TCK may feel a deep affinity for the host culture, they know they do not and cannot belong geographically, culturally or legally to the culture.  This knowledge of “what could not be” is part of the grief that many TCKs report feeling as they leave their host culture.

Another way this expectation of repatriation shapes the psychology of a TCK is in relation to the passport culture. TCKs may draw some parts of their identity from an affinity for their passport culture.  “My family is French and someday, I will go live in France.” This affinity may give the TCK a way to feel belonging, which can be a source of stability, particularly during a tough time after moving to another country.  This fondness for the passport country is often reinforced by the family’s occasional visits, which are typically imbued with positive memories about experiencing fun events (for example, going to an amusement park for the first time) and the joy of seeing loved ones again.  

The examples above assume one passport culture, shared by the parents. This is assumption is merely for simplicity’s sake. There are many TCKs (and CCKs) whose parents may be from different cultures and the children may have passports, and thus citizenship, from both. Clearly, if this is the case, the psychology of repatriation is more layered and complex. A TCK might wrestle with questions such as, “Repatriation to which passport culture? Do I feel a stronger affinity towards one passport culture over the other? Is one parental culture not available to the TCK as an option for repatriating (i.e. poor job or education choices or political unrest?” Such questions illustrate the intricate layers that a TCK who has other cross-cultural connections, may have to consider.

For simplicity’s sake, I will continue to assume one shared parental passport culture with full recognition that some TCKs will not fit this model.

The mythology of the passport culture:

Inevitably, after the globally nomadic family leaves their passport culture, life moves on for everyone. The rupture that the departure of the family caused within the immediate family or circle of friends closes over in time. Society, culture and events move forward in time. People change; places of residence change – for better or for worse. Although the globally nomadic family may return periodically for visits to the passport country and notice signs of change, the full depth of what it means to live “back home” again cannot be fathomed on short, occasional visits.  Once the family repatriates, this change is experienced as “reverse culture shock” – a feeling that what was once familiar has changed beyond all recognition. Every returning global nomad experiences some degree of so-called reverse culture shock but the intensity of this feeling depends on a variety of factors, including the extent of change and the inherent personalities of the repatriates.

Because of the inevitable evolution over time that society undergoes, the stories the parents tell their children about life in the passport culture (“home” for the parents) are not accurate descriptions of life as it is currently. The stories represent a past time, a mythology that may no longer be relevant now. Although the parents and children know that parental stories about “when I was a child” are located in a specific moment in the past, these stories inform much of the implicit cultural knowledge a child learns about the passport culture.  By “implicit cultural knowledge”, I mean things that are not directly taught to the child but are either implied, assumed or experienced. How one greets a friend on the street appropriately is an example of implicit cultural knowledge. What kind of birthday present is adequate to give at a party would be another example.

The repatriation experience:

The cultural knowledge received from parents and the memories of vacation-esque experiences in the passport culture are the two structures of understanding available to TCKs at the point of repatriation. TCKs quickly realize that these structures are inadequate for navigating the challenges of life in their new culture.  The cultural knowledge proves to be shallow or inaccurate, given the context the TCK is in.

In addition to these structures being inadequate as frames of references, there may be other psychological factors that make the cultural transition harder. I write about these 15 factors here.  Along with these factors, the TCK is most likely also struggling with ambiguous loss over leaving their host culture and have unresolved and hidden grief as a result. For many TCKs, leaving the place they thought of as “home” is on par emotionally with losing a home in a natural disaster or fire. Unfortunately, many TCKs are not allowed to grieve this loss and often cannot even put their grief into words. They may be made to feel shame over their grief; after all, the host culture still exists; their former friends are still alive – so what really, has the TCK lost? This dilemma explains how the loss is ambiguous. Nowadays, there is increasing awareness among expat families and sponsoring organizations about the grief TCKs experience during an intercultural move, but particularly for those who repatriated in the 20th century, it was rare to find understanding and acknowledgement of the loss and so the repatriating children suffered.

  Inevitably, during the repatriation process, the TCK undergoes an identity shift. I write more about identity shifts here and how identity is created here. Who the TCK thought they were, is no longer who they seem to be.  (The majority of psychology dissertations on the topic of TCKs are written about recently repatriated TCKs and identity.)

I want to emphasize that some degree of identity dissonance and a reforming of belonging structures is experienced by all TCKs during repatriation. Identity dissonance and redefining belonging are normal reactions and part of the cultural adjustment process.  However, the experience and degree of this process differs for each TCK. Some TCKs remember the repatriation process as the worst time of their lives; others do not share these harrowing stories.

Many TCKs go through the repatriation process on their own, apart from familiar belonging structures such as family (parent or siblings) or friends.  Even if a close friend of member of the family is present (i.e. two siblings or two best friends repatriate together) for the TCK, this may not be the positive force parents undoubtedly hope for. Like a drowning person clutching desperately at their rescuer, if one repatriated TCK is experiencing extreme psychological distress, such as contemplating suicide or struggling with addictions, this can unbalance the other well-meaning TCK sibling or friend, pulling both of them down.

The difference between these two continuums of experiences seems to be the accessibility and quality of relevant, desired belonging structures for the TCK. Belonging structures, which we will explore more in later articles, are psychological spaces where one feels one belongs, such as friends or family.  Belonging and identity are deeply connected; how you think of yourself is where you are going to look to others for belonging.

In other words, TCKs need to find friends or family members in the passport culture where they can feel belonging.  The difficulty lies in finding these kinds of people who fit the categories of accessibility, quality, relevance and desirability.  Belonging is a two-way street; it’s not enough to want to belong; you have to feel like you belong.

Life after repatriation:

                Although TCKs have grown up with the often-unstated expectation that someday, they will repatriate, the reality of repatriation is inevitably a shock. Life in the passport country is not the fun vacation experience that the TCK remembers from childhood. There are jobs to be had, education to be gotten, bills to be paid, the trajectory of an adult life to set up.  TCKs may remember this time as a liminal space. “Liminal” means between two places, feeling as though one were neither one place or another. In this place of in-betweenness, it can be difficult to have a clear picture of where one is heading, or even decide where one wants to head on the trajectory of adult life. 

                As parents of TCKs will testify, having a child far away going through liminal experiences can feel extremely unnerving and often the parents don’t even know the half of what their TCK is feeling or experiencing.  The parents hope their repatriated children “find themselves”. Because the parents undoubtedly still remember the home country of their younger years, the parents may not fully realize the extent of transitions their child is experiencing and how disconcerting it is to live liminally every day. The geographical distance between the parents and their young adult TCK may compound the anxiety the parents feel about their child’s wellbeing. The parents may sense that all is not well with their child, but have no idea how to help.

                In time, the pain and disruption of repatriation subsides and the young adult evolves.  A sense of identity and self is reformed and somehow the TCK pushes through the in-betweenness to find a semblance of coherence, and, hopefully, meaning in their lives post-repatriation.  Anecdotally (because this is not an area that is researched), the quickest I have seen this transition from repatriation to a more stable sense of self and happiness, is about two years. Five to seven years seems to be more common, in the conversations I’ve had with adult TCKs.

                Many TCKs point to at least one significant relationship that helped them out of the liminal space into a more secure, defined existence.  I have found common themes about where these friends tend to come from. One group can be other TCKs who repatriated around the same time. It is easy to find solidarity with those that come from almost the same background and are experiencing the same inter-cultural transition. Another group where TCKs often make important friendships after repatriation, can be people with an international connection, such as international students or people from a migrant background in the community. For example, when I was in college, since I had no where to go during school breaks, the Chinese student who lived two doors down from me and I would hang out in the empty dormitory, both too broke to go anywhere. While we have since lost contact, I appreciated our companionship during those lonely school breaks. A final group is non-TCKs and non-CCKs that have an interest in all things international, particularly a TCK, whose experiences seem so exotic or enviable. This third group can serve as a gateway into other potential circles of friends in the passport country. Without a meaningful, understanding relationship, the process of moving through liminality can be prolonged and painful. I write more about coping with identity dissonance here.