Tag Archives: returning home

International divorce is on my mind

And no, it’s not me thinking about divorcing my poor husband (luckily, he doesn’t read my blogs).  Rather, it is a growing concern amongst my international friends, and is also a hotly debated topic on expat chat forums online.  What happens to couples from two different countries who are living in a third country (and who may have bilingual children with dual citizenship) when they decide to get a divorce?  I mean, getting divorced in a single country is complicated enough, but it becomes a logistical jungle when multiple legal systems, taxation systems, child custody arrangements and of course international sets of grandparents all get thrown into the mix!

I’ve got one set of friends who have divorced amicably and share custody of their child, but both of them are stuck in a foreign country that has nothing to do with them, because neither of them wants to relocate to the country of the other partner.  And, of course, neither wants to be at a distance from their child.

I have another friend who cannot find work in the UK at the moment, and struggles to support herself and her kids.  However, she cannot return to her country of origin (and her supportive family and far better career prospects) because her husband threatens to charge her with child abduction.

I know of another case where the couple had relocated to Australia before their divorce.  The husband has agreed to let the wife move back to the UK with the kids, but his own parents (in Germany) are very cross that they will have less opportunity to see their grandchildren, that they will forget to speak German and so they are considering legal action for joint custody.   Meanwhile, the mother is concerned that, because of the huge distance, the bond with their father will be severely damaged.

International law is a very tricky subject, and so is international financial advice, but I am thinking above all of the emotional costs to all involved.  And how quickly a delightful adventure abroad can turn into a nightmare.  I’m thinking of putting together a support group and advisory session for people going through such situations – or do you think people will avoid this like the plague because ‘it might be tempting fate’?

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Is expat failure a myth?

You’ve probably heard of friends who emigrated to Australia/Spain/Singapore but have now decided to come back.  HR managers in multinational organisations have been aware of the problem for a while.  TV programmes like ITV’s ‘No Place Like Home’ exploit the sentiment. 

What am I talking about?  So-called ‘expat failure’ (although I am not sure most expats would like to call it that – ‘realism’, ‘maturity’ or ‘homesickness’ might be equally valid terms).  It’s about expats returning home prematurely, or feeling unhappy in their host country.

From the point of view of multinational organisations who have a policy of sending employees abroad for 2-4 years, it is serious and it is failure.  There is the real cost of selection, training, relocation, repatriation, replacement … and then the hidden costs of not performing at expected levels while on an international assignment, or (even worse) damaging long-term relationships with the host country.

A lot of ink has been spilt on this topic, with some researchers contesting the notion of ‘expat failure’ (notably Anne-Wil Harzing as far back as 1995, see http://www.harzing.com/download/failurerates.pdf)

What I am more interested in is whether the much-publicised difference in failure rates between expats from different countries actually stand up to close scrutiny.  Over and over again I read that American expats regularly suffer failure rates of 10-20%, while European and Japanese  expats suffer less than 5%.  Tempting of course for all America-bashers to laugh loudly that US companies and their employees are less culturally sensitive and adaptable, or more imperialistic and inflexible.

But is that really the case?  Do these studies take into account the fact that for Europeans and Japanese managers global mobility is a key factor for progression to senior ranks, since their own markets are quite small?  Do they look at gender differences between the US and Japan and see that the Japanese accompanying spouse (almost always the wife) is far less likely to complain about the difficulties of living abroad?  Or that Japanese expats themselves will ‘toughen it out’ rather than admit defeat and return home early?  How much research has been carried out on expats from smaller European countries, who usually have far higher language proficiencies and a more international outlook?  I also suspect the success rates of expats moving from a developing culture to a developed one are much higher, but where is the research on that?

And how about a truly revolutionary idea for ensuring expat success?  Keep them there longer!   After about 5-7 years, most people will ‘go native’ and adapt quite successfully to their host country.  However, it is claimed that repatriation is then almost impossible or that they have lost their skills and social contacts.  Clearly, this is not ideal for everyone, but perhaps organisations can benefit from having a true ‘culture broker’ in some key hub spots, someone who is immersed in both cultures, can switch easily between terms of reference and act as a mentor and coach for all those working there on shorter assignments.

Have you experienced difficulties when living abroad?  Have you returned home earlier than you expected?  What would have helped most to make your stay abroad more enjoyable or successful?

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The delight and pain of coming home

‘Why did no one warn us how hard it would be, coming home?’  my friends moaned.  They have just returned to Romania after a long stint in the US.  While out there in Washington DC, they could barely find a kind word about America.  They hated the food, the schools, driving everywhere, the ignorance about Europe, the superficial cheerfulness, the lack of hospitality…  The list went on and on.  They idealised their home land, played its music, read its stories to the children, met to swap recipes for traditional dishes. 

Now they are back in the motherland, they are being reminded every day of the good things that they miss about the States.   They struggle through the small and great frustrations of Romanian society that they had somehow lost sight of during their stay in America.

‘Reverse culture shock’ is a very common phenomenon for expats when they do finally return home.  You might expect it if you had a wonderful time abroad (perhaps you were studying or enjoying a prolonged vacation or starting a completely different lifestyle).  But for people who were not particularly happy abroad, it often comes as a complete surprise.  They were so looking forward to returning home, but home has changed and moved on, and so have they.

After nearly two years in France (well, one leg in France, one in Switzerland, straddling the border as we were in Geneva), we were relieved to exchange rented accommodation for our lovely house and garden in the UK.  The children and I hadn’t found it easy to adapt initially to our lives there (I couldn’t work because of childcare issues, and the children spoke no French at first).  And yet, it was funny to see the little things that each of us missed most about our lives abroad.  My elder son missed the croissants and frites.  My younger (who could not remember a pre-France life) missed the sandpit and was surprised that everybody spoke English around here.  Both of them missed the lifts in our block of flats.  Personally, I didn’t miss that one a bit, as it was the smallest lift in the world, not even designed for a mother, a toddler and two shopping bags!  I missed hiking in the mountains and the winter sports, all just 15 minutes away by car. 

And my husband, for whom we all m0ved out there?  Well, he had lived in the perfect expat bubble, with everyone at work quite international and able to communicate in English (and if they couldn’t, dear wife would handle that).  So no,  he doesn’t miss anything at all about Geneva.  Except maybe the occasional fondue.

And I got to thinking that perhaps for some expats there is no such thing as ‘reverse culture shock’, because they never actually went beneath the surface of the society they were living in.  They are just ‘long-term tourists’ perhaps.  And they can move happily from one posting to the next, as long as they have their immediate creature comforts.  It’s debatable whether that is good for them or for the organisation they serve in the long run.  Perhaps progress and true understanding of other cultures is only possible when we experience some discomfort.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock?  If yes, what was most challenging:  the small everyday matters or the major differences?  What do you wish you had known before going back home?

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