By: Claire Locking
There comes a time when every expat has to swap their exotic overseas life with the realities of repatriation. The “big move” brings with it feelings of excitement, but also of stress and trepidation that the carefree beach days and cocktails at Sevva could soon be replaced with a slightly more mundane lifestyle. Our guide to repatriation, with tips for the transition, shopping, packing and how to manage reverse culture shock, should help you make sure the grass always turns out greener for your move home.
Moving at Christmas is perfect if you’re going to the southern hemisphere but for Europeans it could mean going from Hong Kong’s perfect beach weather to dark nights and cold and frosty mornings. Rather too harsh a wakeup call! Try not to move in a rush; give yourselves time back home and to get every member of the family used to the idea.
Keep it under your hat
Whether you’re planning to move in two months or two years, keep it to yourself. You could find your social diary starts to dry up if people think you are about to drop off their radar.
Try before you buy
If you’re moving to a totally new area, rent before you buy. Although you may find your dream home, chances are it will turn out to be too far from the station, not close to your kids’ new schoolmates, and so on. A six-month rental will give you the breathing space to investigate the area and make the best and most informed choice.
Try to move your children at a time when others are joining the school so they don’t feel alone. Spring is a good time for a UK move as children can enjoy the sport of the summer term. Autumn is also a logical starting point. For a move back to Australia, Christmas offers sun-filled days and the start of the school year soon after.
Consider carefully the school choice back home. If your child is used to the research-based learning of an IB school then a strict British curriculum may not work for them. If there’s no choice, then explain how their new school works and what the differences will be.
Tips for removal day
- Moving can be stressful: choose your logistics company carefully. Get a detailed quote and estimate of the container size you need before the day.
- Make sure you have one room set aside with items not to be packed. It has been known for everything from car keys to next day’s school uniforms to be whisked away, not to be seen until they are unpacked at the other side.
- If you’re tight for space, prioritise with your movers. Furniture first, toys last.
- Take away the stress. Book yourself into a hotel for the nights between packing and flying.
- Make sure every box is clearly labelled – in English, not Cantonese!
- Arrange your helper’s removal. You don’t want to be left with that to deal with at the end of a long day.
- It may be tempting to leave the removal in the hands of the removal men or your helper but it’s essential that you’re there on the day.
- Supervise the packing. You don’t want the movers to pack lots of fresh air and then find you can’t get a prized possession in at the last moment.
Put yourself in their shoes
An overseas move home can be daunting for an adult but imagine what the chaos feels like for kids. Tell them exactly why you’re moving and what their new school and home will be like. Emphasise the positives, not the negatives. You may think they’ll be happy to leave the pollution and concrete for open fields but if they’ve been in Hong Kong for most of their young lives, this could be a contrast too far. Try to book them into similar after-school activities so they can continue their interests. Above all, make time for family time – unpacking boxes and hanging pictures can wait; make sure they feel happy and secure.
Many items of furniture in Hong Kong cost a fraction of the price of similar pieces back home, so do your homework and stock up on quality pieces. But don’t overdo the Asian emphasis; there are only so many Chinese wedding cabinets and Buddha heads a home can take! Buy a few high-quality pieces that will give you happy Hong Kong memories and will become family heirlooms in time.
Change of pace
Be prepared for a change of pace. Most non-expat families don’t have live-in help so spontaneous socialising is out of the question back home. Relish more relaxed family time. At the same time, put together a to-do list of things to do and see; you were on an exciting adventure while in Asia – try to maintain the same enthusiasm back home.
Keep in touch
Expat friends are your family when you are living overseas so make the effort to stay in touch. Also encourage your children to send messages to old classmates and teachers. Arrange get-togethers over the holidays; Hong Kong has been a huge part of your life and your children’s lives so don’t forget it.
With law changes now meaning it’s almost impossible to bring your helper back home with you, most families, especially the mums, have to get used to doing the more mundane tasks from shopping to cleaning. Expat kids used to being permanently waited on may have to get used to the harsh realities of daily chores.
Leave on a high
You may be tempted to leave quietly but once you’re settled into your new home, it’s likely your social life may not be quite what is was. Take the opportunity to get all your Hong Kong friends together for one last hurrah, whether it’s a mass family beach outing or a night dancing till dawn; the happy memories will last a lifetime.
Reverse culture shock
Repatriation may mean “returning to the country of birth” but if you have enjoyed the spoils of a long expat posting you may find yourself out of touch when you return home. People and places you thought you knew may have changed. “Home” may not feel like home and you may feel alienated and out of touch.
Although you may have been earning good money overseas, returning home can mean a less certain financial foothold. Some mortgage companies will require local rather than overseas pay cheques to verify your salary level. Your time overseas may have dented your credit rating to such an extent that even opening a mobile phone account is tricky. If possible, keep a credit card and bank account open and use them regularly for the six months before your repatriation.
Try not to compare
Whether you’ve been an expat for decades or just a few years, chances are you’ve had the experience of a lifetime; there aren’t many places on this earth where you can finish a business meeting at 4pm and be on a junk on the South China Sea by sunset, after all. The key to a successful move is to cherish the memories but not compare them to what you have now. This is a new life adventure with new challenges, places to discover, friends to meet and family experiences to discover.