Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Art of Coming Home

Art of Coming HomeOK, I stole the title of this post from Craig Storti, the author of the book by the same title, which tackles the issues of coming back to places you lived in and loved, after you have been away for some period of time. There are a lot of studies written about how to expatriate people and what to do with them during expatriation, but do we really pay enough attention to those who are being repatriated back to their countries, companies, friends...?

I am writing this being in South Africa on a short exchange between IE and Wits business schools. I lived over two years in South Africa as an expat, so I came to know this country very well: it's traditions, people, food, cultures, and I even dabbled in two out of it 11 official languages (Afrikaans and Zulu). I moved to Madrid after that to do my MBA and now I am back - what a weird feeling! It is a mix of nostalgia with excitement and bewilderment. It feels great to be driving around the familiar routes, listening to my favorite radio stations and DJs, meeting old friends and colleagues, drinking gorgeous South African wine and enjoying the food that makes your mouth water the moment you look at the menu. Yet, it's not the same as I remember it 11 months ago. Same feeling as I had when I returned to Russia after a one-year academic exchange program in the USA (UGRAD 2002-2003): there has been so much change in my life that one year counts for five - but can you really convey this feeling? Massive photo albums and exciting (as you might think) stories do not help... nothing much has been happening here... As they would say in the corporate world, "business as usual".

How do you reintegrate back? Craig Storti suggests that self-awareness is the first step. It is critical to recognize that time, experiences, knowledge, places are perceived differently by different people and being in a foreign country for a long time accelerates the learning process and you might be well ahead of the curve compared to many friends and colleagues who have not had that opportunity. Patience and acceptance of that fact are the next important steps, in my opinion. Thirdly, take this chance to learn about your own culture - many things will not look the same to you after you have been away... and you learn to appreciate it better: we all know that you miss most what you do not have at the moment. Finally, preparation is best weapon: be ready to face the challenges of the inevitable culture shock and remember that it's always a W-curve, so it hits you twice - when you leave your country and when you come back.

I am not aware of any companies that would run reintegration workshops for their internationally mobile employees who return to their home countries after an international assignment, while most of them will have an induction of sorts before s/he leaves. So why are we underplaying the effects that coming back might have on people and their private as well as professional lives?

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