Going home to a pile of problems

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 1993, 12:00am

AFTER nine years in Asia, Philip feels it is time to return to Britain. Recently his company offered to transfer him back to the London office. But he is facing a quandary. ''It's an attractive offer. But at the same time, it feels like a big step down.'' Returning home has pleasant connotations for many expatriates. Most look forward to a triumphant return, flushed with success and prestige that they can display to their fellow countrymen. However, after returning home, it is easy to feel exactly the opposite.

Such a letdown is a product of ''identity inflation''.

Identity inflation means an individual's sense of identity has, in certain respects, been blown out of proportion. When placed in another environment, they no longer feel the same about themselves nor do people perceive them as in the past.

The person feels deflated in importance and self-worth.

Identity inflation can lead to identity crisis. The returnee loses his/her uniqueness as an expatriate, and their lofty, powerful position in business and society. Back in the home country, they no longer stand out from the crowd, and at work are surrounded by other people just like them.

To a certain degree they are even treated like an outsider. After all, they've been out of circulation and don't know the office politics. Such a person may end up feeling more out of place than when he or she was a foreigner in Asia.

The most difficult problem to overcome is when colleagues don't look on their overseas experience as anything ''special''. To many of their home-bound colleagues, foreign experience is irrelevant rather than valuable. If people acknowledge it, it is moreout of curiosity than anything else.

Above all, the change of lifestyle does not help an individual in fending off identity crisis.

It is a move from a glamorous life of mingling with international diplomats and business leaders, receiving free housing, maids, chauffeur, paid home leave and private schooling for children, back to being an employee without most of the perks.

Naturally, one adjusts. Yet for many returning expatriates these are more things to reinforce their shrinking sense of self.

For people who return home without a job lined up the impact will be tenfold. The hope of being honoured and taken seriously with overseas experience can bring major disappointment. Their time spent abroad is often treated as absence from the mainstream,and they are expected to ''catch up''.

So, if a person is offered a job, most likely it is at a much lower level than anticipated.

Returning home requires major adjustments and the overcoming of unanticipated obstacles. In order to minimise the negative impact, serious preparation work is necessary.

First of all, plan the relocation more than six months ahead. Try to establish contacts back home and, if possible, have a job lined up before departure.

More importantly is to psychologically prepare oneself for the reception of people back home. Be realistic and anticipate that people may not be interested in listening to your stories about living abroad.

One needs to restrain oneself from launching into ''fascinating'' anecdotes and monologues about life overseas. Sometimes your stories can turn people away from you rather than draw them closer. The fact is, most people are attracted to sameness rather than someone totally different from them.

By no means hide your identity to be accepted. The worst trap for returnees in setting themselves up for disappointment is to compare the present situation with that abroad.

The important thing is to always hold your own experience in a special place in your heart. Do not rely on others' reactions to validate its worth. If you are to return home, simply go with humility and allow yourself time to readjust to life there again. Cathay Tsang-Feign is a licensed psychotherapist, with offices at the Vital Life Centre. Phone: 877-8206.