Always an expat, never a repat: what to do when returning home is not an option?

7 February 2018
Mariam Ottimofiore shares her challenges of serial expatriation

Testimonial of a serial expat

Many expats don’t stop at just one international relocation but repeatedly relocate to new countries. Mariam Ottimofiore shares her challenges of serial expatriation, why returning home is not an option for many and the types of support these expats require in their global mobility journeys.

“I’ve been introducing myself as an expat for 16 years now. Living abroad and moving from one country to the next has become like a bad habit – and I don’t know how to quit. If only there were a seven-step program for expats!”

Always an expat, never a repat

It turns out I’m in good company. According to the latest HSBC Expat Explorer Survey 2017: “a surprisingly low proportion of the expats surveyed around the world – just 23% – have been through a repatriation process.

Global mobility trends show that, even though we consider expatriation and repatriation as two sides to the same coin, one process does not necessarily follow the other.

Instead, for many expats, one expatriation assignment is followed by another. And then another. These serial expats have remained relatively unexamined. Until now.

The complexities of long-term expatriation

The longer I am away from my country, the less likely it feels I will ever return. When I visit my home country of Pakistan, I feel like a foreigner – I have never held a job there, paid my own bills or raised a family. These adult experiences have all taken place on foreign soil.

Additionally, I’m married to someone who has a different home country: Germany. Our lives abroad have led to shifting identities and increased complexities over the years. Meanwhile, I have acquired a new Italian citizenship because of our expat marriage. Our children have all been born outside of their passport (Germany, Pakistan, and Italy). For them, home is Singapore and Dubai, their birth places and our recent expat assignments.

So, when it comes to repatriation for a family like ours, there are no easy answers.

Where would we repatriate to? His home countries or mine? My husband’s current employer is a Danish company, so ironically a repatriation for us could mean a move back to Denmark; a country where neither of us is from!

Mariam Ottimofiore shares her challenges of serial expatriation and the type of support these expats require

The challenges of repeated expatriation

Many expats discover that once they have adapted to a new place, they feel confident they can do it again. And again. Discovering new cities and learning to build a life becomes a habit or even an addiction.

Many choose to stay abroad, or perhaps settle long-term in one place, having found the improvement in their quality of life that they were looking for. They might end up localizing in a country they like or ‘repatriating’ to one of their previous assignment locations, instead of their home country.

The reasons, motivations, and scenarios might be different from one family to the next, but one thing remains certain: contrary to many myths, serial expats continue to face many challenges.

  • The assumption that moving “gets easier” with each move 

After you have announced your latest move, friends and family often say: “but you’ve done this so many times – you’ll be fine!” While the confidence in our abilities is well-intentioned, the truth is that moving does not necessarily get easier with each move.

Parts of it do get easier; such as your self-confidence in dealing with new challenges but parts of it gets harder; such as the challenge of maintaining your individual identity, raising your children in yet another culture or keeping your career alive as an expat partner.

  • Not all international relocations are the same

It does not matter if it is your first international relocation or your fifth – each international relocation is different.

Sure, there are lessons and experiences that you can apply to each posting, but it is foolish to underestimate any international move. In my experience, some of the hardest moves are:

  • moving to a country where you do not speak the local language
  • moving from a third world country to a developed one or vice versa
  • moving to a hardship location

These types of moves require substantially more patience and test your adaptability in the face of problems you may never have even thought of.

  • Sorting out schooling, wealth management & planning for retirement

Repeated expatriation brings incredible complexities for families in areas such as international schooling (which system to follow/its relative universality/transfer credits etc.) as continuity in academic systems and standards prove a challenge.

The effects of long term expatriation on wealth management are clear – our banking needs, for instance, are dispersed from Singapore to Berlin.

Planning for retirement also becomes harder without a clear home base or a social security network in one country to rely on – between my husband and I we have retirement savings plans in the United States, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

Support needed by long-term expats

It’s important to remember that serial expats are not moving from their home country, but from a different country that they have been expatriated to.

Not surprisingly, long-term expats require specific support in their global mobility journeys from their international companies, HR personnel, and relocation agencies.

  • Pre-move

Spousal support for the expat spouse, schooling support for the expat kids and intercultural training and support for the expat employee.

Before our move to Dubai, I specifically requested spousal career support and asked what career assistance or help I would be offered in the UAE. After seven moves, I am no longer afraid to ask. Because I asked, I did get offered some extra help which was valuable in setting up my own portable business.

We also had a chance to tour kindergartens and schools before moving and my husband received intercultural training on how to do business in Dubai.

  • During the move

Wealth management (if you have income/wealth from different countries), legal advice, retirement planning and setting up of wills.

When we arrived in Dubai, we realized the need for legal assistance in setting up our wills which would apply in the Shariah law practiced in the United Arab Emirates.

It’s important for global mobility specialists to be able to offer advice and practical support to the expat family during the moving process to reduce stress, unwelcome surprises or penalties.

  • Post-move

Access to language courses, on-the-ground relocation assistance and an offer of annual home leave.

Long-term expats understand the importance of learning the local language as soon as possible. Signing them up for language courses shows that they are supported in their new expat assignment.

On the ground relocation assistance can be extremely helpful – this helped us in Denmark where our relocation company took us to tour a typical Danish supermarket and explained how the Copenhagen public transport functioned – since we didn’t speak any Danish upon arrival.

The offer of an annual home leave becomes quite crucial for long-term expats, who start to feel further and further away from their home countries. It provides an anchor while they continue to sail in foreign seas.

About the Author

Mariam Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat who has lived in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Bahrain, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Her expat writing has been published in Expat Connect Dubai, Global Living Magazine, Expat Living Singapore, Families in Global Transition and The Huffington Post, while her expat life has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) for Super Soul Sunday. She currently lives in Dubai and writes about her expat life, cross-cultural experiences and raising her two global citizens around the world on her blog 'And Then We Moved To'. You can follow her writing on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Mariam Ottimofiore - Always an expat never a repat

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