Tag Archives: repatriate

Unresolved Grief: The Hidden Burden of Expat Life

Please don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the many good things that have come with expat family living and with being globally mobile. Within the last 16 years, my family has expatriated, repatriated, and expatriated again. During these years, we’ve been blessed to have friends from different countries and cultures, holidays in different countries, comforts and privileges in daily living. Moving across countries has made our family closer, our friendships deeper and our adventures more colorful.

Intermittently within the last few years though, beginning when my family repatriated in 2012, I’ve been feeling what was an unexplainable sadness and bewilderment. From that time, it took me about three years to finally feel settled again in the Philippines, and I wrote about my experience in a post last year entitled “My Unexpected Journey of Repatriation.”

After four years of being back in the Philippines, come mid-2016, we moved back to Singapore where we first expatriated in 2005. Many of my friends and family thought that it would be much easier this time around since we were moving to a familiar place. Sure, in some ways, it has been easy moving back to Singapore. But that sadness and bewilderment still nags at me sometimes.

In library@orchard a few months ago, I stumbled upon a book by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken entitled “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.”  I started reading it, thinking that it’s about what my children may be going through as they are growing up across cultures.

Third Culture Kids book

Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (p.13)

As I read on, I realized that I wasn’t only learning about what my children may have been experiencing, but I was also discovering words for the darker side of my own “third culture” experience.

Unresolved grief. This term hit me hard. My occasional feelings of isolation, confusion and guilt were finally given a name. And with the name came an acknowledgement and a sort of permission, as if the authors were telling me that it was ok to admit my on and off lack of confidence, sense of loss and reluctance to get on with this new life.

…it’s not hard to see why repeated cycles of mobility can lead to repetitive losses and the normal, ensuing grief those losses generate. It’s not hard to imagine that changing cultures and cultural rules can make it more difficult or take longer to go through the transition phase to the true entry and reinvolvement stages. (p. 74)

Lack of permission to grieve. When my family and I were in the process of leaving Singapore  in 2012, I didn’t want to talk about the things I would miss. I didn’t want to seem unsupportive of the choice my husband and I had made together. I wanted my family and friends to see that I was fully on board, that I was ready and excited to come home.

When we moved back to the Philippines, the experience of reverse culture shock caught me off guard. I had gotten so used to my old life in Singapore that I couldn’t help but compare it to my new life back in the Philippines. However, I didn’t want to sound like what Filipinos call the “Ugly Balikbayan,” someone who keeps complaining about the bad or difficult realities in the Philippines and comparing them to the better or easier realities in another, usually a First World, country. I didn’t want to sound arrogant and ungrateful. I had to try to stop complaining about standstill traffic, inefficient service, slow internet, etc. I had to suck it up and stand by my choice to be there.

I couldn’t show any grief to friends and relatives who have known me for a long time. I didn’t want them thinking that I had changed into a completely different person after having lived abroad, that I’d become a snobby former expat or a snooty world traveler. I was afraid to be judged for the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to. I knew that I had changed, as people change through the course of life, but it became somewhat of a dark secret, something I could only share with those who went through a similar journey of transition and mobility.

Denying grief. This has meant a denial of my own grief, as I hid it from family and friends as much as possible. Those close to me knew how much I missed Singapore when we left in 2012. When they learned that I was moving back to Singapore this year, they all congratulated me and talked about how ecstatic I must be to move back. Most of the time, I had to say, “Yes, sure I am!” I couldn’t admit that I was having mixed feelings – that while I was excited about many things in Singapore, I was also going to miss many parts of my life in the Philippines. I was afraid that they would think or say, “But you loved Singapore so much? That you couldn’t wait to go back to your life there?” And I believed that. I thought that after my grief over leaving Singapore, why should I feel any grief going back? Why shouldn’t I be jumping for joy, as many might have expected?  I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t make sense to me.

In the three times my family has moved countries, I’ve always felt that I should be strong and positive in front of my children and that I should set an example of how we can go through transition with as little grief as possible. (I had failed three times recently when I cried while saying goodbye to my mother, to our family helper and to our dog.) During our recent move, I especially wanted to be encouraging to my children since I know that they didn’t want to move this time around. I never denied their grief, and my husband and I broke the news about the move to our children several months in advance to give them time to process and to grieve, to bond with their friends and to prepare to say goodbye. In the months before and after our recent move, I’ve been hiding my sadness and confusion from my children. I want to be strong and steady, to be the capable and positive mother who will do whatever it takes for her family to be happy and healthy. I want them to see and to believe that we are in a good place and that we made the right decision to move.

What I realized recently is that when I deny my own grief, I am setting myself and my family up for unrealistic expectations and deep disappointments. Saying that it’s all good, even when there are bad or sad times, is a denial that can hurt us in many ways and leave us lost or grieving for a long time.

Long Travel

It has been a little over three months since our recent move. In some ways, it has been easy. In other ways, it has been hard. Learning about this unresolved grief that is affecting my family has been helpful. I’ve learned not to rush my children into making new friends and getting into activities. I’ve learned to give them time and space to be alone, to be sad, and to miss their friends and routines in the Philippines. I’ve learned that we are all still in transition, and the journey is different for each one of us. Some of us may embrace this new life sooner than later. Some of us may be grieving longer than others. And we need to respect each other’s journey and support one another through it.

I am learning to allow myself to sometimes be sad, to feel confused and insecure. In any journey of transition, grief has its place. It is not wrong; it is not bad. I believe that grief needs to be accepted, expressed and allowed its due course. Writing this blog post is one way that I am facing my grief. Perhaps this will help me (and anyone reading this) gain a better understanding on how to deal with this darker side, this unexpected burden of repeated losses and unresolved grief that comes with expat life and cross-cultural mobility.


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My Unexpected Journey of Repatriation

It’s been three years (and five days, to be exact) since my family and I moved from Singapore and back to Manila, Philippines. It’s been quite an unexpected journey of repatriation, and has taken me longer than anticipated to adjust to being back home. I’ve learned the ups and downs of repatriating and discovered some things about myself.

Going back home doesn’t mean going back to how it all was.

My family and I lived in Singapore for almost seven years. We visited Manila every year at Christmas time. We spent time with relatives and friends while we were here on holiday. We went to new and old malls, ate in new and old restaurants, drove in the familiar Manila traffic.

Visiting my old home from abroad is one thing. It’s all fun and hectic with plans of going about, seeing friends and family and shopping for stuff to bring back. Settling into life here again after being settled in a life abroad isn’t simply slipping into the life I left behind. I was shocked to feel displaced in my own country, in the city where I grew up as a kid. Sure, there were familiar places and faces, but I felt quite disconnected from them. For my friends and relatives in Manila, life was going on as usual with their families, careers, households, hobbies, etc. For me, it was this feeling of being a stranger in my own country and of having to start a new life in an old place.

You can’t recreate your former life; you have to let go, be open and start anew.

I knew that I didn’t want to be that “ugly repatriate” who always compared her comfortable life in a First World country to her “more challenging” life in this Third World country. I couldn’t complain to my friends about how I hated driving in Manila traffic and would rather be taking the MRT in Singapore. I couldn’t talk about how wish I could just drop my bank check into a deposit box here, like how I did it in Singapore. I didn’t want to sound like a snob who was forced to move back to Manila from abroad. Together with my husband, I did make this choice. And I still believe it was made for good reasons.

During my first year of being back in Manila, I did cling to some old habits, like using QV Body Wash and drinking Dilmah English Breakfast Tea. Admittedly, until now, I still eat the same St. Dalfour Strawberry Preserve that I discovered in Singapore and still put the same NuZeaBee Pure New Zealand honey in my breakfast tea. And at home sometimes, I still hear myself playfully saying, “No lah.”

Slowly, I learned to let go of these little things, these little habits that reminded me of my life in Singapore. I made more and more conscious choices to embrace the good things around me here in Manila. Though I still enjoy my breakfast tea with milk and honey, I discovered the yummy goodness of Barako coffee from Batangas. I’ve stopped asking people to bring me back some QV Body Wash from Singapore, since there are several good, hypoallergenic, affordable brands available here. These were small changes, but for me, they were about making new daily routines.

Living abroad makes your world small and your heart restless.

I am eternally grateful that living abroad has given me the gifts of travel and adventure, and the blessing of dear friends around the world. Until I was in my 20s, I never imagined living outside the Philippines, let alone having close friends in places like Singapore, the UK, and Finland. Now, these places don’t feel that far nor exotic. And people of other races and cultures are not that distant nor different.

But living abroad and experiencing life in a home away from home has made me restless. I still dream of a next family adventure. I can’t say where I will be in five years. I don’t know where I want to grow old (maybe in the same continent as my children, but who knows?). When I just moved back to Manila, I remember how my friends asked me if I was back for good. I would answer, “For good, for now.”

It’s been three years since I repatriated to the Philippines. It wasn’t easy feeling displaced, disconnected and discontent. But now, I’m settled and content with my life here. My children are reconnecting and deepening relationships with family and friends. We are getting to know the country of our birth. Slowly, we are fulfilling our purpose for moving back.

Until the next adventure anyway.