Re-entry After 30 Years Abroad

Note from Cate: I’ve had returnees ask me if re-entry HAS to be hard. As Jonathan’s story shows, it doesn’t! I like to highlight lots of different re-entry experiences because so many factors influence each returnees’ journey. In this article, Jonathan shares his experience returning to England after living abroad for 30 years, how his experience has differed from that of his wife, and what he did before returning to his home country to make the transition smoother.

Take it away, Jonathan!

Just over a year ago, I returned home to England after spending almost 30 years living and working abroad. I now live about 5 miles from where I grew up, in a hamlet of about 150 people. 

We live about 20 minutes’ walk from the nearest village, and a 20-minute bus ride (15 minutes by car) from the nearest town.  My local credentials, and connection with the local church, has made the transition easier, as it has been relatively easy to meet new people and make friends.  

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It helps that I live just 3 minutes’ walk from the bus stop, and that, in England, it is permissible to start conversations with strangers while waiting for the bus.  (The reliability of the bus service, or comments on the weather make good opening salvos.)

I knew when I was young that I wanted to see the world – and that I would want to retire to my home area. I believe I told my wife about this before we got married, but she says she can’t remember the conversation. 

We met and married in Cyprus, the first country I went to live in after leaving the UK. We subsequently lived in Poland (on Sabbatical from Cyprus), Kyrgyzstan (ex-Soviet Central Asia), the United States, Canada and Lithuania. 

All of those countries have shaped our identities, and produced both happy memories and various other delights that we missed. The beauty of Cyprus during the spring, the glorious and empty beaches and wonderful history more than compensated for the cold winters, fighting the cat for radiator space, and lack of anything much more than basic groceries. 

Poland gave us new friends, and the ability to relax, as, until we opened our mouths, we looked sufficiently like those around us to pass as Polish. 

Iowa brought the joys of Asian food – Chinese buffets in every town, and then Vietnamese food.  I first realized the depth of my love for Chinese food when I moved to Cyprus. It was the thing I missed most, but the nearest Chinese restaurant was 75 minutes away by minibus – and, frustratingly, opened only in the evenings, after the last bus back home had left. 

Canada has beautiful scenery, plenty of good-natured jokes about Americans and gave me the opportunity to work at an innovative new university. Lithuania is flat by comparison, but has forests, lakes and the sea – plus storks and their nests.

It was a good life abroad. 

I didn’t realize that so many people around the world wanted to be taught economics in English, which meant I held down relatively well-paid jobs with a good deal of autonomy over how I spent my time.

Returning to England has not, so far, been difficult. 

The challenges have been largely dealing with the changed political landscape and devastation brought about by the Brexit referendum result, and navigating the changing immigration requirements to have my wife stay with me.

In fact, it’s great to be home – to an area I know and love, to live with people whom I can get to know and with whom I share certain presuppositions about how things ought to be, and to enjoy once again things that were very hard to find away from home: brown sauce, good public transport, idioms I understand, shared culture. 

Of course there are drawbacks – bureaucracy with the attitude that “we do it this way because we can”, even when the policies are pointless and expensive to comply with; the notoriously fickle weather; and the interesting times in which we live (as the Chinese curse goes). 

It’s also good that settling back home doesn’t preclude visits to countries where we have friends and/or family (this piece was originally written on a visit back to Lithuania), and getting involved in other activities.

What has made it work for me?

1) Go home for visits frequently: While I lived abroad, I made sure I was in the UK for at least a few days each year. Many years I could be there for up to six weeks, as vacation time combined with strategically-timed conferences allowed me to spend more time away from work than in many professions. (It helped that travelling via the UK was usually the cheapest way to get to European destinations!)

2) Test it out: As I neared retirement, I wanted to check that my view of England wasn’t so rose-tinted that I’d find adjustment difficult. I therefore spent a Sabbatical in 2014-15 in the UK; and discovered I liked it as much as ever. If anything, the natives seemed friendlier.

3) Don’t go home to exactly the same place. When my mother moved into sheltered accommodation, I had the opportunity to buy and live in the house where I’d grown up. I declined (partly because of its massive garden, which would have made extended periods of travel in the summer difficult); and instead we bought our current house a couple of years later. It’s near enough to where I grew up for me to claim local credentials, but in a community we prefer.

4) Develop support networks. While abroad, we always got involved in a local church. This led to friendships and stood us in good stead to do the same things when we moved to England. (A visit to a local church during the Sabbatical led to a friendship with the vicar, a single woman living in a vicarage designed for a large family. She let us stay with her both then and when we were waiting for our house to be ready.)

5) Look for new opportunities: My wife, an ESL teacher, has become a volunteer at an advice center, and is gaining expert knowledge of the workings (and malfunctionings) of the UK social welfare system. I have a part-time job proctoring exams, and have set up my own research and tutoring business. 

About Jonathan

Jonathan was born in England, and did his undergraduate studies there. His doctorate, in Economics, is from the University of Wales. After teaching at a selective high school back in England for four years, he went to teach in north Cyprus, where he met Lynda. After 10 years at Eastern Mediterranean University (including a Sabbatical year spent in Poland), he taught in Kyrgyzstan for a year, before moving to the United States. After nine years in Iowa, he accepted a position at Quest University Canada, an innovative Liberal Arts university in British Columbia, from which he retired last year. A Sabbatical five years ago which he and Lynda spent in England convinced him that home was still home; but there was time for one last major adventure (in Lithuania) before settling there. He is now a self-employed writer, researcher and tutor, and still open to new challenges. You can find Jonathan here.

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About the Author: Dr. Cate Brubaker

Dr. Cate Brubaker is on a mission to make re-entry after living abroad a positive, transformational force (even when it’s not easy…especially when it’s not easy)! Cate is the author of the Re-Entry Roadmap workbook and the Study Abroad Re-entry Toolkit. Cate has lived in Germany, worked and traveled in 37 countries on four continents, and has helped all kinds of globetrotters successfully navigate global transitions for over 20 years.

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