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Ask Andrea - Reintegration Roller Coaster

ask andrea

Dear Andrea,  

I am moving home this summer and have all sorts of feelings about this. I know you have written on this topic before, but can you please address the reintegration part of things in more detail- the part where I am back home and no longer living in Europe? I have recently heard that in fact re-entry into Canada is the hardest part of an OUTCAN. Is this true? Can this be so? If so, I think I am in trouble because it sure wasn’t all sunshine and roses starting out in our OUTCAN so I can’t imagine how it could be harder.  

Reintegration Roller Coaster  

Dear Reintegration Roller Coaster,  

I decided to make this column heavy on resources, thus, you will find a plethora of articles and podcasts on reintegration into one’s country of origin. Below are a few of my thoughts and a few pro tips. Expect anywhere from six to 12 months of upheaval upon return after a three-year OUTCAN. The longer you have been away, the more protracted will be your reintegration. The better your OUTCAN, the harder will be your reintegration.  

Get Started on the “Message in a Bottle Exercise” 

Lana, in her blog Travel Savy Gal, suggests the following: Make a list of the good things about returning to Canada, no matter how small. Then, make a list of the good things about Europe. This is a great family exercise. Write out everyone’s input on a piece of paper and roll it up and put it in a special item acquired while in Europe, kinda like a “message in a bottle.” Take the message out every few months to review it together as a family.  When you are feeling out of sorts or grieving, it’s an important act of memorializing your time abroad. Here are what other OUTCANers have contributed: 

The Good Things About Re-Entering Canada: 

  1. Having closer access to friends and family 

  1. The possibility of having better professional opportunities 

  1. Convenience stores, 24-hour services, Sunday shopping 

  1. Familiar banking practices 

  1. Expanding one’s social circle outside of those who are also OUTCAN; increasing the chances of making friends not necessarily related to the military 

  1. Again having the opportunity to be a volunteer in contexts one better understands 

  1. Reliable internet 

  1. A proper washer-dryer! 

  1. Everyone speaking and reading one’s same language 

  1. Better ethnic food options 

  1. Parking spaces and car park garages where cars can actually fit! 

  1. Being able to live with people whom one can get to know and with whom one shares certain presumptions about how things ought to be 

  1. Exposure to idioms and memes one understands 

  1. Handyman and Handywoman jobs that add value to one’s home, including gardening, decorating, and repairing what one owns 

  1. Sharing a familiar culture 

  1. Once again enjoying items that were very hard to find while OUTCAN- maple syrup, familiar beauty products, French or English movies at the theatre, bottled salad dressing, dill pickle potato chips, crackers, and Canada Dry ginger ale. 

  1. Less pointless or expensive beaurocracy. 

The Not So Good Things About Leaving Europe:  

  1. Loss of friendships and connections made here 

  1. Beautiful European surroundings, architecture, cities, and countrysides 

  1. Good quality and (mostly) modestly priced food 

  1. Ease and proximity for travel 

  1. Chill European attitude 

Here are some tips on how to cope with Re Entry into Canada. Notice I use the word ‘cope’. Yes, coping is what you will be doing when you are not rocking your OUTCAN return and enjoying your new self and changed identity. Sorry, there is no magic pill for the parts of this that are going to hurt. Grief at the loss of fresh and new experiences will be palpable at times. A relationship breakup is a good analogy and one used by Dr. Cate Brubaker in her fantastic website Small Planet Studio (episode 4). To be sure, it’s gonna hurt but it will also be great- once you firmly get settled. The best advice is to follow the Brownie motto and “Be prepared”.   

Re Entry to Canada Coping Strategies 

  1. Reconnect with friends and family. Just keep in mind that there will be some people who you’ll be able to share lots of stories with, and some people with whom only one OUTCAN story will be all that they can take. Don’t blather on too much about your Christmas in Paris or school break in Morrocco. Holding back will make you feel isolated and different but the reality is, only others who have had expat experiences will understand. That said... 

  1. Adhere to the 3-30-3 Rule of OUTCAN chit-chat to friends and family back home. Teach your child the 3-30-3 rule. Acquaintances get 3 seconds of an OUTCAN story, (a mention really), friends get thirty seconds of an OUTCAN story, and teachers and grandparents get a full 3 minutes! If you take one piece of practical advice from this month’s column, take this one! 

  1. Stay connected with OUTCAN friends. They and other expat friends are the only ones who know what you might be going through as you re emerge in Canadian life.  Build community by staying in touch with your OUTCAN friends. Send Christmas cards and offer to meet up when friends are travelling through your town.  

  1. Start finding new social circles. Continue to express your new self in your new surroundings in Canada. Build your repertoire of new people that will easily allow the new you to flourish simply because they do not know the old, pre OUTCAN you. 

  1. Continue to participate in activities that give you a sense of normalcy. Keep up your commitments to going to the gym, attending choir practice, doing puzzles with the family, and Sunday family walks.  

  1. Have low to no expectations. Remember how, as you planned to move OUTCAN a few years back, some of your expectations were so far from the reality that unfolded? Use that knowledge to your advantage. Keep top of mind that things won’t go as planned. This approach will further your resilience. How you recover and make meaning out of your growth while OUTCAN is a measure of your resilience.  Be realistic with yourself that you will always have to keep the skill of radical acceptance in your back pocket.  

  1. Focus on the gains, not the losses. In a nutshell, you put yourself out to the world by coming OUTCAN and the world offered up an amazing adventure to you. You have been fortunate to have had many once in a lifetime experiences. Having peak experiences comes at a cost though. Nothing is for free. Reintegration after living abroad is where all the ways in which you have transformed is made visible. Living abroad and travel were catalysts and it is home, it’s Canada where the real adventure begins.  

  1. Ask people to refrain from telling you all the rotten things that you are going to have to deal with in Canada! Enough already about the food prices! In I Can OUTCAN, the military spouse support group that I run, community members have been able to shift to this position. They are gently and yet firmly asking friends and family not to “tell” them about food prices. Stay strong on this. It’s not like you don’t know that everyone will have to adjust, coupon cut, eat out at restaurants less often, or do without some things. 

  1. Try not to make any major life decisions in the first year of moving back. Let life run through each of the first four seasons you are back home. Waiting allows for things to settle and for you to be more confident that you are making wise and not emotional decisions.  

Dear Reintegration Roller Coaster. Remember, for those inclined, roller coasters are a lot of fun! 


Back to Canada Resources (May 2024) 

Though for non-military folks, this website, with companion purchasable digital products, has resources regarding a plethora of diverse topics including your children’s education, importing your wine collection, and purchasing real estate. All from a uniquely Canadian perspective.  

This is an excellent review of Reverse Culture Shock. American and military vantage point.  

Very good resources for teens and adults who are rightly anticipating some adjustment issues and grief regarding returning from a life abroad. There is a purchasable workbook and a few very good podcasts. Excellent bibliography of academic and non-academic articles and books.  

This is a fantastic article where the author, Kisha Solomon, outlines what she believes are the stages of reintegration after a time away from home. Spot on.  

Blogger Lana, or the Travel Savy Gal, outlines an exercise well worth doing- listing the good things about your return to Canada and also, the good things about life in Europe. She makes some excellent recommendations regarding coping. 

Lastly, check out what MFS OUTCAN has created over the years on its blog. Written for and by those with whom you share this once in a life-time adventure- Thanks OUTCAN! 

Andrea has a master’s degree in Social Work and is a Registered Social Worker (Ontario) with over 20 years of experience. She maintains a faculty appointment at McMaster University where she teaches in the Masters of Science in Psychotherapy program.

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