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When Life As an Expat in Mexico Does Not Work Out

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It started out so well. Mexico seemed to be the perfect place for you. But after living as an expat in Mexico for a few years you began longing for friends and family and your old way of life back home. When life as an expat in Mexico does not work out for you, it may be time to think about repatriation.

Most expats in Mexico do not spend a lot of time thinking about problems they may face if they decide to return home, but the truth is repatriation can be a very upsetting experience that can cause emotional stress. How can you navigate repatriation to ensure a smooth transition to living again in your home country?

Cross-Cultural Expert Cornelius Grove at Expats In Mexico
Cornelius Grove

For answers, we turned to Cornelius Grove, a cross-cultural consultant and a founder of Grovewell LLC. He told us that how well expats navigate repatriation depends very much on their expectations. Grove said, “If expatriation is the expected encounter with the unfamiliar, then repatriation is the unexpected encounter with the familiar. Many expatriates do not expect the need to prepare for repatriation when reconnecting with family and friends back home.”

Grove said expats who return to their home country after living abroad two to four years experience change, and it is not the people back home who have changed.

“Living abroad has brought about a gradual and almost imperceptible change in the outlook, values and habits of most expats,” Grove said. “The expat goes back home and sees events that look very similar, but in fact are experienced differently.”

According to Grove, signs that an expat is experiencing reverse culture shock in the repatriation process are feelings of being upset, confused, unhappy or out-of-place with people he or she previously had good relationships. “Research shows that they indeed begin to conclude that they are changed people,” Grove said.

Expats in Mexico need to realize that repatriating after several years living in another country can change your point of view on the values, culture and lifestyle you knew before. Most expats head back home not expecting to experience familiar scenes and people differently. So what should expats do to properly adjust their expectations?

Grove emphasized that the main way to deal with the reverse culture shock that often comes with repatriation is to stay in touch with those you left behind after you move to Mexico.

“That mainly boils down to intentionally keeping in touch with family and friends,” Grove said. “And if you are a corporate transferee, stay in touch with colleagues, supervisors and human resources people. You are out-of-sight, but you do not want to be out-of-mind. Keeping in the loop of things back home while your in Mexico should ease the process of repatriation in the long run.”

Grove also said that waiting until you start the process of repatriation is already too late. Preparation should start early to alleviate most of the negative effects of reverse culture shock. Preparation should include ample time to keep in touch with social networks back home, preferably at least a year before the return takes place.

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“We tell corporate expats, for example, to not only visit good friends and relatives on home visits, but also make sure you go into the office and talk with people, have meetings and keep in touch with the power brokers,” Grove explained. “We even encourage them to try to find somebody who can look out for their interests while they are in Mexico and keep them in the loop.”

Grove’s advice to keep in touch with social networks applies to spouses, partners and expat kids as well. “They should also keep in the loop to reinforce existing relationships with their family and friends,” Grove said. “This does not need to be an everyday thing while they are away, but it should be ongoing. Keeping oneself continually informed and in touch with people back home helps reduce any potential culture shock upon reentry.”

Grove said living in Mexico might be more life transforming for younger expats who more readily absorb the culture and customs. They often gain a new outlook on life and values that clash with those of their home country. This is true to a degree for all expats in Mexico.

“Whether it is on a personal, family or career level expats should realize their time living in Mexico will make them aware of values and cultural differences and teach them how to communicate on an international level,” Grove said. “The fundamental objective is to realize growth and development and capitalize on it. Expats should understand that working in another country considerably and significantly enriches them. That is good for them personally and professionally.”

Grove further explained that expats who have absorbed the values, social expectations, habits of thought and patterns of behavior in Mexico experience what he calls “deep culture.” He said this is an important point to focus on because many expatriates may not realize themselves how they may have changed. “When you experience deep culture, you are not necessarily aware that you have changed,” Grove said. “When you return to your home country you will notice a difference in your reactions to values and social expectations. Your home country has not changed, but you have.”

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A common situation repatriates face is indifference about their adventure in Mexico. “Even if one has an enriching experience, if family, friends or colleagues are not interested in hearing about it or you are not able to share your experience with someone who cares about your time in Mexico, it can be upsetting,” Grove said. “It is a common and well-known experience for returning expats to feel like nobody cares about their experience living in another country. You have to find somebody else with a similar experience, another former expat.”

Grove offered a final piece of advice for expats in Mexico undergoing the realities of repatriation reverse culture shock:

“Expect that many people and situations that were very familiar to you before you left are now going to be different. You should not let this throw you for a loop. This is very much to be expected. You have changed and these changes in the long run can be very beneficial, but the initial impact is likely to be upsetting and for some people very upsetting. Remember, it is not because you have gone crazy somehow, it is because you have had a change in your values and expectations about daily life and relationships.”