2020-10-06 10:48


"I Just Want to go Home" - How COVID Changed Expat Life

Source: Financial Times

Last month Tara and her family moved into a new home in rural Dorset after 12 years as expats in Singapore. Her banker husband had got a job back in the UK and within six weeks she moved mountains to extricate themselves from one life and create another most urgently, a home to rent and school places for their three children.

The lure of the dream expat life had faded, says Tara, 38, who did not want to give her real name.

Trapped on an island by the draconian quarantine rules meant that ease of travel one of the main reasons for being there no longer existed, she says, referring to the 14-day period that inbound travellers are required to stay in a government-assigned hotel, at a cost equivalent to 1,127 a person.

She is not the only economic migrant someone who moves abroad to take up a job opportunity and is commonly referred to as an expat opting to return home due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers from Ireland, New Zealand, the US and Germany have been rethinking their living arrangements. But whether it is elective or unwanted, repatriation can be a tough experience.

In a recent survey of its global customer base, estate agent Knight Frank found that nearly two-thirds of expats (64 per cent) said that lockdown had influenced their decision to buy a property in their home country.

Of those, about 29 per cent said they were moving back full time, with 57 per cent seeking a home that they can use in the future, perhaps during a second wave of the virus.

The importance of family

Time spent in lockdown has underlined the importance of family for many and focused their minds on the type of lifestyle they want to lead, says Victoria Garrett, Knight Franks head of residential in Asia Pacific.

For expats with older parents back home or young children heading to boarding school abroad and the prospect of a potential eight- or 12-hour flight to reach them the pandemic has meant many are rethinking their long-term plans.

For Nina Hobson, 38, a British-born expat who has lived in 13 countries, the chaos of the pandemic might force her home. Shes in the middle of relocating from Santiago in Chile to Quito in Ecuador.

Our relocation agent got Covid so we have struggled to get accommodation, the schools are closed until 2021, and we are quarantining, says the mother of three whose Spanish husband works in finance. I love living abroad but now I just want to go home.

The pandemic has also brought an end to expat life for Chara Richterberg from Lafayette, Louisiana, who has moved across four continents through her husbands job in oil and gas. Until March this year, they had been living in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The older we get, the more important it becomes to be closer to home, and we did not want to be stuck halfway across the world, away from elderly parents and with such uncertainty about air travel, says the 43-year-old. Moving to Houston [Texas] for his job has been lonely for me but, wherever I am, I eventually find my own people.

According to the Knight Frank survey, the four main drivers for expatriates looking to return home were: being close to family, a new job offer, a better healthcare system and education.

The German healthcare system has been a key factor for Sabine (who prefers not to give her full name) and her Parisian husband Patrick, to change plans because of the pandemic.

Sabine, a former engineer from Hamburg, made a life in France 31 years ago with Patrick running bed and breakfast properties in Avignon, in south-eastern France. They are now selling up to move to Germany.

Eighteen months ago, we had planned to move to Australia with one of our three daughters, but we decided it was too risky because of the structure of their healthcare system and ongoing air travel restrictions, says Sabine, 54. The possibility of another wave of coronavirus means we will stay in Europe now.

In New Zealand, emigrants have been returning for some time. July 2020 was the 12th consecutive month that had a net gain of New Zealand citizens, according to official statistics. This is a reversal of the historical trend, which tends to see more New Zealand citizens depart than arrive.

Ireland is another country whose citizens are returning. The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that 28,900 Irish nationals went back to live and work in the year to April 2020 the highest number in 13 years.

The Department of Foreign Affairs fielded about 8,000 inquiries from Irish people abroad seeking to return between March and September.

Ten per cent of our new-build home sales in Dublin have been to [returning] expats, says Ray Palmer-Smith of Knight Franks Irish office. Most are cash buyers, but there are specific home to return to mortgages available for Irish expats [who buy] before making the move. EBS bank is one such lender offering these products.

Nothings changed but you

Being prepared mentally as well as financially makes the whole repatriation process easier, says Carole Hallett Mobbs, 55, who found returning to the UK harder than any of the many other moves she made as the wife of a diplomat.

When we left Tokyo after the earthquake in 2011, not being able to get the closure from properly saying goodbye to everyone made it harder to mentally move on.

She says that even in normal circumstances, moving back home can be tough for expats, even when it is voluntary.

Its a reverse culture shock. When you move to a new place you are getting a constant adrenaline rush from new experiences or cultural differences every day. Everything is fresh and exciting. But when you go home everything is perhaps too familiar. Theres nothing to surprise.

Her words echo those of F Scott Fitzgeralds Benjamin Button. In the film of the book, he says: Its a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realise whats changed is you.

She struggled to adjust to life back in Northampton two years ago and now advises other families about schooling options through her website, ExpatChild.com.

Falling back in love with home

The pull of better employment opportunities has been a factor in Janes return to the UK after 15 years in the Dordogne, south-west France, in August. She has started a new teaching job in Hampshire and has found returning there rewarding so far.

Viewing it with fresh eyes, I have fallen back in love with the UK, despite it being a very different place to the one we left, says Jane, 51, who did not want to give her real name. We have returned with an alternative perspective about healthcare and education systems but luckily our 12-year-old daughter (who grew up in France) is also excited about her new home.

The main difficulties she has faced have been practical: setting up a new home without being able to open a bank account (Hallett Mobbs advises departing expats to keep an account in their home country), lacking a credit history and having no proof of address to apply for services.

Returning during the pandemic meant logistics were doubly tricky for Tim and Lynda Wheatley, who came back to the UK as it locked down in March, after 21 years in Cyprus and, before that, 13 years in Germany.

When you have been away that long you are not returning to a life, but the hardest thing of all was to forge new social ties when we couldnt meet people properly, says Tim, 76, a former RAF officer.

Hallett Mobbs agrees. When you move abroad you are welcomed into an expat bubble, through social groups or the international school, but when you arrive back home you feel as if youve been dropped like a hot potato.

Tara doesnt feel quite so alienated. I cant wait to go to Waitrose, she says. Ive found out a few other people from Singapore have moved to the area too.

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