Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Last week's column

For the record, I did include the nasty letter and they decided not to run it. I welcome hate mail!



After the First Year,
The Challenges Change

September 1, 2006

What a difference a year makes.

Last August, we stumbled off the plane in Beijing, dazed and wide-eyed and feeling like simply righting ourselves in the most basic manner was a full-time job. Our goals were modest: meeting some people; getting the kids stabilized in school; finding our way around to essential places like the grocery store; learning enough essential Chinese phrases to communicate with cab drivers, merchants and waitresses.

These are the most elemental things one needs to be independent. Struggling with them all at once is a humbling experience. Feeling the need to constantly call friends or employees to assist in mundane details of life is frustrating and embarrassing. Suddenly, everything becomes an adventure; every cab ride or trip to the bank is likely to lead to confusion and dissatisfaction.

Some element of that will always remain while living in a foreign land, but this year, as we settle back from our first big summer trip in America, we are finding that we no longer have to sweat the small stuff on a daily basis. We can now raise our eyes off the ground in front of us to focus on the bigger picture. And that feels good, well worth pausing to honor even as we stifle yawns and battle jet lag from our return trip.

Our Chinese is still porous but there is a baseline understanding and we no longer fear opening our mouths to speak. We have a large circle of friends. We have our driver's licenses and a new car, and we know how to find what we need and much of what we want. We have our favorite spots around town. We have largely regained the independence that we lost with the move.

In fact, it feels like our primary challenge has shifted virtually 180 degrees, from establishing normalcy to battling complacency. I don't want life to become too normal. We are, after all, Americans living in China for a few brief years. Should status quo suburban living really be our goal? Our weekends already revolve around the same things they do for thousands of suburban American families -- kids' soccer and baseball games, Sunday school and birthday parties, dinner in friends' backyards and occasional nights out on the town.

With China and all she has to offer beckoning, we need to strike a balance between a nice, stable "regular" existence and taking full advantage of the travel and other opportunities available during this unique chapter in our family's life. After all, soccer games and birthday parties will be around for years to come. The Great Wall, terra cotta warriors, the Forbidden City and the labyrinthine, ancient Hutong neighborhoods in Beijing will not, at least for us. We'd like to revisit these places, and add many more that we haven't seen yet, as much as possible. We could tour China every weekend for the rest of our stay and still have places left on our to-go list – and that's not even mentioning the rest of this huge continent.

Incorporating that knowledge and pushing yourselves a little further than you sometimes feel like going is one of the challenges of living abroad for a set period of time. We are here for three years and I always faintly hear a clock ticking in the background.

Last year, when we were deciding whether or not to accept the offer and move here, a three-year commitment loomed large. It was hard to get our minds around such a seemingly large block of time. Sure enough, the first three months lasted a lifetime. We settled in quickly and actually enjoyed the challenges of our new life, but we were undeniably overwhelmed, finding ourselves collapsing into bed in exhausted heaps every night. With even the most basic of tasks often becoming all-day affairs just as likely to end in failure as success, every day felt like a week, every week a month, every month a year.

But then time did what it always does -- it started speeding up. Soon it was spring and school was winding down. Then it was summer and we were saying good-byes to friends, some of whom we won't see again for a long time, if ever, and heading back to America for an extended summer break. Now that we're back and year two is officially under way, I feel like the worm has turned. My perspective has completely flipped; I have begun to contemplate the fact that our time here is short and we need to stay focused on immersing ourselves in Beijing proper, the world that beats outside of our expat bubble.

Still, it's somewhat stunning to realize that we are no longer newbies, though the fact is driven home by observing new arrivals walking around with stunned, glazed-eye looks that I know all too well. I know what those guys are thinking and I know that it's not as hard as they think to get from there to here. Last year, a few friends and neighbors were incredibly helpful as we tried to get our feet on the ground and we've tried to pass the favor on.

Yesterday was the first day of school, one of my favorite days of the year. My joy stems both from proudly watching the kids excitedly march off into the unknown and a sense of relief that the exhausting job of being a primary summer caregiver for three kids is over. Now I'll have a little more time to do my own thing and that's welcome. After all, there's a city of 16-million waiting to be explored.
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Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about returning to America for an extended visit and feeling mixed feelings about where "home" was. Many fellow or former expats understood, but a few questioned my sanity. As always, thanks for the feedback
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I know exactly how you feel. I am an American expat living in the Netherlands with my wife and son. We have been here for just over a year and we miss it every time we leave.

While home for the holidays, I had many of the same feelings. It was as if time stood still while we were gone. All my friends were still at the same jobs and hanging out at the same places. I was asked the same questions you were upon returning home, "How's Holland?" and "What's it like to be back?" I should have just printed out one page memos with my response and handed them out.

Seeing the family and friends was great … but we couldn't wait to return to home [abroad].

-- John Iosifidis

Thank you so much for applying descriptive words to that ache in our tummies. Our family has just, in the last month, reluctantly left France to return to the States. What prompts the tears the most easily and quickly is when I'm asked, "Is it good to be home?" I'm sure that most flag-waving, McDo (French slang for the arches)-eating Americans wouldn't understand but what I want to reply is "I was home."

Thanks and welcome home, if you're back in China.

-- Jane H. Hursh

I am currently an expat in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I recently returned home to Michigan for a two-and-half week visit and I couldn't imagine spending much more time there. Many times, when I talked about going back I would specifically say, "When I get home … ." After saying this a few times my mother stopped me and commented on the fact that I really do feel that Ulaanbaatar is my "home." This is true. Although I feel an attraction to Michigan, my family, and the U.S. in general, I don't necessarily see it as my home.

-- Darren Heil

You want to get back to work, that's all. China is changing faster than Maplewood and you want to be part of that. Good for you.

-- Robert Konrath

I do welcome a return to uninterrupted work time, though it would be nice if I could get someone to actually fix my dead DSL line.


We lived in the Netherlands for six years and I know how you feel. When we first returned to America after a year in the Hague, we couldn't wait to get back to the ordered Dutch world and the wonderful bicycle paths. But after six years there, we couldn't wait to get back to America. We became tired of the many prescriptions for life, we knew we could never be Calvinists, we knew why the Pilgrims left Holland for life in America. We longed to be back in a country of laws and not in a land where an oligarchy made the majority of decisions. We realized why our founding fathers drew up the wonderful Constitution we have. The longer you are gone, the more you will cherish American values and culture.

-- Nicholas H. Sommers

I am sure my perspective will change as time goes by and I have never questioned the fact that I will call America home in the long run.


Your column was a small example of the "re-entry crisis." Your original U.S. world has changed dramatically while you were gone… and you have just been through a wrenching, intense, very different experience in which most of the people you knew or meet have very little interest or ability to relate. If this was a problem for you during summer vacation, wait until you move back to the U.S. permanently, although I've now done it several times and it does seem to get easier each time.

-- Jonathan Bensky

I lived as an expat in Malaysia for nearly three years, returning to the States in 1999. A few months before my assignment ended, I started telling friends and family -- and even myself -- that I was "going home." What I failed to realize at the time, and for many months thereafter, was that I was in fact "leaving home." It's interesting because my company spent a lot of time and money preparing me for life in another country, but didn't prepare me at all for the return. And it turns out, that's what I really needed.

Americans living abroad need to prepare themselves for their return to the States every bit as much as they need to prepare themselves for living in another country. Maybe even more so.

-- Jeremy Bolton

Many people have written me about the re-entry crisis and suggested I write about it. For now, I've decided to wait until it's something I really face myself.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com