Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Last column

This is the first and last at least for a while edited on a Blackberry (Becky's) at approx. 12,000 feet -- inside Up4Pizza, atop Snowmass Mountain.

Family Beckons: Heading
Home for the Holidays

December 22, 2006

The holiday season can be a source of great stress for people living abroad, just like anywhere else. Among the most agonizing decisions for many expats is figuring out whether or not they can or should head home. Christmas is not a recognized holiday in China and getting enough time off to justify a 10-13 hour flight to the U.S. can be a problem. Yet there is no school for the kids for three weeks and it's hard to sit still and watch friends jet off to every corner of the world. Also, of course, many people simply long to be with their extended families on Christmas.

We entered our expat existence assuming we would return home twice a year -- winter and summer breaks -- largely because that's what the first people we spoke to did. Last year, as the fall moved along and our transition happened surprisingly quickly, I doubted the wisdom of going back to New Jersey for a visit just four months after moving. I worried that the kids, who had adjusted remarkably well and amazingly quickly, would lose their momentum, growing homesick and tentative to return to Beijing, that all their progress would be wiped away.

The opposite happened. Seeing their friends and family reminded them that everyone was still there, while leaving Beijing and getting ready to return somehow made it seem more like our home. It reiterated that we actually lived there. The trip was profoundly worthwhile even while being completely exhausting -- there's no other way to describe moving a family of five through New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Michigan while battling vicious jet lag.

This year, I again had my doubts about going back for winter break, though my reasons had shifted. It seemed that most veteran expats returned home just once a year, for an extended summer visit. I felt like a bit of a wuss running home just months after returning from such a vacation. Part of me also longed for an Asian adventure, as I am anxious to explore as much of the continent as possible in our limited time there.

All of these feelings eased a bit as I spoke to more and more people and realized that many were in fact returning home, often without the husband or wife who had to stay and work. Many others who could not make it back expressed envy and excitement for us. One French friend who has been in China for five or six years told me she would never consider not returning home for the holidays. "Going back twice a year is what allows me to do this," she said.

Still, even as I relaxed and began to grow excited at the thought of an American trip, I still fretted over the expense and dreaded the long plane rides with our kids and the little time to properly recover from the jet lag. My family swayed me. Rebecca really wanted to see her parents and sisters; a year is an awfully long time for people to not see rapidly changing three-year-old Anna; and almost-nine Jacob loudly bemoaned that we were now missing out on "an important family tradition" -- large Hanukkah parties with his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

Rebecca shrewdly suggested we meet my parents for a Colorado ski trip, something we did most years before moving. That excited me, though I doubted the feasibility. Weighing all of that, I called a recommended travel agent to see if there was any way to fly from Beijing to Colorado and still make it to New Jersey and Michigan.

I mostly wanted to prove it was a mission impossible, but the agent came back with an eight-leg trip that looked grueling but doable and was surprisingly affordable. (It still costs an arm and a leg to fly a family of five from China to America but we could do all that traveling for the same price we usually pay to simply fly round-trip to Newark.)

So, we booked the tickets and I am sitting in Colorado right now, enjoying a ski vacation with my parents and feeling about eight million miles away from Beijing. In a few days, we'll fly to New Jersey, and then on to Michigan to have belated Hanukkah celebrations with more relatives than you can shake a latke at. We're all happy to be here, no one more so than Jacob, whose outrage fueled the trip.

In the weeks before leaving, we became increasingly crazed preparing to depart, attending the kids' winter shows at the school and turning ourselves into Hanukkah experts. With such a shortage of Jewish families -- maybe four or five others in the school -- our "expertise" was needed to teach the kids about a holiday that many had never even heard of. I did some online research and Rebecca and I went to all three kids' classes to light menorahs and explain the holiday's history and traditions.

Other friends who stayed put for the holidays seemed to feel pressure to make the event extra special. My friend Lisa certainly felt that way. She rolled her eyes when I suggested that the holiday frenzy was less intense in Beijing, thanks in large part to the lack of overwhelming seasonal cheer and constant reminders that you should drop everything and go shopping right now.

"No," she said. "We bring our craziness with us."

Another friend has lived abroad for 10 years, returning home for Christmas only once. For some reason, an intense longing to see her extended family washed over her this year, after she and her husband had already booked trips for a southern China beach vacation. She watched people like us packing up to leave with a heavy heart and little enthusiasm for her own vacation.

Others, however, are happy to create their own new traditions. One friend admitted to being relieved about not having to deal with the family politics of the holiday. Home in Australia, they spent Christmas morning with her husband's family and the evening with hers. Neither side is fully satisfied with the arrangement, causing her to spend the entire day looking at her watch, feeling guilty she's not somewhere else and agitated that she'd been made to feel that way.

This year, she will skip all that to remain in our little expat compound in Beijing hosting a Christmas gathering of four families representing six nationalities -- American, Australian, Venezuelan, Austrian, Dutch and British. They hope to borrow something from each nation's Christmas traditions. Were we there, we might well join them and light a menorah. That's sort of how things go around there.

I'll let you know how our crazy eight-leg trip went in two weeks. In the meantime, happy holidays.