Monday, September 01, 2008

Leaving Letters column

Readers Offer Sage Advice:
How to Cope with Going Home
July 30, 2008


The reaction to my last column, regarding our decision to leave China early and return to the U.S. in December, was overwhelming. I received so much mail and found so much of it insightful that I wanted to share it in a special mailbag column.

Readers wrote in to share their own experiences returning home or moving on to other assignments, often offering sage advice and guidance. It was the ultimate example of something I have written countless times in responses to reader mail over the past two and a half years: I have learned as much from all of you as anyone has from me.

There is one thing I want to point out, however: I am in Beijing until late December and will continue writing the column. Please don't talk about The Expat Life in past tense! I will certainly endeavor to, as Mark Lavalle of Shanghai suggested, "capture as many of the thoughts about heading home as possible in the next six months."

Many readers also noted that the transition back to life in the U.S. will be a tough one, and asked me to continue chronicling my experience. I will do so, even if, as Paul Sumerall noted, I am about "to enter some less-than-exciting times." He went on to put his finger on many of my concerns:

"Going home is harder than going abroad. Life in a new culture is like living 24/7 with a super-heightened sense of awareness. Returning to the States is not really a return to reality -- it's a return to a life that runs for the most part on auto-pilot. It will never stimulate like living abroad did.

"You realize how much of the pleasure of the experience was in learning to do the simple acts of daily life -- which everyone beyond infancy here can handle quite well -- and people will not be able to fathom how you could possibly be assigning such value to those experiences. Nevertheless, it is something you and your family will never forget; it's still a common theme for my grown kids and my wife that always brings back smiles and gets a conversation going. Good luck and be glad -- it was worth every minute."
* * *

This was a common theme in the letters: There are difficulties to living the expat life and difficulties in giving it up, and many shared their own experiences. While some of these tales were about very difficult chapters in the writers' lives, few hold any regrets about their decisions, either to become expats or to return home. This is doubly true when it comes to their kids.

John Ward of Texas was one of many who wrote me encouraging notes about the positive impact that their expat experiences had on their children. "My family and I lived in Brussels for three years," he wrote. "My kids were 11 and 14 when we moved there, very much against their will. The children attended the International School of Brussels. What an incredible experience to make friends (which they continue to keep) with people from around the world.

"My son is now 22 and my daughter 19. Since returning to the U.S., they have traveled frequently back to Europe. As a direct result of our expat assignment, their lives and philosophies have been enriched far beyond what they would have been in our small town of Friendswood, Texas. While we all still take pride in being Americans, there is part of us that would like to claim World Citizenship."
* * *

Nancy Spady, an American who lived in Italy before returning to New Jersey -- her childhood home, but a new locale for her family -- wrote me a long letter filled with good advice. She was one of several people to emphasize the importance of saying proper good-byes and to promote the value of revisiting China within my first year of moving back. It is definitely something I hope to do, for the sake of both me and my kids.

Ms. Spady also related to what I wrote about how the expat experience had changed my perspective on belongings. "I also care a lot less than I did about all of this stuff we've been dragging around and storing. I cannot believe how much I still have in boxes, and I really don't miss it. Perhaps that's a lesson lots of overextended people in the U.S. could use. This puts me a bit out of touch with most of my neighbors."

She concluded by telling me that my return will be "familiar and unfamiliar in many surprising ways. But if you use the skills you acquired as an expat and go with the flow, you'll do just fine."
* * *

On the theme of being potentially out of touch with the neighbors, Paul Aaronson wrote, "My wife, our son and I went to London in 1988 for a planned three-to-five year commitment and returned nine years and three kids later. We had been warned that the transition could be extremely difficult. It was. We settled in Connecticut and as well-educated and well-traveled as people in Fairfield County are, we found them to be dull, completely 'geo-centric' and entirely involved in what we viewed as mundane existences.

"It wasn't that we were so worldly and sophisticated; it was just that by interacting with people from all over the world every day, we developed a different perspective on the world. Guess what? It actually doesn't revolve around the United States. It was not that we had become anti-American by any means, just receptive to a wider rainbow of opinions about things that matter besides what kind of car you were thinking of buying, what club to join or how many square feet your house is. We couldn't find anyone in Connecticut, other than other returned expats, who understood that frustration.

"Oddly, we rarely questioned our decision to come back, despite how miserable we sometimes felt. We missed our friends, we missed the travel, missed everything that was different about living over there, but ultimately, we just didn't seem to miss being there anymore. It took about a year or so, but as we settled into a comfortable suburban existence, we felt even more blessed. We had the comforts of living here (I won't apologize for the excesses of the American lifestyle), we made new friends, and the horizon-expanding experience that we had lived for nine years, truly immersed in another culture, was still with us, along with great memories and stories that we will always tell."
* * *

Lindsay Young was one of many writers to note that the transition back to living in the U.S. was more difficult than the initial one to living abroad had been. "I was a changed woman when I returned home after serving in Armenia for the Peace Corps for three years, but most of my friends and family did not understand it. I believe that 'getting back to reality,' which I also heard more than once, is a silly phrase. After four years of being home, it sometimes does seem like my volunteer experience was the 'hazy dream' you referred to. I had hoped that wouldn't happen, but it has. Still, I wouldn't trade my experience in Armenia for the world!"

Alan Seigrist of Hong Kong was also struck by people telling me it was time to get back to reality. "This is interesting," he wrote. "I have lived half of my 42 years overseas (in Thailand, Laos, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Jordan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and Seoul), the other half in the U.S. and one thing I have learned is the sense of 'reality' in the U.S. is actually very unique in the world. Those of us who have traveled extensively would argue that the U.S. is more akin to a fantasy and the rest of the world 'reality.'"
* * *

To help with my own adjustment, Emily Wingfield in Brussels suggested two books, which returning friends have highly recommended to her: The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti and Homeward Bound: A Spouse's Guide to Repatriation by Robin Pascoe.
* * *

Regular correspondent Craig Wilson of Bangkok also picked up on my annoyance that some friends and family members had told me it is "time to get back to reality." "I've long since determined that reality is what you make of it, where you make it," he wrote. "You'll carry with you all of the memories and experiences from your time in China, and your life in New Jersey will be very different -- and very much better -- as a result."

He concluded with a widespread piece of advice, one that I certainly plan to heed: "In the interim, enjoy every moment!"