Friday, February 13, 2009

Repat columns

I have written three so far.. this is number two. Not sure why I amstarting in the middle.

Separating Anchors from Anvils
Moving Abroad and Back Teaches an Expat the Value of His Stuff
By ALAN PAUL


I'm writing this column sitting at the same desk in the same spot in the same room where I sat and worked for seven years before moving to China in 2005. I'm looking out the same window I used to gaze out and daydream about busting out into the wider world. After accomplishing many seemingly far off goals during my expat life in China -- starting a successful band, covering the Olympics, writing this column -- the thought of returning to the same old life filled me with dread.

I never seriously contemplating moving to a different place upon returning -- I really like Maplewood, New Jersey -- but I had a strong impulse to buy a new house. A new desk certainly seemed like the minimum requirement. But that was all from afar. On the ground, the reality was different. The sight of this old desk coming off the back of a truck delivering 64 boxes from storage made me smile. Nothing else in the giant delivery made me happier. I purchased it over a decade ago when a furniture store was going under and it was never much more than large, sturdy and utilitarian. Now it feels like an anchor, a crucial grounding device in my search to reestablish normalcy. And I'll take any help I can get.

As if leaving China wasn't shakeup enough, this has been a strange time to land back in the U.S. There is a powerful contradictory undercurrent: fear, uncertainty and nervousness over the economy but also hope and excitement over Barack Obama's presidency.
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As my wife and three kids and I continue the process of trying to get back to normal, the very concept of "normal" seems to be under assault. Institutions that people considered bedrocks of the economy are shaky; some are gone altogether. Ideas about personal financial security -- even one's home being there -- are all in play. Friends and family members who thought job worries or economic concerns were for other people suddenly realize they apply to everyone. Few people I know are not experiencing increased anxiety.

This seems like a good time to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm, which is ironic when we're living a bit like refugees, waiting for our sea shipment to arrive from Beijing with the bulk of our possessions, including beds and other furniture that will allow us to return to our house. Until then, we are living in cozy but cramped quarters with my aunt and uncle, who should be nominated for sainthood for happily putting up with the little tornado that is our daily life. This is also a time to be thankful for what you have, including family.

One step towards getting back into our house came last week when we retrieved the desk and everything else we had put into storage before moving to China in the summer of 2005. Rebecca and I could only remember a few large pieces of furniture and a couple of other things that we had stowed away. I guessed that we had about 15 boxes to come, and the news that it was actually 64 both stunned and amused me. After all we had thrown away, given away and taken with us China, how could we possibly have 64 boxes left here? What were they filled with? I was both curious and leery as I waited for the shipment to arrive.

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Expat life and moving
Alan Paul

Alan Paul was happier to receive his old desk from storage than he expected. He was flummoxed to find a snow globe had also been stored.
Expat life and moving
Expat life and moving

I was ready to immediately get rid of most of it. I figured that we couldn't really need anything that we hadn't missed in three and half years. During our two-week journey home the 12 suitcases we were carting around began to feel like anvils around our necks and now I had to deal with all this other junk. My feelings were not unique. Many, many expats have many, many things in storage. We often joked about it with other expat friends in Beijing; none of us were exactly sure what we'd left behind.

We had good friends leaving Beijing at the same time we did, to return to England after seven years away. The husband returned first and told me that he was shocked and appalled to see a full truck pull up with their long forgotten treasures. His overwhelmed reaction helped prepare me. Our experiences are in fact the norm, according to Diane Picinic of the MI Group, the company that handled our storage and delivery.

"Most people who move back from overseas are very surprised to learn how much they have in storage," she says. "A lot of the stuff that comes out is disposed of. There's stuff that people don't want any more and electrical goods and appliances that either no longer work or are outdated."

I experienced a bit of that, tossing out a Palm Pilot I never much used anyhow. Even my voluminous CD collection seems bit dated in this iPod age, though I have enjoyed listening to some I had forgotten I owned, including some deep blues by Otis Rush and my favorite early Tom Waits albums. But there was surprisingly little that screamed out to be sold or donated -- just a few pieces of art that we will never hang again and a handful of glasses, pitchers and ceramic mugs that are both ugly and superfluous. Most of the goods will get stuffed right back into the closets from whence they came years ago: personal documents, letters, photo albums and magazines containing my work.

There was also an abundance of art and other items from my late grandparents' house. When we were moving, getting rid of their things seemed like saying good-bye to them, but I have more clarity on that issue now and some of their things will be gone soon. I don't remember my grandparents less after not seeing their modernist pencil sketches for a few years. I need to keep that in mind when the boxes from China arrive. My memories of Beijing are a lot deeper than those ugly Lunar New Year ceramic rats I couldn't bring myself to toss away.

Putting things into storage is often times just deferring difficult decisions, kicking it down the road. Now that I have covered a few thousand more miles – to China and back -- I have a better idea how to separate the anchors from the anvils.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

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