Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Last column -- repatriation blues

Combating the Repatriation Blues
When you are a returning expat, one way to lessen your sense of loss when you move home is to find other people like you.


Everyone in my family has been battling the Beijing blues. Back in the U.S. for almost three months after three and a half years in China, we've settled down in school and work, and we are all basically doing fine. But sadness is creeping in.

For the kids, it's about missing friends. For my wife and me, it's that, plus the realization that day-to-day life just isn't quite as exciting.

Wondering if this somewhat delayed onset of sadness is typical, I contacted almost a dozen former expats with whom I have corresponded and two experts on transition and repatriation. The clear answer was that all of this is to be expected. Furthermore, it turns out that simply making contact with other people who understand what we're going through helps a lot; we all shared a virtual therapy session.

Several readers had written me to recommend Craig Storti's book The Art of Coming Home, which I have found helpful particularly for identifying that much of what I'm experiencing is quite standard. It's like reading parenting guidebooks; learning that other 4-year-olds kick their fathers in the groin and refuse to change their underwear helps you realize your kid isn't actually a sociopath.

When I spoke with Mr. Storti on the phone, one of the first things he said was, "Most people find coming home to be a more difficult transition than going abroad."

Yet this reality is often overlooked, he said. Mr. Storti has a consulting business, advising expats, and he estimates that he gets hired to work with returnees once for every 25 times he deals with people shipping out on assignment.

"One of the difficulties of returning is that no one who hasn't done it expects it to be difficult," he said. "Everyone thinks it must be easy to come home so the support network is not there."

Eight-year-old Eli spent much of our last year in Beijing talking about how much he hated China and couldn't wait to get back to America. Last night, he virtually cried himself to sleep thinking about his best friends in Beijing. "I didn't really hate China," he told me. "I just really missed here. But now..."

Now he really misses China.

Eleven-year-old Jacob completely fell apart when he recently lost a ski cap from Dulwich College of Beijing, his old school. Clearly, his emotions had little to do with the hat itself and everything to do with what it represented to him.

And they all know that I share their feelings, despite my best efforts to present a positive face. Recently, 5-year-old Anna worked diligently on two pieces of art. The first was a forest with a lion stalking between the trees. The second showed her and her mother on the Great Wall. "Which one do you like best?" she asked.

I chose the Wall, but she brushed off my opinion. "You just miss Beijing," she said.

It's true that I have found myself overcome with longing, both for big things like my band and my friends, and for small things like the local market where I liked to shop and the little noodle restaurant in a nearby village where I often dined.

"If you go through the normal stages of transition, the leaving phase is still when you are looking ahead and not really dealing with the loss, which hits you when you get back and begin to settle in," says Ruth van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. "But the losses are hidden; how do you explain this loss of a world you quite enjoyed but is now gone? This is why unresolved grief is the number one long-term issue for adult TCKS, as well as many adult expats. Every transition involves loss... even when there is gain."

I have certainly found myself carrying a heavier sense of loss here than I ever did there. During my stay in Beijing, people in the U.S. would ask me about missing home and often didn't believe me when I said it wasn't a problem. I longed for specific people or places, sometimes profoundly, but I never had a deep sense of loss, simply because I knew that my old existence wasn't gone forever; it was on hold and I would be returning to it, as I now have.

It is like the difference between having a long-distance relationship with someone to whom you are committed and breaking up with someone you thought was your true love. In the first case, you have tough moments but know the bond is solid and you will be together again soon enough, while the second can produce the kind of heartbreak that simmers around the edges forever.

Virtually all of the ex-expats with whom I spoke have had the same feelings and most also said that they began to set in several months after their return.

"The struggle to adjust really begins when the initial high of moving to a new place or back to an old home wears off," says Allegra Richards. Now a senior at Harvard, Ms. Richards was born in New York, but mostly grew up in Switzerland and Moscow, where her family still resides.

"The duration of the honeymoon period varies, but generally the wave of sadness and nostalgia hits during the first six months. There are things a repatriating citizen can do to anticipate the major shocks of returning home. But it is often the things you can't expect that make the sadness most difficult to deal with -- you can't anticipate the little things you will miss the most from the place you left behind."

I heard similar views from a range of men and women who have repatriated once or more over the last 20 years.

"The family sense of loss was very acute," says Tom Ripley, who returned to San Francisco with his wife and two children after three years in London. That was in 1996, but he still vividly recalls the struggle to readjust. The first couple of months were fine, he says, as they took the steps needed to get restarted after any move.

"After that, however, we began to feel like we were locked into a lifestyle that we thought we had moved beyond," he says. "Most of this had to do with the realization that we were now back in familiar surroundings and were not experiencing the sense of newness that had been part of our daily lives. It took my wife and I at least a year to work through this."

My friend Jim Ruderman, who left Beijing to return to metro New York around the same time we did and is resurrecting a business during a deep economic downturn, has gone through similar travails. The constant excitement of new challenges and not knowing what was around the next corner in Beijing -- both literally and figuratively -- kept him sharp. Now he's trying to figure out how to maintain that edge after returning to the place he left almost five years ago and feeling as if absolutely nothing has changed. He says his challenge "is magnified because I returned as a trailing spouse, reluctantly leaving behind a very satisfying job in Beijing before I was able to accomplish everything I wanted to do there, and I'm re-entering the job market during the deepest downturn of our lifetimes."

"As we've done this before (we have lived in Paris, Mexico City and Beijing), we expect to experience emotional ups and downs for a time, and we do," he said.

All of us ex-expats can relate, but I noted another current running through our conversations: a lack of regret and an understanding that you only grieve for something you loved.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

Monday, March 30, 2009

Now what do I do?

Well I'm a little hungover after a few crazy weeks. The Allmans at the Beacons are over.. 15 shows. I was at 4 and they were all different and all great. I saw buddy Guy, Phish dudes, Eric Clapton, Chuck Leavell and Bobby and Phil from the Dead with them.. but the best night was probably 3/26, which was the actual 40th anniversary and featured no guests.

The three rambling, noodley Dead songs played with Bob and Phil just reminded me while I always liked the ABB more.. better tunes, better singing, harder rhythms, great riffs...always feeling like they are going somewhere even when they are in deep space.

I could write a lot more but I'll save it for when I'm getting paid and I am in the middle of some intense Allmans writing... cover story for Guitar World coming up More details to follow. These photos are from the photo shoot. Just little snaps taken with my phone. Gregg Allman remains the man. amazing how good he sounds. His voice chills my blood, in a good way.

It's also the end of Pitt basketball, a much sadder finale. Watched the first half of Pitt/Villanova Saturday before going into the Beacon with brother David, bro-in-law Jon and good bud Jay.. an epic night. But I couldn't stop looking at my phone for updates every 5 minutes. when Pitt was up by a few with about 4 minutes left I couldn't take it and ran out the back door in search of a bar (thank God for my VIP pass).

I sprinted up Broadway and ran into the first place with a TV I saw.. about three blocks North. It was a pretty high end seafood restaurant. I crowded around the bar, no doubt annoying the two nice young ladies in front of me trying to enjoy their crab cakes without a sweaty Allman Bros freak yelling at the TV centimeters from their necks.

I bought a beer to make myself somewhat legit and settled in to watch a crushing defeat. With about a minute to go, an older guy came in and stood next to me, sipping a martini and watching the game. I was sort of happy to have someone to talk to so I didn't seem like a complete muttering loon, but I didn't really care either way. Right as they lost, some other guy saw us watching and slipped over to join us, no doubt thrilled to get away from his table and have an excuse to tune in (that being us).

"Wow," he said. "That sucks for Pitt."

"Yeah, sucks for me. I ran out of the Allman Brothers show to see this. Now I'm going back."

"Huh? You're going to be the only bummed out dude in the Beacon."

But I was not bummed out. I ran back in, literally, and had a blast. The Beacon is like a cocoon, a magically, hermetically sealed alternate universe. I have to say, nothing like the Allmans at the Beacon and I feel lucky to have experienced it as often as I have. Now it's all over and I need to recalibrate.. no more Allmans, no more basketball I care about.

Onwards and upwards!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


We returned last night from four days in Michigan and the baby gerbils are like new creatures. All very cool. We can pick them up now, and are supposed to, so they get used to people. They still look something like salamanders. Their eyes are closed and they will be blind for a few more weeks. Bob still digs a nest/hole and buries them. It's hard to even think about how many animals must consider them easy protein in the wild.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Layla -- Allmans with Clapton

Saw a really great, memorable Allmans show at the Beacon last night. Clapton played almost all of the second set with them. This was the encore, and filmed from right where I was standing. This guy must have been just ahead and to the right of me.

They definitely brought their A game from the get-go last night.

Serious excitement

Last Sunday morning, we were giving the kids breakfast and prepping them for their first day of Sunday School. Suddenly, Jacob asked who put M&M’s in the gerbil cage. I came over to see what he was talking about -- and saw that our gerbil Bob, ahem, in our house all of a week, had given birth to about five babies. They were underneath her, bright, bright read and indeed about the size and shape of peanut M&Ms. Anna later called them “beans with legs,” also an accurate description.

You can imagine the frenzy that followed.

“This is the most exciting day of my life!” Eli exclaimed.

“The most exciting day of your life will be when you actually have your own kids,” Jacob replied. “But for now..yeah.”

They both delight in saying, “We’re grandparents now.”

When we returned from Sunday School, there seemed to be at least two more of them. There are now six to eight. It’s really hard to count because though they have doubled in size and lightened in color to a healthy pink, they are still tiny and always clumped up together in a big ball.

It has been truly fascinating to watch, for all of us. The other night after the kids were asleep Becky and I sat in front of the cae watching them for almost half an hour while we talked and caught up with each other.

Many people wanred us that gerbils often eat their offspring, but so far I have to say that Bob has been a great mother. Her behavior is totally different than it was before. She is constantly grooming them, feeding them, fixing up the cage. The guy at the pet store told us she would like extra bedding and any and all paper products. So we keep adding stuff. She takes any paper and ches it up into tiny pieces. She has made a high, conical nest, with the babies inside. Sometimes she gets on top to nurse and covers herself up. Clearly, the goal is hiding and protecting the little things. Imagine how low on the food chain an adult gerbil then think about these babies. A big spider could eat them!

Hopefully they will all survive. A few are starting to grow fur and turn dark. The loons at gerbil.org say we can start carefully picking them up any day now. In another month we can give them away and we need to do it before one of the sons does the nasty with his mom. They repoduce incredibly quickly. I’ve been told that two gerbils could, in ideal conditions, produce 250,000 in a year and that they go into heat the moment after they give birth.

Crazy. In the meantime, while I sit here typing and wtacing college basketball, the little things are chirping like baby birds.

Better pictures coming soon, courtesy of George Lange.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Simpsons do St. Pat's

Last column: long-term expats

* MARCH 6, 2009

Come Home, Did You Say?
Some Expats Choose to Cut Ties with Their Employer and Stay Abroad


We went to China in 2005 with a three-year commitment. Like most traditional expats, we arrived for a job (in our case my wife Rebecca's) and when the home office called us back, we packed our bags, said tearful good–byes and climbed on a plane. This is still probably the most common path taken by expats, but it is certainly not the only one.

Some expats have a vision of remaining abroad for long periods and use their initial job offer as a springboard; others find themselves so enamored of their new home that when the first posting ends they find a new way to make it work; some remain with their employer as a "local hire" -- usually meaning open-ended and less cushy terms -- while others seek new jobs or start their own businesses.

As I resettle and struggle to find my footing back home, I have spent a lot of time thinking about some friends who made these types of decisions, which were radically different than our own. They turned down new jobs, transfers or recalls to stake roots in their adopted home, sometimes with potential risk to their career or finances. Unlike those in the growing group of "halfpats" world-wide, many of whom are young, single, and comparatively nimble, these risk takers are older and have gone abroad with families and full-package assignments.

The first people that came to my mind were our friends Matt and Ellen Carberry. They arrived in Beijing from Cambridge, Mass., seven years ago, moving for her job with IBM, with two young children in tow. Unlike us -- and most expats I know in Beijing -- Ellen did not just happen to receive a job in China. Living there had been a long-time goal, hatched in 1983 when she worked nine months in a refugee camp in the Philippines filled with people fleeing chaos in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. She and Matt had discussed their mutual interest in raising children abroad on their very first date 18 years ago.

They and their children -- Luke and Chloe, then ages five and six -- quickly settled into life in Beijing after arriving in 2002. When her assignment ended three years later, none of them felt ready to leave, including the children who knew Beijing -- their school, their neighborhood, their friends -- as their home.

"Going back to the U.S. for a job with IBM was an option but not one we seriously considered," she says. Instead, Ellen immediately began looking for another job, landing at Red Hat, where she worked for three years. With the end of that job in sight last year, Matt and Ellen were still not interested in returning to the U.S.

"The children are in one of the best international schools in the world and we live amidst a community of some of the most interesting, committed and down-to-earth families working for businesses, health organizations, embassies, the World Bank and the world's best newspapers," she says. "These leading organizations have sent their best and brightest to define their growth in China -- so it is one of the most interesting, dynamic and enjoyable communities and lifestyles I could possibly imagine."

Matt echoes this sentiment and adds, "Interestingly, I find the family units here very stable. Despite the fact that most are relatively well-off expats, everyone is working for a living. No one is skating through their work and sweeping up cash. There is a very healthy work ethic, which I like. It is the 'third culture' -- neither home country nor pure China -- and I am fine with that."

After six years working for large companies in China, Ellen combined her belief in green technology with entrepreneurial interests (she had worked for several startups, including one which was bought by IBM, leading to her employment there) to co-found The China Greentech Initiative, which promotes investment in green-technology business opportunities in China. Matt is also involved in a large-scale start-up business, as a managing director at China Horizon Investment Group, which looks to open thousands of stores in rural China selling everything form rice to plastics. The type of ambitious work they are both doing seems difficult to come by in the U.S. right now.

There is another subset of expats, who move constantly from one assignment to another, making their way around the world. Matt Carberry told me that this never appealed to him; he likes to put down roots, and has become a pillar of the Beijing expat community, serving on the boards of his kids' school, a sports recreation group and a kids' charity.

Still, as much as they love life in Beijing, there are things that make them pause: Matt points to the pollution and lack of an outdoor life; Ellen feels guilty about living so far away from their families, especially separating kids from their grandparents.

Chris Buckley is another long-time Beijing expat who found a new calling -- making and selling hand-made Tibetan rugs -- since jumping off the corporate mother ship. The Englishman arrived in Guangzhou, China, working for Proctor & Gamble in 1995. Five years later, he and his wife, also working for P&G, changed their status from expats to local hires to relocate to Beijing rather than return to Kobe, Japan, where they were previously posted.

"It was an easy decision to localize, despite the reduction in benefits and salary, because I found China to be a much more interesting place to work than Japan," says Mr. Buckley, who is 48 and has no children. "The former was (and still is) on an upward curve, whereas Japan seemed to be settling into a long decline. I also found the younger Chinese employees much more eager to learn and improve, which made working here more fun."

Mr. Buckley says he got into selling Tibetan carpets by accident, taking over a small store as an intended hobby in 2001. "The business grew and I quit P&G a few years later. I don't think I would have made that transition had I not localized first," he says. "Expat deals are like living in a bubble, and if you quit from one of those you lose your house, car, etc. As a local you have an independent existence."

Mr. Buckley eventually opened his own carpet worskshop in Lhasa and is currently working closely with the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund.

The current economic climate is making an extended expat stay more appealing to some. Bill Russo recently left Chrysler, where he worked for 15 years, most recently as the vice-president responsible for Chrysler's business in Northeast Asia, to remain in Beijing.

"At least a year before my assignment ended I decided I wanted to stay here, but the problems back in Detroit made the decision fairly black and white," says Mr. Russo 48, who wanted to allow his daughter to finish high school in Beijing as her two brothers did. He is considering channeling his experience with Chinese culture into a new consultancy for companies looking to enter the Chinese market, which he believes will continue to gain strength. A year or two ago, he would doubtlessly have clients lining up at his door, but with China's changing economic picture such opportunity may be less certain.

While Mr. Russo is anxious to get a new job, he is currently enjoying a less harried existence and living without an expat package. "It has been nice to be here without the constant travel pressure associated with my job," he says. "I'm studying Chinese daily, and get around town using taxis, buses and bicycles. The past few months have given me the experience of and appreciation for the Beijing local lifestyle."

He says that while he will "certainly migrate back" to the U.S. some day, he is in no hurry and on no timetable. "I just felt that going back now, when there is so much more to experience here -- both professionally and personally, would have been premature," he says.

The Carberrys likewise have no concrete vision for when their time in China will end, and acknowledge that, just because they are no longer on an expat assignment, the decision isn't entirely up to them. "Since we've been in China, I've grown to live by appreciating one day at a time, and always keeping an open mind about what will happen next," says Ellen. "We're living in Beijing at the invitation and sponsorship of the government and thus, while we try to control our lives, one realizes that you're not in full control."

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Allmans, Big East hoops...MARCH!

March Madness is here and I am enjoying it, in a maddening sort of way.

It is the one month where I also felt most homesick in China, as college basketball reached its always fun, always nutty peak, and the Allman Brothers set up shop at the Beacon Theatre for extended runs. These are some of my favorite events of the year.

This year I have been right in the middle of both. Last Saturday night, I attended the Big East finals, liveblogging the game for WSJ.com

That was fun and it's a promising new outlet, as WSJ now has a sports page four times a week.

I have also jumped back into a very old outlet, Guitar World. I really thought I was through with the mag, after 18 years (!). But shortly after I got back they called and asked if I wanted to do a feature on Derek Trucks, of the Allman Brothers, about his new solo album. I didn't see any reason to say no to writing about my favorite guitarist and that led to some more assignments and now a very ambitious Allmans story, which is very much a work in progress.

So last Thursday I headed up to the Beacon to catch a show and meet with a bunch of people to try and hammer out some details. I spent two days talking to various managers trying to set things up and it became a true business trip. So much so that I forgot to get excited. But then I was riding the 1 train uptown and I started feeling an adrenaline surge and when I started walking up the steps at the 72nd Street exit, my heart was racing.

I slipped in the back door and did my business and got to see a lot of the show, which included guest appearances by two members of Phish and Buddy Guy, the Chicago blues guitarist who has always been one of my favorites.

I will be back Thursday 3/19 for another special guest. As much as I felt ready to move on, I really do enjoy having some skin in this game. It's part of who I am at this point.

Derek Trucks

Me and Buddy Guy backstage...Seeing him
in approx. 1985 changed my life and fueled
my love of blues and live music.

Robert Randolph, pedal steel maestro.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Anna art

It is Anna's dream to have a picture published in Highlights magazine and she worked diligently on these the other day. I chose The Great Wall ("me and mommy on the Great Wall") but she chose the forest. "You can;t choose this because you miss Beijing," she said. Smart girl, but wrong here. I tried to explain this but she was doubtful. I said I would put it to a vote. so cast your vote. Winner goes to Highlights.

Pitt basketball

It's always a pleasure to revisit the highlights of your youth. And I got a chance to do that in this Slam post about watching Pitt basketball and an interview with old friend Mike Lowenstein.

Bonus point: Can anyone name all of the players pictured here? DP? Rip?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Big Dummy

The headline refers to me, not the adorable children pictured below in their Purim costumes.

Yesterday, Anna celebrated "Jewish Halloween." It is pretty interesting having her at the JCC, learning about all things Judaic.

I couldn't really remember anyone's name form the Purim story except Esther and Haman, so I was having Anna fill me in on a lot of details. This is the kind of game I play with her sometimes -- where I play dumb and she explains things to me. But she realized pretty quickly that I was not playing; I really didn't know. She was incredulous.

"Dad!" she exclaimed, treating me like a big dummy. "Didn't they even have school when you were a kid?"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Huge in China

You never know what you may stumble upon online. I was searching for something else and landed on this article about me.

I hosted the writer a while back and he eventually sent me a link to the article in Chinese, with no pictures I just found this one by fluke,


People rallying against the new Brooklyn arena for the Nets picked up on my Slam blog post. I discovered this via Google alert. Interesting -- and a reminder that everything I post is public and has a potentially wider audience than intended.


I can't believe how much all of my kids love dogs. We can't put
of buying one much longer. The new Bob the gerbil may buy us
a little time. Here is Jacob with a friend's goldendoodle.

I have a problem buying one of these doodle dogs. We do need
something that doesn't shed though.

Showing off his pulled tooth. It was surprisingly uneventful.

Slam Post

I attended the Nets' Chinese Culture night at the Meadowlands last night and wrote about it for Slam Online.

The post is here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Damn Right I've Got the Blues

“I hit the city and I lost my band. I know that some of you don’t understand.”
-Neil Young (hat tip to ML “Howlin” Wolfe in Ovieda, Spain)

Oh, how I miss my band.

It's been a lingering, slowly simmering feeling of loss. I just loved everything about it. The music, the camaraderie, the gigs, the entrepreneurial aspects of booking the gigs, negotiating fees, collecting money, paying everyone...but mostly the gigs and the feeling of being up on stage creating something, riding a wave together. The more we played the better we got, the more cohesive it felt, the more confident we felt -- and the better we got, pushing it all up another level as the cycle continued. At the end of the two tours we did, after playing five shows in six nights or whatever, we were really cooking with oil.

We built that whole thing up from nothing to something very real and tangible and it was incredibly satisfying.

Basically, I had two great triumphs during my time in China. I won a big award for the column and another for the band, when we were named City Weekend's Beijing Band of the Year. The column is obviously more integral to my career and my life going forward, but the band award actually meant more to me. I always believed that I could write a good column, given the right opportunity. I only dreamed I could front a great band.

And I feel incredibly indebted and close to my bandmates for the whole thing because it did not happen in a vacuum and I never would have done any of it -- even written a single song -- if I hadn’t met up with them. I can’t tell you what I would give right now to just be able to get together and jam with the guys.

As I said, this been a long, slow simmering feeling but a couple of things have brought it into sharper focus for me.

For one, Woodie was supposed to come here this month for a visit, to see some Allman Brothers shows and play a few gigs. It didn’t work out. I had been looking forward to it -- though unsure how I was really going to pull it off, amidst everything else. I would have put a band together and played the last few nights.

Before I left we scrambled to finish recording all tracks for a CD. Now, our friend and producer Jean Isma is mixing them all down and sending me some finished tracks and I think they sound great. It is reminder of everything I wrote about above. I loaded a couple of new tracks onto our My Space page. Check out "Mr. Big Shot" and "Got Love." They are fairly close to final versions, fully mixed.

Going through some old emails, I also came across
these pictures from an Olympics gig.I somehow never looked at them before. Maplewood friend Rick Wagner was in town and jammed with us. He is in a bunch of these pictures. The early ones show us setting up and just hanging out and they made me miss that aspect of it all. The part that feels like you are in a gang, in a good way.

So I’m jamming around here. I played lead guitar in a friend’s otherwise all-chick band for a Battle of the Bands last week, which we actually won (thanks in no small part to dancing girls who came out for three songs). That was fun and I will do more, but it’s not even close to the same.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Read this

I thought this was a very wise and insightful article in the Economistabout why we should be recruiting highly educated immigrants instead of cracking down on their visas. Just scroll down to "Idiocracy" and check it out.

Cousin Jesse rules!

We went down to Delaware a week or two ago to see Emma as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun - or half of Annie Oakley,anyhow. In the first half of the play Annie was a tall statuesque African American girl. There was an intermission and Annie morphed into a lovely short poised Jewish girl, my nephew Emma. She did great and sang like an angel. I tried to take pictures but the Iphone does have its limitations. One of these days I will charge up the battery on my camera

The next day Jesse was in a big wrestling meet. Strange sport, man, I have three nephews on my side and they all do it. The homoerotic overtones are too much for me and I don't like all the weighing in and 24/7 knowledge of your precise weight. It' all creepy. But it is pretty cool to watch. Jesse's good, too. Unfortunately, we saw him wrestle against the top-ranked kid in the country in his weight class. He was mercied in the second round, but did not get pinned. I thought he did well. The f'in kid he was wrestling had a full back tattoo, some kind of huge graphic with gothic letters across the top.

My kids have a great relationship with Jesse, deepened greatly by the six weeks or so he spent with us in Beijing. I met a few of his friends who were excited to meet "alanpaulinchina." that was funny. If you're reading this, a big shoutout to my homies at Wilmington Friends.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Ok, thanks

Thanks for the comments and emails. Good to know there are eyes out there. I will keep blogging. Like I said, it really does help me process my life.

Here are some photos of Linda and Eric, our Chinese teachers and friends, as per last column.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Catching Up

So I obviously haven’t been writing much up here. There are a lot of factors. For one thing, i don’t really have much of a sense that there’s anyone reading this and that tends to drain one’s enthusiasm and motivation. But it is important for me to write because writing begets writng and thinking begets thinking and what I do here has always been a huge help for all of my other work. It helps me process what is going on.

And a lot is going on.. which is both reason why I need to write more and reason why I have not been writing more.

I am working on stories for old standbys Guitar World and slam and going to be extra busy this month as March Madness and the allman Brothers doing 15 shows at the Beacon Theatre loaded with special guests both kick in. I am actually doing work on both of these, too. also still writing my column.. finsihing a new one right now, which will be up Friday morning. And trying to work out a bunch of other things I’m not quite ready to discuss.

I have had all kinds of tech breakdowns, each of which has set me back way too much. I got a lemon of an Iphone, I got a new one, the hard drive on my Macbpok blew up -- for the second time in six months -- and I lost tons of stuff. I had gotten smart about backing up after the first disaster but fell off the wagon since leaivng Beijing. Luckily, I had put a lot of favorite photos and songs on my Iphone. Then my Iphone was stolen last week at Madison Square Garden, when I carelessly left it on a press table, where people could walk by.

That threw me into a real funk, both psychological and actual -- it was a real loss. And it launched me into a week-long battle with At&T and Apple. There is no insurance available and you lose the two-year contract savings of $200 so it’s quite an expensive proposition to lose an Iphone or have one stolen. I might have been able to be covered by Amex, since it was within 90 days of purchase but I told them the true story of what happened -- and am not covered because I left my phone unproteced in a public place. If I had just said I didn’t know what happened, I lost it, I would have been covered. But honesty is always the right policy, right? How many times have we told our kids that?

Kids are all doing well, though with their own quirks. Anna has been talking a lot about Beijing the last week or so and saying she wants to go back, she likes her school more, she misses her friends -- though most of the kids she mentions have also left. I guess she’s having her own third culture kid moment wihtout, of course, being able to express it.

Eli is chugging along in school and seems pretty good. He is completely obsessed wiht Legos and reall y quite excellent and clever at putting them together. He feels his forehead almost every day hoping to find a fever. I guess that’s not so great, but he seems cheerful and keeping up in school. He does his homework pretty well, often stopping to wail, “What is the point of homework?” I don’t really have a good answer for him. I know that I wasn’t doing it in third grade at Davis School and probably would have had just as hard of a time with it.

On Monday we had a snow day and were all home. When Becky was getting ready to trudge off to the train in the snow, Eli said, “Don’t you ever feel like just quitting that stupid job?”

Jacob is pretty much thriving, has a lot of friends, is doing well in school and generally pretty cheerful. He is, however, getting two teeth pulled today. That should challenge him. He also misses Beijing and his friends there -- and all the sports teams he played on at school. He wrote a really sweet poem about his friends on Valentine’s Day. I will try to type it in and post.

If anyone reads this, give me a shout. I feel like I am tossing out a message in a bottle.

Last column

An Ex-Expat Learns Lessons from a New Expat

FEBRUARY 20, 2009>


Last fall as the reality that we were in our final months in China was beginning to sink in, I thought about dropping my Chinese classes. There was a lot I wanted to do and it seemed pointless to pursue my language studies much further.

I continued, however, in large part because my teacher Linda He had become a good friend and I enjoyed visiting with her every week. Our lessons came more and more to resemble social visits and in the middle of one, she dropped a bombshell: "We might be joining in you in New York."

Linda's husband Eric, a respected translator, was under consideration for a job as a Chinese teacher at an international school in Manhattan. It was a coveted position and while he was a leading candidate they wouldn't know for months whether or not he had gotten the post. We spoke quite a bit about New York City but I restrained my enthusiasm because they were in a holding pattern. Linda very much wanted the opportunity to live in New York and I could sense how worried she was about being disappointed.

Finally, weeks before our own departure, Linda told us their news: he had been offered and accepted the job and they would be moving to New York. Linda, Eric, myself and my wife Rebecca were thrilled and charmed by the strange synchronicity of leaving Beijing for metro New York at the same time. They saw us as welcome friends and landmarks in a foreign land; we saw them as welcome friends and reminders of our life in China.

As it turns out, their presence in the New York area has another benefit for me: their enthusiasm for their new home has made me look at my surroundings with more appreciative eyes. It's also a reminder of the advantages of looking at things as an outsider -- an important part of the expat life, no matter where you are.

Linda taught Rebecca three times a week from the time we landed in Beijing, and I began studying with her last year after my teacher Yechen departed Beijing to become a monk. Over the course of all these lessons, Linda became an important link to Chinese culture. We enjoyed meals at restaurants and each others' homes and often offered to host her in the U.S. after we returned. Though sincerely made, this offer seemed unlikely ever to be taken up -- which made it all the more fun to have them to our house last week.

We brought them to my uncle Ben's birthday party and did our best to make them feel like welcome members of the family, mindful that some of my most memorable times in China were simple gatherings at Chinese friends' homes. We also enjoyed just strolling through our town of Maplewood together as they marveled at our town's large trees, graceful old houses and small-town feel.

Next week, Linda will begin making weekly visits to give me and my kids informal Chinese lessons. We plan on cooking Chinese dinners together afterward on most weeks. In the meantime -- mindful of the challenges of moving to a wholly foreign place -- we are trying to help ease their transition to life in America. They seem to be doing just fine, despite the fact that neither had ever left mainland China before coming here.

"I had never even been to Hong Kong," Linda told me with a laugh over lunch at a Manhattan Szechuan restaurant. "I really wanted to see America -- I had a dream just to visit New York City and now I have a chance to stay here for more than two years. I feel very lucky."

Last week, their son Sunny joined them, after a semester in college. He was hesitant to leave in the middle of his freshman year at a Shanghai university but the family decided that the opportunity to study English in New York was too good to pass up. He seems to be adjusting quickly. One thing he wants to see is Chinese basketball player Yi Jianlin, who plays for the New Jersey Nets. I have promised to take him to a game soon. With a little luck, I may even be able to introduce them.

Linda sees a lot of similarities between New York and Beijing -- "lots of big buildings, large markets and traffic; it seemed a lot like a Chinese city when we first got here" -- but also notes the differences. The air is cleaner, she says, and she has been surprised by how friendly and helpful most people are. She hasn't seen a single fight or serious argument on the street, though they are common in Beijing.

Also, she finds New York's ethnic diversity an exciting and welcome change from China's homogeneity. She takes an English class with immigrants and expats from all over the world. Most of them speak Spanish as their first language, but she has become friends with a South Korean woman who has lived in New York for three years and is helping her learn the ropes. The way Linda talked about this new companion reminded me of our relationship with our friend Theo, who was our guide to everything during our early months in Beijing. Longer-term expats are an indispensable resource for newbies, in whichever the country.

Linda and Eric have a lot of Chinese neighbors and several of them with cars regularly take her to shop at Chinese food markets in Queens. Likewise, in Beijing, I shopped at stores with Western groceries. One place she is not interested in visiting is Chinatown, which she finds dirty and crowded.

While Linda has been surprised by how little she has missed China on a day-to-day basis, it was hard for her to be away from her home village in the central province of Hubei on Chinese New Year. Despite living in Beijing for 20 years, it was only the second time she did not return to Hubei for the holiday and she said that her elderly parents greatly missed her. I sympathized, given how much I sometimes regretted missing family gatherings while we lived in Beijing. I was able to return once or twice a year, however, while Linda and Eric are unlikely to visit China during their two-year stay.

"But," she adds. "They are also very proud of us. Living in a foreign country -- especially America -- is a dream they can barely imagine."

They are both looking forward to the summer when Eric will have a break from work and they can explore more of America. Our friend Cathy McGregor was another long-time student in Beijing and the Duluth, Minnesota native has filled Linda's nature-loving head with tales of of the Great Lakes' splendor. "I really want to see those lakes," Linda says. "China, especially the North, is a place where water is a serious problem -- there is not enough of it and much of it is not clean. I hear you can just drink the water in the Great Lakes if you get thirsty."

I told her that actually drinking the water might be a bad idea, but I'm certain that Linda and Eric would enjoy a visit there. When they visited us in Maplewood, they could ride a train 30 minutes from midtown and be in a place which felt like a quaint country burg to them. Seeing it all through their eyes gave me a deeper appreciation for my daily surroundings.

We walked them to the train at the end of their visit and as we waited, a hawk circled overhead, soaring over a large park.

"Look at that!" Eric exclaimed. "You even have eagles in a town!"

* * *

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. Read comments by readers on my last column about the emotional significance of momentos from my time in China.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on repatriation. Your article brought tears to my eyes and leaves a lump in my throat. We have unpacked our air shipment from Russia, and selected some items that were in storage for 4.5 years. Now we wait for our sea shipment from Russia.

Oh, how I look forward to those familiar items. But it is the people we really miss, our Russian friends and other expats.

It is the expat mums at our children's bus stop that have helped ease this transition. Thank heavens for returning to a community with a lively expat community, the benefits of having an expat community nearby are immeasurable.

-- Catherine Wright

* * *

As a former expat, I enjoyed reading your articles over the past few years. I was sorry to hear you had to return to the U.S. partly because that would mean the end of your dispatches, but also on a more personal level because I know the sense of loss that many expat families experience when they return.

The re-entry process takes a long time. Dave Bartholomew's year and a half timeframe is just about right. Prepare to experience times of depression as you process your memories and return to all of the familiar American routines. Most people won't care that much that you were away, or won't be able to understand your experience, and that can be frustrating.

All of this is good, however, because it reflects the strength of feeling you have about your experience. You'll find a way to process and organize all of your memories, and at some point it won't even register that this thing or that thing is from China so interwoven in your life they will be.

Thanks for all of your articles. They brought back so many memories of our experience in England. I hope to read more from you as the process continues.

-- Tom Ripley

* * *

It's been 32 years since my wife Nancy and I came home from a year in the U.K. and our house still is full of goodies we brought home with us. They are our greatest treasures.

-- Dan Knous

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

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