Alan Paul is the author of the New York Times bestseller One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. His first book Big In China is a memoir about raising three American children in Beijing and forming Woodie Alan, an award-winning blues band with three Chinese musicians. Ivan Reitman's Montecito Pictures optioned the film rights. He currently fronts the Maplewood NJ band Big in China.
This is my second email post and the first to try and include images.It is delayed because I sent to the wrong address. Trying again...And again.. Just got bounced back because size was too large.. I have now reduced to one photo...
Pictures were trying to capture the atrocious hotel room we stayed at last night in Shenzhen. Highlights included the holy towel and the softcore lingerie picture above the bed.
So I finally broke down and started Twittering after it was pointed out to me by email by a colleague at the WSJ that my current situation is actually pretty interesting. That was when I was sitting waiting for the drum machine/keyboard and acoustic guitar/congo duo to finish their karaoke-like set at the Ben Se Club in Shenzhen so we could play our 45 minute set. Then we ran out to a waiting bus and were whooshed to a second Ben Se Club for another similar set. And as I did all this it struck me that, yes, this stuff was actually worth Twittering, I supposed.
So back at the hotel, at about 3.30 am, after eating Sichuan noodles at a street stall, I reactivated my dormant Twitter account and started posting. You can catch up with them here:http://twitter.com/AlPaul
But I thought I would also repost some of them here. I wanted to call special attention to the shadiness of my hotel room. We moved out of it today and into another place, where I am now, which is spartan but much better.
I wrote this:
Half the people I know would have a stroke if they saw this room. Dirty and threadbare would be an insult to those words.
Abot the shows I wrote, and this took about four Tweets -such a brief format.
So we played two sets in two different branches of the same club--Ben Se, or True colors - last night. They had a bus waiting to shuttle us. And the second one was big..few hundred people, huge stage, lights, great sound system. We repeated same set and just killed.It was the first time I fully felt the same rush and confidence we were riding before I left in December. I can not believe how far my singing inhibitions are gone. I am letting it all hang out. Now, though, happy to get out of this dump hotel.
-- Alan Paul
"The Expat Life" Columnist Wall Street Journal Online
Senior Writer -- Slam Correspondent The Wall Street Journal, Guitar World
The more I thought about this trip to China in the weeks before undertaking it, the more convinced I became that I had to find a way to see Dong, my original Chinese teacher, whom many of you will remember dropped out, left Beijing and went to Huashan, a holy mountain near Xi’an, to become a Taoist monk.
I felt a great need to see him to achieve some sort of closure in our relationship – that word I hate again proving indispensible! But also I wanted to see him because I have been thinking more and more about writing a book about my China venture and the more I thought about the more convinced I became that Dong had to be prominent in the book. I needed to see him and see how he was doing for all of these reasons.
Last summer, while at Huashan, I thought Dong looked terrible and he told me that he was really struggling and as thinking about leaving the mountain. I wanted to find out what happened. I needed to find out what happened. I sent him a message and waited to hear back.
Not surprisingly, it takes a monk on a holy mountain a while to respond. Finally, I was sitting at the Dead concert at the Meadowlands – literally sitting there thinking about Dong and wondering how I was going to find him and if it made sense to leave time blocked out to see him if I had not – when an email popped onto my Iphone: “I am returning to Nanjing to start my life. Like to see you. Dong”
Ultimately, he had instead returned to his hometown of Wuxi, in between Nanjing and Shanghai, and I squeezed in a 24-hour visit there on my way from Beijing to Shenzhen in Southern China, where we were playing two shows. He said he would fetch me at the airport.
I walked out of baggage claim and there he was, looking much healthier and less gaunt than a year before His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail and he was dressed in a black polo-style shirt and long khaki shorts. He was with an attractive young woman, whom he introduced as his cousin Karen.
“She will be our driver today,” he explained.
She told me she had taken a day off of work at an American company to ferry us about Wuxi in her Audi, which was surprise number one. She had recently married a “rich boy,” Dong told me, explaining the car.
We got in and drove to the large Lake on which Wuxi sits. It felt easy and comfortable to talk to Dong. We went to a teahouse and sat sipping and chatting. Dong had appeared to me in Beijing as a lone wolf, with no connections to anything or anyone beyond his mother, whom he often referred to. I never heard him once mention his father, whom I presumed to be dead. So I was shocked when he told me that he had come back from the mountain a month ago for his father’s 60th birthday.
I told him I had never heard him mention him and he told me that they had a falling out years earlier and that his baba had crossed some lines that could not be forgiven. He was vague, but said that he respected him, but could never be truly close to him. He said the behavior was “like the mafia, you know.”
Seeing Dong through the eyes of his cousin, a decade younger and clearly full of love and admiration for him was fascinating. Dong was the oldest of four cousins, she explained, and they all very much looked up to him. Days earlier, they had learned that he had spent two years on the mountain – everyone thought he was in Beijing the entire time, and his parents still believe that. The cousins were shocked by the news but not entirely surprised.
“He always had his own ideas,” she said.
I was learning more and more of my friend’s back story. He had appeared to me as if fallen from the sky, with no past, but of course this was not true. He was an important figure for quite a few people.
When I met Dong he had just returned from five years in London. It was there, apparently, that he changed a lot. Before going abroad and after finishing college at Nanjing Normal University, he had taught Chinese at a Wuxi middle school. He was a very popular teacher. Despite never working his students too hard – “I thought they had enough stress,” he said – they received the best marks on all exams. I was not surprised by this. He is a great teacher.
Also, Karen told me, Dong was a “real fashion guy. He cared very much about what he wear.”
He would generally not wear any clothes purchased in Wuxi; he traveled to Shanghai to do all his shopping. Also, at the time, he had died blond hair, which caused a major sensation amongst his fellow teachers. His excuse? He was going prematurely gray so decided to die his hair but bought bad die, which turned his hair blond. It made no sense and Karen said everyone laughed and was amazed at his ability to sell such a far fetched tale.
So he was an excellent, beloved teacher who was a little cheeky – interesting but not surprising exactly.
Dong asked me if I minded if a couple of friends from University joined us for dinner. Of course I did not mind. The story behind them was, in fact, fascinating. There were two women from Wuxi – both now back in their hometown working as bank managers – and they had been very close with Dong at University but had completely lost touch with him. They had not seen him in 15 years and were talking about him one day and became a bit obsessed with finding their old friend.
Another former classmate was a policeman and he helped do some legwork and eventually somehow located Dong’s cell phone number and they called him. “Were you happy that they had made so much effort to find you?” I wondered.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, with a serious look. “I was angry. I did not want to be found. They told me they were coming to see me in Beijing so I had to tell them the truth about where I was.”
His friends were shocked.
Later that night, over an elegant dinner of abalone and shark fin’s soup – which I avoided eating for my entire stay in China – they all seemed to share an easy familiarity and friendship. One friend had her husband there, another a friend from work. The six of them all bantered endlessly in Wuxi-hua, a dialect that sounds exactly nothing like Mandarin, but quite a bit like Japanese.
Karen and Dong translated for me at times, but I enjoyed just listening to the banter and noting the easy friendship they all had, even after all those years of never seeing each other. I asked the ladies what they thought Dong would be during their time in college. With no hesitation, they answered in unison, "Laoshi.” (teacher)
“He was so smart and funny and insightful,” one said. “We all knew he would be a great laoshi.”
None of them approved of him becoming a monk; they all considered it a great waste of an educated, maybe even brilliant man. This is a very common perception amongst Chinese – virtually everyone that I have told Dong’s story to has had the same opinion. But Dong still did not see it that way.
Earlier, before dinner, while sitting at a Starbucks sipping coffee, Dong told me in great detail about his experiences at the mountain. Though he looked much, much better and happier now than he did when I saw him at HuaShan a year ago, he insisted that his time there was time well spent. He was a bit disillusioned because his romantic vision of a community of egalitarian, non-material, meditating communion had proven to be naïve. But he was as dedicated as ever to his calling.
He had returned home, he said, because his “master” at Beiyingguan, the Taoist temple in Beijing, suggested it might be a good thing to do. He was not giving up on monkhood, though he had no clear vision of what he would do now. “He told me I could maybe become an immortal,” he said.
He explained a bit about what that means, and said that people could even fly, a proposition that caused Karen to giggle into her hands and look a bit shocked and embarrassed.
“Really,” Dong said, growing a bit embarrassed himself and clearly weighing the wisdom of discussing such matters at all.
Later, after dinner, as we all filed out, the friends talked a bit before saying good bye. Dong turned to me. “They want to go to KTV and sing karaoke,” he said. “You don’t want to go do that, do you?”
Actually, I was very interested. I had amazingly spent three and a half years in this karaoke-crazed nation and never entered one. Dong seemed a bit shocked, and not too interested in going, but he honored my request. We got into the karaoke room and a round of refreshments was ordered up – fruit platters, popcorn and a dozen warm Budweisers, with a bucket of ice. Dong’s reticence soon vanished and he took the mic, singing duets with his friends in a beautiful, clearly enunciated tenor voice.
He took over the computer controls, dimming the main lights, adding flashing lights, lasers and strobes and seeking English language songs for me to sing – everyone was concerned about me being bored but needn’t have worried. “Copacabana” was the best I could find and I was a little disappointed that no one understood how funny it was. But I was just astounded at Dong. He was having a ball and I was happy to see it.
He took a seat at the front of the room on a raised platform and sang another song. “I think he’s still the same guy,” Karen whispered to me. “He’s still a fashion guy inside.”
I was yawning by now. It had been a long day; I woke up at 530 in Beijing to catch my plane to Wuxi and I was starting to lose it. Dong told me he would take me back to the hotel at 10 pm -- in 20 minutes. But when the time came he was fully engrossed. He and Karen huddled and then asked if I minded if she drove me back to the hotel alone. He wanted to keep singing. Far from caring, I was happy for him.
He walked me out to the lobby to say good bye, thanked me for coming and gave me a hug. I told him to stay in touch.
I woke up early the next morning and flew off to Shenzhen to meet up with the rest of the band. I was still amazed at having left Dong in a karaoke bar. Then I got a text message from him. I expected it to thank me for coming down. Instead, it read, “I am always a monk, although I am not stay temple or mountain.”
I wrote him back: “I know that. It is inside you. You can live in both worlds. Don’t feel guilty for enjoying it. Your cousin and friends are very nice and they really care about you. It was great seeing you.”
NOTE: UNFORTUNATELY, I CAN NOT POST PICTURES. BLOGSPOT IS BANNED IN CHINA NOW AND NOW THAT INCLUDES THE POSTING PAGE. I HAVE TO USE SOME OTHER WAYS OF GETTING ON HERE AND THAT SOMEHOW PRECLUDES PHOTO POSTING. I HAVE SOME GOOD ONES. WILL PUT SOME ON FACEBOOK IF I HAVE A CHANCE...AND LOAD THEM UP HERE WHEN I GET BACK.
I’m at the airport in Beijing, on my way to see dong, my old Chinese teacher, in his hometown of Wuxi (pretty close to Shanghai). As some of you will recall, he dropped out to become a monk and ended up on the holy mountain of Huashan. I visited him there last year, along with whole family, including parents and aunt and uncle (Joan and Ben) and he was not well, I could see right away.
Now he has returned to Wuxi “to start his life.” I am looking forward to seeing him. I felt like this was an unresolved issue for me. I always felt a little guilty for not having offered him better guidance when he decided to become a monk. It’s a long story and one I hope to tell in detail some day soon.
The next few days are the Dragon Boat Festival, which has recently been elevated by the government into a national holiday. They used to only have three real holidays a year in China – New year, when everyone returns home and the “golden weeks” in May and October, when every single Chinese person who could afford to took a holiday and vacation places became absurdly crowded. As in, crowded beyond anything you can imagine if you have never been to china. So they shortened those two weeks and spread the extra national holidays amongst a few other ones, hoping to spread it all out a bit.
Well, it seems to have worked. I walked into the giant, soaring new Terminal 3 at 6:30 this morning and found it packed. Far more crowded than I have ever seen it. Even though I had a good half hour before the mandatory 45-minute cutoff for checking in – and the computers literally shut down, as I once experienced – I was worried looking at the lines. But Air China is efficient! I was checked in in 10 minutes and just finished slurping down a big bowl of spicy pork noodles for breakfast. Must go brave the security line now.
I am on the plane now, one of about three Westerners. The plane is full but not packed. I have never really even heard of Wuxi before, but in China there are always a lot of people going everywhere.
Walking through the airport, I felt a real surge of emotion, which surprised me. It’s not that I have any particular love for the actual airport, but the place was the launching (and landing) pad for so many great, great trips, adventures that changed the way I look at everything and which I’m sure I will remember forever.
I looked at the Haagen Dazs near the security line and really missed my kids, thinking about they always clambered for ice cream when we were on our way to a flight and Becky and I calculating if we had enough time to stop. And thinking about things like that makes me really long to see the family and miss them fiercely. All those great trips would not have been so memorable or important to me had I done them alone.
It’s really nice to be here and it is sure easy to make decisions and improvise plans with no one else to consider, but it also feels lonely and hollow not having the family with me. Even surrounded by friends and people I really love, it is lonely.
A big part of the motivation for this return trip was the elusive goal of closure, a term I’ve always sort of hated and considered trite. I can already feel it coming in many respects. I have retraced so many steps of places I used to frequent and while they still look good and it’s nice to be there, I don’t feel any huge sense of missing out and I can see how life has moved on quite nicely with out me. I no longer fully have a place at the table here and there is value in experiencing that and letting it really sink in.
And yet, the “closure” will not really come because it just the opposite with the band. It really was as good as I thought. It was not a figment of my imagination. I still have a home there. I fit right in. It fulfills me in a different way than anything else quite has, I may have “closure” in most respects at the end of this trip but I am only going to miss the band more. No two ways around that.
I am of now for our second gig today and fifth in three days… at Jianghu Jiuba, my favorite little downtown bar. It is tiring but fun and after today I have two days without too much on the docket.
On Tuesday I am flying to Wuxi, near shanghai to see dong, my old chinese teacher who became a monk and has now left the monkhood. The next day we go to Shenzhen for two gigs. I will keep the updates coming. Still have not figured out how to post any video with Youtube down.
We had our first show last night, which became acoustic because of rain.. it was a lot of fun.
We had a rehearsal yesterday afternoon and our first show last night. I was a little worried at first if one short rehearsal would be enough before welaunched into all these shows. I had some concerns about clicking with the band and remembering all the songs.
Well, it was not a problem at all. My friend’s driver took me to the studio, which was way out there, a few miles south of Tianemen in a neighborhood I never knew existed, in a run down apartment complex, in the basement of a tattoo parlor. The studio guy, peroxided hair held back with some of elastic band, giant sunglasses on his face, tattoos covering his arms met me in the parking lot and walked me over. I descended a steep set of stairs, walked into the (very nice) studio and there they were..
I hugged Woodie, behind his lap steel, shook hands with Lu Wei and Zhong Yang. We all smiled and laughed a little. They said I looked the same, as if it had been five years and not five months. Peroxide guy plugged me in and we just started playing and BAM it was there. Like we had played the day before, an amazing feeling. And just like that I heard my own singing and playing elevate by a million.
The grooves are just so perfect for me, I know just what to do, just what to play. I don’t really know how else to describe it except the sum is greater than the whole of its parts and in my case far greater.
Being in Beijing sort of feels like coming home, but not really. There are too many missing and disparate variables, but playing with the band really felt like coming home. I don't know how else to describe it.
The bummer part is it was spitting rain all afternoon and our gig last night was outdoors at the Stone Bar. We already had plans to eat dinner at Xiao Wang Fus, one of my favorite standby restaurants, which is right in the park, and I really didn’t want to just bail because I didn’t know who might show up. So I called Jonathan, the club owner and said, “We’d like to play acoustic inside and you don’t have to pay us or anything.”
So that’s what we did. I played acoustic guitar, Lu Wei played a djembe, Zhong Yang played bass through Woodie’s little guitar amp, Woodie played harmonica and Dave played sax. One vocal mic, nothing else amplified. And it was great.
Indeed, several friends showed up, as well as a handful of other people and we had a great intimate, cozy time, playing for about 30 people – but really playing for ourselves. As I was singing I was sort of amazed at the sound of my voice a few times -- where did this come from? I wondered. My playing and especially singing in the band improved steadily as I passed various milestones, of just letting go and trusting myself. It reached a new level when we decided to move from Beijing because I suddenly realized this opportunity may never come again and I did not want to leave anything on the table. And that feeling is multiplied now. I really want to take some singing lessons and see if I can improve by actually knowing what I am doing. Because I know for a fact that it is possible to really improve just by doing it.
We videoed a few songs and I watched them today and was happy to her that it sounded like I thought it did – not always the case. I’ll try to throw one up on YouTube if I can figure it out. It is banned here, so I will have to be creative. There are other video services as well, of course.
We have two gigs today… one in the afternoon downtown at some sort of festival and one tonight at the Orchard, near here, where we will have many, many Riviera friends.
I am back in the saddle in Beijing. It is early, of course, but so far it feels quite natural and only a little disconcerting. Certainly, landing at he airport here felt, if not quite like coming home, very non-exotic. Having Mr. Lu, our friendly, loyal, slightly sketchy black cab driver waiting for me was nice.
I am staying at a friend's house in Quan Fa, a compound across the street from Riviera, where we lived. Yesterday afternoon I rode a bike over to Riviera and it felt nice to be there, but it also looked dustier and more drab than I remembered. The monochromaticism of this whole place is really striking -- and a reminder of just why I was so moved by the brilliant colors of spring in Maplewood, as per earlier posts.
Everything is brown, grey and covered in dust, even now.
Our friends Jim and Theo have moved into our house and I thought going over there would be really odd, but it wasn't actually. I was happy to see them there and with their stuff in place it looked like their house, not ours, in a good way.
I have always said that I am glad that I kept this blog and wrote my columns because they served as proof -- even to myself -- that I really did everything, that it was not just some crazy fever dream. I feel that way more than ever now. Everything is so familiar and yet... I don't quite have a place in the firmament here anymore.
I had a nice reunion with a few friends over dinner last night, but we went for a nice outdoor hang at the Pomegranate, a Western food pub, not really the grub I am craving. I am looking forward to digging into some great Chinese food, though I figure I might have to take it a little easier than I am used to. Maybe my stomach is no longer used to local flora.
I am about to have a nice Cantonese lunch... dumplings and wonton/noodle shrimp soup. Then head down for a rehearsal. Hopefully it's like riding a bike and hopefully I won't keel over too early tonight because the Woodie Alan CD Release and Reunion tour kicks off tonight at the Stone Boat in Ritan Park, always one of my favorite spots and just the second place we ever played, I think.
I'm at the airport now about to board a plane for Beijing. I will be gone for 12 days, longest I have ever been away from the kids ever and from Becky in a long, long time. That feels strange. I am, fo course,excited. We are doing seven or eight shows in Beijing over two weekends, and two more in Shenzhen next Weds. and Thursday,. I am looking forward to geting back in the saddle
I am also twisted with exhaustion because I could not sleep last night. Mercifully I am flying first class -- for just the second time ever. Frequent flyer miracle ticket. I am sitting int he lounge right now and just amazed at this alternate universe which has been ticking away under my nose unbeknownest to me. I have to figure out how to crack into this regularly.
The logistics on either end have been daunting.. setting up everything here and there, etc. And trying to finish a lot of work before leaving so I have had precious little time to reflect on any of this. As soon as I checked my bags in and got my boarding pass, I turned around and felt a huge swell of emotion wash over me. It was the first time it really fully struck me: I am going back to China.
Images speak for themselves, I do believe. This spring has sure sen a lot of time on the baseball fields of Maplewood and South Orange. They are all having a good time. Eli not so much but he's hanging in there. Anna and Jacob are way in to it.
I found this video very, very moving. After watching it I am proud to say that I know Luke Mines the videographer, who had seder at at our house in Beijing once. check it out and follow the links to hear more music, which I'm sure you will want to do anyhow.
The whole thing also reminded me of how much I love going to rural places in China, especially in the mountains of Sichuan and Yunnan. Breathtaking in several different ways.
This dogwood tree really makes me happy..several times a day, too.
Spring is no nice here.. it is very hard to miss anything about China when you walk outside and see a gorgeous pink dogwood tree staring you in the face, as I do every morning. I can’t tell you how happy that tree makes me…
Or how happy just cruising around town and seeing the dogwoods, cherry trees and God know what else in full bloom everywhere. It is really beautiful and peaceful. A riot of colors.. red, pink, white and green, green, green everywhere you look. A deep, only-in-spring, vibrant, almost technicolor green. In the last few weeks all the trees have blossomed and it is looking like a rain forest around here.
Our lawn suddenly started growing rapid fire as well, of course. It became covered in dandelions – much to the kids’ delight. They love them, think they’re beautiful, love nothing more than blowing the dried out seeds and watching them scatter. And whose to say they’re wrong, really? I think they’re pretty, too.
Along with the buttercups that have taken over much of our backyard and the gorgeous little purple flowers growing on some weedy intruder on our front lawn. They’re all colorful and pretty. Why throw down a bunch of poisonous herbicide to kill them and create a perfect suburban lawn?
Still, I feel a little guilty about that, especially with fastidious lawn tenders on either side. The boys were skipping around playing and I said, “I have to mow this lawn.” They were horrified.
Jacob: “Why? The flowers are beautiful. And the bees love them.,. and all the other bugs. They don’t want a lawn like that…”
He pointed next door.
“The lawn guru’s lawn doesn’t look nearly as pretty.” He pointed over at their deep green, weed-free expanse. I sort of agreed and yet…
I’d really like to go au natural, turn our lawn into a native species prairie or whatever would happen, but it would really cause a stir around here. I saw some of them in Ann Arbor but not around here, despite it being such a liberal community.
Finally, I took out the mower on Sunday and Eli was horrified. “What are you doing?” he screeched. “You’ll kill all the flowers!”
I pushed on but they are swaying me. And I was proud of Jacob for coming up with “lawn gurus” on his own.
Our dandelion strewn lawn before I cut it the other day. Unfortunately, you can't see the beautiful little purple flowers. "The grass gurus." Carrie Wells walk way.
Well, the fun with the gerbils continues. The babies are six weeks old now almost as big as Mama Bob. It has been amazing to watch their growth. Now it is like gremlins. They are running around like mad, bouncing off each other, all getting on the wheels together, sending each other flying.... Time for them to move on.
At the top is the sign Anna made and posted around her school. This may be my favorite thing ever.
Below is Jackson W, first recipient of Bob gerbils.
Anna's sign: Gerbils For Free. Looking for a good home. ot to LA1. Eli's buddy Jackson, first proud recipient of a Bob child. Eli and Jacob are carefully screening and interviewing all prospective adoptive parents. Seriously.
Last month my good friend Danny Rosen’s brother Jeffrey passed away, leaving a wife and two kids as well as a grieving extended family.
I just wanted to take a moment to note this tragedy.
The night he passed away I was at the Beacon Theatre watching Eric Clapton with the Allman Brothers. I had my Iphone email up and running because I was sending updates to my friend Norm by request. I wasn't thinking about anything outside the cozy confines of that dark theatre, which felt very much like church, like being inside a sealed off universe with a small group of fellow believers. No one else may have cared what was going on in there, but for us it was a holy moment. Despite many crosscurrents and cross pollination and the fact that Duane Allman helped Clapton reach the peak of his career with Layla, EC had never taken the stage with the ABB. Now it was happening. Nothing could break my focus away from this moment
I wasn't thinking about anything else and never, ever would have had email open except that I was sharing my thrills with Norm. Then I got this message from Becky: "If you read this, say a prayer at the concert for Jeff. He died today."
I was shocked. I was standing there feeling numb and deeply conflicted when the band started playing “Little Wing.” It is one of my favorite songs, one which always has felt deeply spiritual in some vague way, but which now sounded like a lamentation. And I thought “I might not know how to pray properly but I know how to pray for Jeffrey to this.”
And I knew that it was appropriate because Jeffrey shared the feeling that this music could be sacred. I suspect that he knew how to pray other ways as well, but I knew we spoke the same language when it came to the music. I knew it made sense to send him a prayer through "Little Wing."
Jeff loved this music as much as anyone I ever knew and we had some great email exchanges over the years.. about the Allmans, the Dead, spirituality in music. He always had some great, deep thoughts on all of these topics and they all swirled through my head.
As soon as the song took off, I started crying like a baby. It was the second time I ever remember crying at a concert.
There is no way to make sense of this and I won’t even try. But I knew how much he would have loved to hear this, how excited he would be, how I might just as easily have been sending him updates. All I can say is, given this whole situation, there is no other song I would have wanted to hear at that very moment.
Coming soon to a newsstand or store near you.. this baby took up my month of March. I don't have a copy yet and am anxious to see it. It feels good to see this. You wouldn't believe what I went through to make this photo shoot and everything else happen.
Who Knew? Readers, Too, Were Surprised at the Difficulty of Coming Home
* By ALAN PAUL
The volume and intensity of response to my recent column on battling the repatriation blues caught me off guard.
It is a subject to which virtually all expats who have returned home keenly relate, and almost uniformly feel isn't well understood by anyone else. There's a lot of repat pain out there, though as reader Lucas Godinez notes, "You really have to live through repatriation to understand it; the others will think returning expats are cry babies."
Several readers wrote to say that no one in the U.S. wants to hear about your foreign adventures. "We have not found anyone who understands our experience or wants to hear anything about it," wrote John Crockett. "We found it was best not to discuss with anyone for at least the first year after we returned."
I have heard variations of this quite a bit over the years, including an eloquent version from Nanci Mooney of Detroit -- recently returned from Australia -- but I'm happy to say that this hasn't been my experience. People around my town of Maplewood, N.J., seem to enjoy hearing about China. And though other former expats tell me of warning their children not to talk about their travels too much lest their peers think they are bragging, I haven't given similar advice. My sons Jacob and Eli tell me they get asked about China and Asia often at school and they embrace the discussions and the status it seems to give them.
"I like to talk about it," said 11-year-old Jacob. "It makes me feel better when I'm sad about missing my friends."
I guess we are lucky this way; more broadly, I think that returning to a place we like and where we have roots has greatly eased our transition. I really like most of the people around here and thus have avoided the pitfalls mentioned by many -- ably described by Mr. Godinez as struggling to fit in amongst "people who had little or no notion of or interest in the other worlds.
"The Sunday football scores, the gag lines of the latest Seinfeld, whether to buy a fourth television -- these concerns seemed so banal after experiencing devaluation in Venezuela, security and politics in Sao Paulo, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, or getting your children acclimated to French public schools," wrote Mr. Godinez, who has relocated internationally five times. "One was privileged to be swimming in deeper waters, making it very difficult to come back to the thoroughly protected, simplified environment of home living. The U.S. is a great country, and it is where my Brazilian wife prefers to be, but my own re-acclimation was much more difficult."
He was not the only correspondent to note that a foreign-born spouse had an easier time readjusting to life in the U.S. than the native partner. The most extreme example was Derek Bloom, who said that he "totally failed" in his own attempt to battle repatriation blues after a dozen years in Russia. When he was offered a job back in Moscow last year, he couldn't say no, but his Russian wife had other ideas and has remained in their house in Virginia.
"The house she is living in is a 10-minute walk from another house I have in Vienna where my first (American) wife, now remarried, lives with my sons -- she could not adjust to living in Moscow. So, my wife and my ex-wife live there and have friendly relations and I live here, returning to DC every other month while my wife travels here on the same, rotating schedule. There is a lot about living in Moscow that I love and do not want to let go of, so I am trying to solve the puzzle by keeping a life going in both places."
Mr. Bloom's situation proves the old adage, "life is complicated" -- maybe even more so for expats. ***
Nan Parsons of Oviedo, Fla., raised an interesting point: the similarities between repatriation and merely moving within the U.S. "I am not an expat but having moved six times in 21 years to five states, I think a lot of what you express is just...moving," she wrote. "Issues large and small arise adjusting to [any] big move. I think the hardest part is having to be really 'on' at a new job when your home is a mess of boxes, appointments for phone and cable guys etc. It is like double the work of a 'regular' day in a settled life. That, I can relate to."
She is not the first person to raise these issues. A lot of what I wrote about in that column -- and in others, over the years -- could apply to any long-distance move. But repatriation also involves at least some degree of culture shock and, often, an intense longing for a radically different lifestyle that you have left behind. ***
Irina Liberman, a Latvian who lived in the U.S. for five years, was one of several correspondents to note that expat life and repatriation issues are the same for people all over the world -- including the many who spend time living in the U.S. and then return home. I discussed this with many Chinese people in Beijing, who struggled upon returning after extended educational or job stints in the U.S.
"Coming back turned out to be extremely difficult, and it still is, after almost three years," wrote Ms. Liberman. "I still don't feel comfortable living here in the way I used to. I am stuck in between the two places. When you're coming back 'home' it is expected that you should immediately fit in, have a support network and feel comfortable. In fact, it is much easier to do all this when coming to a new place, because then you expect to try new things and go out of your way to live this new experience…. Usually everyone is so surprised that I may feel anything but pure joy about finally being back."
This final point was one of the most frequently cited -- that it is difficult to even explain the problem to people who expect a return home to be a breeze and an unqualified joy. ***
One of the most thought-provoking letters -- and one that is sure to arouse anger and stir the pot on The Wall Street Journal's Chinese-language Web site -- came from Jenny, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen who asked that I identify her by first name only. She said that she recently returned to her homeland for a six-month visit and experienced the excitement I wrote about -- although for entirely different reasons. "My adrenaline level was kept high not because the place is really great but out of fear," she wrote. "I was extremely alert, nervous and excited every day, mostly because I have to try hard to avoid being robbed, stolen, tricked or abused."
She added that she believes I didn't have the same experience mainly because of my gender and ethnicity. "White people, particularly from the U.S., enjoy a privilege in China, which is present in daily life. This type of racism (not a negative concept in the Chinese cultural context) is direct and guiltless. I hope you can acknowledge that in your nostalgia, and thinking about it may help you fix some of the pain from the separation from something that may not be so glamorous. We often find looking back that we loved something because we didn't know who they are or what they really are."
Jenny raises some profound, potentially troubling issues. I'm sure that some readers think I have tended to gloss over China's problems. I have never felt that exploring them was my calling, however, and I recognize that many of the things I loved about living there had as much to do with expat life as with China -- a fact that was often brought back to me by reader response from expats living all over the world.
I am also aware that no matter how much I tried to minimize it, an American male in China receives some perks. However, none of my Chinese friends and associates have ever expressed fears of an intensity remotely near Jenny's. ***
Tom Farrelly writes with what he rightly terms a practical question about our repatriation, wondering if we are doing anything to help our kids maintain their Chinese language skills. As I have written, our Chinese teacher from Beijing improbably came to New York just as we returned. Jacob, my oldest child, and I are taking weekly Chinese lessons with her. Eli and Anna refuse to say a word of Chinese. I find it bizarre and upsetting but I don't fight it. Eli never really cared for the language and learned as little as possible while we were in Beijing, but Anna spoke it well and understood virtually everything. Her refusal -- and she literally refuses to say a word -- is troubling. I think it is her silent protest about moving. ***
Melissa Wells, who struggled on her return from Qatar to New York, had some simple advice: "A good therapist and a trip back to Beijing in a year or two can make all the difference." This column is my therapy and I'm not waiting a year to return to Beijing. If all goes according to plan I'll be back in China by the end of May to celebrate the release of my band's debut CD, Beijing Blues, with a series of concerts. I'll keep you posted. Write to Alan Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org