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

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