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.
By ALAN PAUL
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 firstname.lastname@example.org