Last Column — More repat blues

APRIL 24, 2009

Who Knew?
Readers, Too, Were Surprised at the Difficulty of Coming Home


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

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