As I write this post, I am counting down my final hours in Shanghai. It has been four amazing years here and I find myself in the bittersweet position of leaving our beautiful home in China to return to our beautiful home in the United States. It will be wonderful to be home this summer and see family and friends, all of whom we have missed terribly while in China. It will also be fun having non-stop internet, clean air and water, and the Cooking Channel running on the television all day.
We will have a glorious week “up north” at a cottage on Lake Leelanau, spending hours on the Pontoon boat, and eating s’mores cooked over the fire pit every night after dinner. Both girls are going to great camps for a part of the summer. Cassidy will spend a week at Black River horse camp where she will continue to improve and perfect her riding skills. Stephanie will go to Interlochen, where she will spend an intensive three weeks working on creative writing, her passion. And I will have some time alone in the house during a Michigan summer, which is a little slice of heaven. (Unfortunately, Karen will not be back from Shanghai until mid-July, just in time to go up North.)
My life back home is beautiful, so why do I sit here so melancholy? I have made intense friendships with Chinese people who will stay when I finally go. I will spend a good chunk of the summer on WeChat with them, but that is not the same as seeing them every week. Our life in Shanghai is incredibly full and busy, and we travel like maniacs throughout Asia Pacific. It’s one thing to leave all that for two months of summer, but the realization has hit me that after this year, we would be leaving it all for good. What happens when I hit that wall in Michigan this summer and start jonesing for the madness of Shanghai, only to realize I’m not going back?
To some, leaving Shanghai to return to the U.S. was almost as difficult emotionally as moving here. Being an expat anywhere, but particularly in China, can completely change a person. You have built a life here, made local and international friends, and experienced things that people back home will never truly understand. Meanwhile, those you left behind at “home” have moved on with their lives. There were times during the last three years when I felt a little bit like an outsider back in Michigan because of all I’d experienced in Asia, and missed in the U.S. And usually, just when I get really wistful for Shanghai, the two months is up and I’m on that 14 hour flight “home.” But that relief is over, here in our last year.
Several of my friends likened the feelings of repatriating to the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. According to them, the feelings began when you learned you where going home.
To help understand, when you arrive in Shanghai, you jump immediately into a very tight network of expats who help you through everything you encounter. While I have lots of friends at home, they will never be able to identify with the experiences, and changes, wrought by four years of life in Shanghai. To shed some light on the repatriation blues, I reached out to some expat friends to find out how they handled repatriation.
“Repatriation has been a strange combination of celebration and grieving. In Shanghai I had a network of very close friends to help me with the daily challenges of life as a foreigner. In the U.S. I don’t have most of those challenges, but I also do have my local, tight network of friends going through the exact things I’m experiencing. It’s a different life, and so far the biggest challenge of repatriation has been adjusting to that change.” — Scott Orwig
“After three years our Shanghai adventure was coming to an end and it was time to move back to Michigan. For us, moving back was as easy an adjustment as moving overseas. The kids started in new schools, found baseball teams to play for and made new friends. As for myself, I’m finding my place again. Shanghai opened new doors and experiences for me that can’t be replicated here. I know it will take time, but it’s been my job to make sure everyone is settled. We’ve all settled back into our routines, and life is different because we are different. Our expat experience has opened our eyes to so many new experiences and we are all better for it.” — Jen Iannuzzi
“When the day arrived to leave Shanghai, China, I didn’t want to go. Fast forward two years later and I did not want to come back to the U.S. Life abroad was exciting and interesting, filled with people from all over the globe. Coming home was dull and uninteresting by comparison. Everyday in Shanghai was an adventure, even if it was just navigating something as mundane as shopping. So once home, I was bored. My friends here had moved on, some getting jobs and others making new friends. You come home expecting nothing has changed, but it has. And though you’ve stayed in touch and done your best to keep people posted on the events of your life abroad, it’s a rare few who want to hear your stories again or can even begin to understand what the past two years of your life has been like for you. — Liz Ricapito
If my friend Liz, who is so grounded that she makes me look like an out of control, spark-spitting live wire, feels that way about repatriating, I’m going to need serious counseling soon. The good news is that all three of my friends are living happy, fulfilled lives in the states, so there is hope for me.
The goodbye’s have sucked, with both expats and Chinese, but that is part of the repatriation process. Living in China, the Asia Pacific travel, the experiences, and all the new friends are part of an adventure of a lifetime. I’m more sad to leave China than I was to leave the U.S. That’s not because one is better than the other. Its that in these four short years I built a life that, prior to coming here, I did not think was possible at this time of my life. We are all off to a new adventure back in the states, but it’s going to be pretty hard to beat this time of our lives.
My dear friend here, Christina, told me today that we are not separating, we are just starting. I agree with that and actually feel that I’m just starting many things, including new relationships with old friends and family back home. That thought keeps me from being too sad about leaving. My circle of life got so much bigger in four years that the only thing I can do is celebrate going back, and try to ignore these repatriation blues.