By Cidonie Richards, originally published by Lifeline Shanghai
Photo credits Mimo Khair
While I was an expat in Shanghai, I was also an Editor of one of the largest family magazines in Shanghai, and I was no stranger to the topic of conversation surrounding repatriation. It’s always a hot topic of discussion because it affects every expat at some point. With all this knowledge about writing on this topic, and commissioning other writers on this topic, you’d think I’d know more and be immune to the traps with my own repatriation journey. But…nope! Just like everyone else who has faced this challenge, I am also currently surviving the pitfalls surrounding repatriation.
I’m presently still an ‘expat’ because I’m still technically living abroad, but I haven’t moved to an expat community and my family are not on an expat package. We moved from Shanghai, China to Texas, USA, and I thought this move would be a lot easier than moving to China because the US was Western and very similar culturally to my home of Australia, but what I’ve discovered is repatriation on any level is stressful, overwhelming, and emotional.
Here’s a couple of tips I’ve learnt from the past twelve months, a few of my fears and challenges and how I’ve tackled them along the way.
1. Make your house a home straight away
I learnt this the hard way when I first moved to Shanghai. I had the mindset that because our time was temporary what was the point of putting too much effort into my home. I had half-rented furniture, some pieces from Australia and a few newly purchased pieces from Shanghai. In essence my home was half-done, and it felt that way for four years, and I was never truly comfortable in my house. An expat friend told me to make the house as comfortable and beautiful as possible as quickly as possible for both you and your children so they will feel at home straight away. This time around I took this advice and had my house decorated the way I like from the beginning, and it’s made a massive difference in how the kids and I feel more stable in our new home much more quickly.
2. Get involved in volunteering, work, or community projects
Trailing spouses often find it hard to get back into stable work straight away after moving, and it takes time to settle the kids in school, find friends and feel settled in your new home. Firstly, take your time settling in. Then once you’re ready, find work that will start stimulating your mind and creative side. If it’s not paid work you’re interested in, find volunteering work through charity or community groups. This will get you out of the house, and into the community and it will open doors to beginning your new networking and friendship circles straight away. As a journalist I knew I didn’t want full-time work immediately so I started a new travel and lifestyle blog which has helped me get out and about and explore my new city and meet new people.
3. Be mindful of how you talk about your previous home and travels
Only previous expats are going to understand what you’re going through. Where I live now, there are plenty of families who have moved interstate, but it’s still not the same as moving internationally and from a predominately international society such as Shanghai. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being over-zealous to make friends and talk about what country you’ve just come from and where you’ve previously lived. If you’ve moved back home or to a town in another country with little expat community outreach, you’ll need to remember that while you may think you sound interesting and cultured, to everyone else you can seem foreign, overwhelming and a tad arrogant which could alienate people fast. My advice is to play down your experiences just a little bit till you make good friends. Keep it low-key in the beginning and think about it like dating but only doling out information slowly. Those chaotic back-street alley scenes, wild roof-top parties and crazy wet-market stories, are just going to make some peoples’ eyes pop with bewilderment. Navigate your stories with some discretion in the beginning if you’re trying to fit in with your new community, especially if you’re in a non-transient town. Try and remember it will be up to you to do the adapting, not they adapt to you.
4. Give yourself 12-18 months for re-entry shock to wear off
According to many psychologists, it can take at least a year and up to two years for ‘re-entry’ shock to subside. So give yourself the time to get adjusted to how you’re going to handle your new surroundings and don’t beat yourself up for not adjusting quicker. It’s not necessarily harder, but it’s so unexpected as you don’t expect to feel foreign in your own country. I can say, that as I’m approaching the one-year mark of my next adventure, I’m only now just starting to feel settled again.
5. Keep the connections going with expats
There are days when I know I’m having a rough day, and I’ll jump on Facebook to connect with my friends who have also repatriated and just say ‘hi’ and have a chat. Some days I can just say, “I’m having a repatriation day,” and I know they’ll get ‘it’, and offer some support or friendly advice. Other days it’s just great to connect with them and see what they are up to in their new countries too. It’s comforting to know there are these mini-tribes of us around the world all dealing with the same challenges and they will know the right thing to say because they are going through the same emotions as you and maybe they need you to help them too.
6. It will take some time to ‘adjust’ to the slow pace
It’s taken me almost a year to adjust to how slow everything is. I thought at first it was just where I lived, but my other friends who have moved to other countries and big cities around the world have said the same thing – everything feels slower after leaving Shanghai. It’s easy to forget that Shanghai is one of the most vibrant and on-the-pulse cities in the world. The things that were frustrating in China like taxi drivers driving too fast, long queues with people pushing, and crazy rush-hour on the subway, now seem like a fun memory compared to the slow and orderly day-to-day running in suburban towns. Even though I live in a large city, the first few months here seemed isolated and dull. The food and shopping were boring in comparison to Shanghai. There are fewer people around in contrast and not as many interesting faces to examine. It has taken months to start appreciating the advantages and perks of being in a western country again, where it’s easy to drive, easy to read signs and easy to talk to strangers again. It’s interesting that something that I found such a struggle when I first moved to Shanghai ended up being the thing that brought so much joy and fun to my life. This takes some time to get over.
7. Getting closure is critical
Be sure to take the time to truly say goodbye to your Shanghai life for you and your kids. Closure before leaving is critical, and I’m glad we did a few things that will serve as lasting memories of our time in Shanghai. We organised a photoshoot with a professional photographer around Shanghai so our family could preserve some memories. It was fun on the day, and now, I can look back at how much of an exciting part of our life we had in such an interesting country. We also organised goodbye parties for all our children as well as for ourselves. Encourage your children to take an active role in this process and allow them to keep contact with their friends through social media so they can always be connected.
8. Seek professional guidance if you need
There’s no shame in reaching out for some professional help for either yourself or for your children or spouse. The emotions that accompany repatriation are as innumerable as the experiences. They have undergone significant life transitions and accomplished great successes while living abroad. It is here that has shaped their identities and their expectations for a happy life. To these young people, home is being taken away – without a promise of return. As parents, trying to help can seem an overwhelming task. Sometimes while I try my best to be as encouraging and uplifting as possible, I don’t always have the right words, and sometimes seeking some outside help can make all the difference. I tell my kids that no matter where we live in the world, we’ll always be ok because we’re together as a family. We have days in our new country where we try and seek out the best dumpling houses, we laugh at how the traffic was terrible in Shanghai and now how it’s harder driving on the wrong side of the road. We like to make fun of the challenges and have a laugh. Take photos and video along the way and remember to stress how these memories of such experiences will be with them forever.
9. Look after your needs throughout the process
Repatriation is complicated and somewhat painful for everyone. The weeks before the move, during the move and after you’ve arrived at your new destination can be extremely stressful. Forgetting about yourself is easy to do. Take time to keep exercising, meditate, have a coffee or a glass of wine and maybe enjoy a massage from time-to-time. Forget the guilt, and make sure you give yourself a break. One of the best things you can do for your family is be positive and take care of yourself, and you can’t do this if you’re sleep deprived, lonely, anxious or miserable.
Cidonie is the previous Editor-in-Chief of Shanghai Family Magazine and is now the Editor of Threads and Travel blog. You can follow her and families new adventures abroad at www.threadsandtravel.com and on Instagram: threadsandtravel