Winding It Down
16 April 2008
My time as an expat in China is soon coming to an end. I sent email to a Chinese friend yesterday and told her we must not put off meeting because I’m only in China ten more weeks. She called me right away and told me the thought of that made her very sad. I agree.
When we came to China, we anticipated we would return to the USA, so saying “goodbye” to our friends had no sense of finality to it. The opposite will be true when we leave China. Every one of us will know that there’s a good likelihood we won’t see each other again. This is one reason I fear that leaving China may be harder than arriving.
In books about Expat life, they say that the adjustment to repatriation is as hard, or harder than, the initial adjustment to the overseas living. When we were anticipating the adventure, and living it, we tended to gloss over the eventual challenges of the perhaps bumpy landing back home. But now that the journey home gets nearer, I’m rather dreading the thought of what will be happening in the next several weeks and then this summer as we try to sort out again how to manage life in the USA.
Some of the things mentioned in books (such as the Expert Expatriate, in my book list on this blog), are issues related to career. The expat manager is in a different environment, often functioning on his own in very challenging circumstances. He develops a lot of new skill, resilience, creativity, and independence. In short, expat managers tend to grow exponentially as a result of facing and conquering difficult tasks. Their companies, on the other hand, aren’t fully aware of the challenges and don’t necessarily appreciate what the manager is doing in terms of work assignment. This leads to a mismatch between reality and perception, where the manager is concerned. So, if there is a job at all back home for the expat manager, it’s often a job that is smaller and more confined than what the manager has grown used to. He feels unappreciated and underchallenged – underwhelmed like a hermit crab trying to return to a shell he left long ago.
But there are other, personal, challenges besides just adjustment to the lifestyle “back home.” For one thing, since you are returning to your home culture, people don’t expect there to be any adjustment issues. Thus, they are less tolerant when there (inevitably) are some adjustment issues. My daughter in university recently commented that some of her USA friends don’t even want to hear her talk about things she did in high school. They see it as tiresome bragging about her exotic life. She thus had to quit talking about anything she did during the two years she lived in China, even though for her it was simply talking about two years in her daily life.
On the other hand, when we’re not being exotic, there’s simply the fact that our experience has been so different from that of many Americans that they can’t relate at all. For example, when I tell an American that my husband works in China, the person will often ask, “Is he in the military?” I’m sorry, but that kind of ignorance of geography and basic political reality is, in my view, inexcusable! I think if an American military plane flew into Chinese air space, as one did several years ago, it would be shot down (as one was several years ago over Hainan Island). I personally was most impressed by the time we took the ferry into Hong Kong Harbor while there was an American aircraft carrier there on shore leave. The aircraft carrier was surrounded by about ten Chinese warships. So when a person asks me if my husband is in China because he’s in the military, sometimes I’m tempted to quiz them, “Exactly which military base in China do you think he would be stationed at?”
I’ll write more about those issues as they come up. At the moment, things like the fact I wish I were more fluent in Chinese and that I had studied Guzheng more and spent more time with my friends here and been to more places in China are coming to my mind, simply because I realize my chance to do these things is coming to an end. Like a person who is facing death, I’m looking back and saying, "here’s how I wish I had lived my life differently."
We did some things right. We traveled, even when we couldn’t really afford it. As a result, we’ve been places and seen things and met people and done things that greatly enriched our lives.
And we did a lot of things wrong. For one thing, we underestimated the challenges! It’s one thing to read about cultural differences (especially in business), something different to experience them! To prepare a potential expat for that, some of the books on my blog like Negotiating China might help.
And in terms of what I wish I had done differently, that’s leading back around to Chinese language. I do wish I had devoted more of my energies to learning more Chinese language and to more learning things I can only do while I’m here in China, like Guzheng. One of my Chinese friends said to me the other day, "My girlfriend in the USA tells me there are lots of places to study Guzheng!" Hmm. Maybe so. Maybe in San Francisco or Seattle or Atlanta. But not in my small town.
The closest thing I can do in my small town to get an authentic Chinese experience is to go to the local Japanese restaurant and talk there to the Sushi chef, who is from China and who helps me practice Chinese. I exaggerate just a bit, perhaps. I think every town, even a small one, has its version of "Chinatown." We who live in small towns just need to look a bit harder to find it. I can also think of a small storefront where the owner only sells imported Asian groceries. I’m pretty sure she’ll speak some Chinese with me too, when I return.
When our friend Ernie learned that we were moving to China, several years ago, he began talking to us in Chinese. We were shocked. He was just an ordinary guy in our church, far past retirement age. How did he learn Chinese, we asked?! He told us that he had spent two years in China assisting in the resistance against the Japanese during World War II. (I wish I had learned more. At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of the Flying Tigers. Since my hometown was home to the Dolittle Raiders, the big focus in my town is on the Dolittle Raiders rather than Flying Tigers.) Well, even more than forty years after returning to the USA, Ernie was always eager to find someone to speak Chinese with. I guess when I return, I’ll be a bit like Ernie, taking a little bit of China inside my heart with me when I go! One thing’s for certain. I know I’ll never be the same.