Back to “reality”
Early this summer, we were caught up in a flurry of going-away parties. We were planning some, attending others and pulling together endless pages in good-bye books bidding dear friends farewell. Each of my three kids was losing a good friend and we were also helping them deal with their impending separations. In the midst of all that, a thunderclap struck our world when my wife Rebecca received a tremendous job offer back in New York.
It was for virtually the precise position that I had said just days before would be her ideal post-China landing place, but they wanted her back ASAP. Two things were immediately obvious to me: leaving was inevitable and I didn’t want to leave. Just months before, we had agreed to extend our initial three-year commitment for a fourth year.
China and the expat life have been very good to my family and me. It has in many ways felt like a three-year vacation – only much better. Because most vacations don’t really change you and I have gone through sea changes here.
The one thing I have no patience for is when friends and family members say things such as, “It’s time to get back to reality.” I think one of the real lessons of expat life is that there is no one reality that any given person has to live by.
Eventually, it was agreed that she could return in December, at the end of the school term. That gave us almost six more months and meant that we were leaving just six months earlier than planned. Before moving here, I likely would have refused to move in the middle of the school year but it no longer seems like such a big deal after watching so many people come and go at all times of the year.
I do worry if the kids back in New Jersey will be as understanding of mid-year arriving new students as the kids at international schools are, but I have faith in their ability to adjust and adapt, skills I think have been heightened by living in Beijing for three-plus years.
When we told the kids that we were going back early, their reactions were about what we expected. Almost immediately 8-year-old Eli, who has been pining to return to the US since we got here, was excited. He smiled widely and even pumped his fist. His only question was, “Are we definitely going back?” In the ensuing weeks, he has been thinking more about this, and it’s starting to dawn on him that he will also be giving up a lot.
Five-year-old Anna burst into tears. She was two when we moved here and really doesn’t remember living anywhere else. Her only memories of “home” are the visits and she lacks the great friends there that her brothers have retained. Beijing is her reality but she is as social a creature as I have ever seen, and we have no worries about her adjustment.
Jacob was aghast. “No, we can’t!” he exclaimed. “The whole reason we’re staying the extra year is because it was my idea and the reason I wanted to is that on the last day of Year 6 there is a big party at a water park. I can’t miss that.”
He backed down quickly when we told him we would take him to a water park with friends in NJ for a day when school ends, but he is still bitter about missing this day, which he has apparently looked forward to for three years. I didn’t tell him but if the timing works out I’ll bring him back next year so he can go. I’ll be more than ready for a hearty dose of Beijing.
Alan Paul chases his kids Jacob (10), Eli (6) and Anna (4) in between writing his column, “The Expat Life,” for the Wall Street Journal Online (www.wsj.com) and playing gigs with his band, Woodie Alan (www.woodiealan.com).