People come to Beijing for many reasons. Some are on expat packages, some are here for the short term, and others are here for an adventure. No matter how your Beijing journey starts, however, the day will come when all good things must come to an end. After building a life in the capital, you may find that returning home represents a bigger challenge than you had imagined – and certainly requires more preparation than simply packing some boxes.
“Repatriation is sometimes difficult because people assume it will be easier to go home than to a new environment,” says Shelley Warner, founder of Asia Pacific Access (APA), a consultancy which specializes in supporting the relocation of expats and companies. “After a possibly rocky beginning, many people have a great experience living here and that makes it harder to leave. It’s important to recognize the positives and the negatives associated with moving, and to talk about them,” she advises.
Planning Your Move
If you need to go on one last shopping spree, make sure your purchases are practical. Avoid last-minute impulse purchases, e.g. buying one of everything “just in case.” An Australian friend of mine went on a furniture-buying spree just prior to relocating to London, and bought lots of lovely side tables. When she arrived in England, she lamented that her new apartment was already full of beautiful side tables, but didn’t even have a sofa. If purchasing new furniture, always remember the one-in-one-out rule: If you buy a new chair, throw out the old one.
Which brings up another point: Not only will you need to pack, you’ll need to get rid of a lot of things. Excess household items can be sold, given away, or donated. Consider donating to Roundabout, which provides financial and material assistance to over 20 charities in Beijing. They also run a secondhand store for items, with all proceeds going to worthy causes.
Aside from the logistics, make sure you take time out to say goodbye to friends and the city you’ve been calling home. By starting early, you can fit in all the places and friends you want to visit without feeling rushed. Lela Wadsworth, a mother of four, returned home to the US last year, but she brought the whole family back to Beijing this summer to reconnect with old friends. She says it was a lot easier to say goodbye knowing they would be visiting again soon.
Keeping the Sense of Adventure Alive
When expats return to their home countries, many miss the energy and challenges of day-to-day life in China. “Often people grow personally and professionally during their time here, and revel in the grit in the oyster that is Beijing,” says Sarah Cooper, a professional coach at INSPIRED who specializes in helping others live and work off of the beaten path. People can keep that spirit alive by plugging into networks of likeminded people back in their home countries.
She notes that returning to a less transient culture poses other challenges. In places like Beijing, friendships are made more quickly, and opportunities can arise more readily in the microcosm of the expat community. Cooper recommends using some of the survival techniques learned here, such as not accepting the status quo and challenging rules and regulations, to create your own opportunities back home. “Don’t expect it to be like Beijing, but find out the quirks and what is special and unique about the next place. Even home can have its offbeat side,” she says.
Life Without Ayi
One of the perks of living in Beijing is having household help. Many expats find it tricky to transition to countries where household help is uncommon – or unaffordable. Some revel in a rediscovered sense of privacy, while others fret about relearning how to cope with daily chores and the demands of raising young children.
Dana Elraviv, who recently moved back to Israel with her family after six years in Beijing, says she enjoyed having control over her space again. She even found cleaning to be very therapeutic, noting that it was nice to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
If you need a break from the kids, you may be able to call upon family to babysit – something that would not have been possible in Beijing. Alternatively, you can establish a network of friends and neighbors who are happy to look after your kids for an evening in exchange for your own babysitting services.
Children who have formed strong bonds with their ayi may ask about her after the family has moved. One way to keep in touch is to send her family photos or drawings from the children.
Managing the Transition for Kids
If your children were born here or have never lived in your home country, be prepared to hear the question, “When are we going home [to Beijing]?” You can ease their fears by describing what your new home will look like, who will be in your new neighborhood, and the fun things you’ll be able to do there. My son’s teacher recommends creating a Beijing Scrapbook filled with school projects, photos of their favorite places, and notes from friends to console little ones when they’re missing Beijing.
One aspect of repatriation is encountering ignorance (or non-interest) about China from their family and friends back home. This can be frustrating for children who enjoyed their life here, and especially for pre-teens and teens who find it tough to reconnect with the culture and trends of their home country.
Recognizing the need to establish a normal routine as soon as possible, Elraviv organized a new apartment and selected kindergartens for her two young children well in advance of their departure from Beijing. After the initial settling-in stage, Elraviv says her children love their new environment.
Maintaining your Mandarin
There are many creative ways to keep up your family’s Mandarin skills. Parents can tap into the Chinese community where they live, while kids can enjoy playdates with Chinese-speaking children. Contact your local Chinese cultural center, or local university to see if any Chinese students would be willing to babysit and speak Mandarin with your children. Children can maintain their written Chinese by writing regular letters to their ayi.
Moving home and moving on from Beijing can be bittersweet, but talking and planning will help ease the transition for you and your family. When they look back, former expats recognize that life in China, though difficult at times, gave them many advantages: Mandarin skills, a sense of adventure, and a new way of looking at the world. There is life after ayi, and moving home doesn’t mean the adventure has to end. So don’t say goodbye … say zaijian, Beijing!
Three Months Before
Select a professional international moving company and book the dates of your move
Inform your children’s school and request necessary documents for enrollment at their new school
Consult a vet about which documents are necessary for the transport of your pets
Consult with your bank about the best way to transfer funds to your new country of residence
Two Months Before
Sell or dispose of any items you don’t want
Ask for information regarding export customs clearance as some countries allow VAT reimbursement on goods bought within six months export
Keep your transport receipts in a safe place as they could be required by customs at destination
Consider temporary accommodation at your destination
Have your mail forwarded, or cancel: utilities, cable TV, Internet, insurance, club memberships
One Month Before
Make a detailed inventory with replacement value of all goods to be moved
Drain fuel from all petrol devices
Arrange to have your children and pets looked after on the moving day
Clean and dry all kitchen appliances to avoid apparition of mildew during transport
Clean and dry your garden tools and furniture
On the Day
Keep passports, documents and travel tickets in a safe place
Tips supplied by international moving company, AGS Four Winds Beijing
Asia Pacific Access runs repatriation programs for expats and their families.www.apachina.com
Roundabout charity store accepts donations of clothing and homewares.
Tel: 137 1877 7761 (English) or 137 1805 3814 (Chinese)
INSPIRED hosts courses and information sessions on repatriation and starting over again.
AGS Four Winds Beijing provides
international moving services