As expats, we’ve all experienced it: a chance meeting that turns into a lasting friendship, only to have the person move away a couple of years (or maybe even months) later. It hurts, but the pain lessens over time as you learn that saying goodbye is an integral part of the expat experience. But what happens when you’re the one leaving? Even if you’re a career expat, no two relocations are alike – especially when kids are involved. Here, two families share their stories of saying goodbye to the capital.
Breaking the News
Yurika and Travis Waites have two kids: Tyler (15) and Sora (9), both former students at The International School of Beijing. Yurika and the kids lived in Beijing for three years, while Travis lived there for two; he spent the last year away for work. Over a year before the family relocated to India in July of 2011, the Waites found out that Travis was reassigned to the US Embassy in New Delhi.
According to Yurika, Tyler and Sora didn’t take the news well. “We casually told the kids over dinner that we might be moving to India within a year. They didn’t know anything about India and just couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to their friends in Beijing.” Tyler was stressed about moving, but perked up as soon as he started making friends at American Embassy School New Delhi. As for Sora, moving on wasn’t so easy. “She still complains about not living in Beijing anymore,” says Yurika, a fact that she attributes to the ease of living in Shunyi. However, Sora is now doing better; Yurika and Travis are helping their daughter focus on the good things about living in India instead of the things she had to give up when they left Beijing.
At the Snowball-Mengler household, things couldn’t have been more different. In October of 2010, the family returned to Perth in Western Australia after six years in Beijing in order to be closer to family and nature. When Angela Snowball and Stuart Mengler told their sons – Tom (5) and Harry (4) – about the move, the boys were largely unfazed due to their young age.
However, that doesn’t mean young children are immune to the stresses of moving. “Infants are more sensitive to climactic conditions, diet, and [their]parents’ emotional responses,” says Dr. Qiao Hong, a psychiatrist at Beijing 21st Century Hospital. On the other hand, teens and adults must deal with interpersonal relationships in addition to physiological issues.
The Big Goodbye
In the months leading up to the move, the Waites spent a lot of time getting rid of old things, shopping for souvenirs, and making preparations to export their dog, Sirius, to New Delhi. Yurika and the kids watched a lot of movies and TV shows about India to familiarize themselves with their future home. “I think that actually helped us get more interested in [India],” she says. “By the time we left Beijing, we were actually looking forward to some of the things we saw on TV.”
“It’s important to discuss the move with the kids on a regular basis,” says Dr. Qiao. “[Topics can be] the reason for the move, the duration of the stay in the new place, and possible difficulties that the family may face.” Parents should address practical points like which school the kids will attend, the courses they’ll be required to take, what kind of water is safe to drink, what kind of foods to avoid, [climactic]differences, and more.
For both families, the hardest part was saying goodbye. For Angela Snowball, it was so difficult to let go that “it was almost a relief to be on the plane.” Waites and her kids arranged many social outings and visited their favorite places, such as Mutianyu Great Wall and Beijing duck restaurants. However, Yurika and her daughter Sora got so homesick that they ended up taking a quick trip to Beijing months after moving to New Delhi.
Yet, too many goodbyes can actually do more harm than good, according to Dr. Mickie Xu, a psychiatrist at Beijing Vista Medical Center. As economies become more international, it’s better to say “I’ll be back” rather than organize emotionally-draining goodbye parties.
Dr. Xu found this out from first-hand experience. Before settling in Beijing, she lived in Japan and Canada with her husband and daughter Amy. “When we moved to Canada, [Amy] was 4 years old and didn’t speak any English,” recalls Dr. Xu. “The teacher told me she was really quiet. After three weeks, she asked the class a question and my daughter answered in Japanese!” Eventually, the family returned to Beijing. After going through elementary at a local school (Fangcaodi), Amy switched to Dulwich College Beijing for secondary school. At age 16, she published a bilingual Chinese and English book called I’m 16. Consisting of a memoir, travel journal, and article, the book was based on Amy’s experiences as a multicultural teen. Now 18 and a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, she speaks English, Japanese, and Chinese fluently, and is currently working on her French.
Landing on Your Feet
When Yurika Waites and her kids first got to New Delhi, she was struck by the little things, like doing groceries. “In Beijing, many of the things we needed were available in our neighborhood,” she says. “Here in New Delhi, the expat community is [more]spread out, and it’s not always easy to find things.” In addition, the Waites now live on the ground floor of an apartment building – a far cry from the two-storey house they had in Shunyi. Luckily, English is the secondary language in India.
For the Snowball-Mengler family, the initial months in Perth were a whirlwind of activity. “It was bit like camping because we had very little stuff and had to rely on family,” she says. Because they moved during the summer holidays, the family spent quite a bit of time in parks and at the beach to keep busy. Stress levels went up another notch with the arrival of their third son, Charlie (now 1). Tom and Harry had little problem adjusting; if anything, Snowball and Mengler felt the effects of reverse culture shock more keenly than their kids did.
Regardless, Snowball and Mengler make it a point to maintain ties with China. A Chinese student babysits the boys twice a week; during that period, the entire family tries to communicate only in Mandarin. “Look at the positives,” says Snowball. “If you are moving back to your home country, make an effort to seek out new experiences – be it work, projects, hobbies, or new places to visit.”
Families can expect to face both physical and psychological issues in the initial months after arriving at their new destination, says Dr. Qiao Hong. “The first things families should be aware of are the medical facilities around them, including the type of medical facility, payment methods, location, and more.” He urges families to ground themselves in their immediate living environment by finding out useful information like traffic conditions and nearby shopping locations.
In addition, it’s very common for newly-relocated families to
experience excessive attention, which may cause anxiety, tension, or unhappiness. “In this situation, it’s important to patiently explain to children the reason for all of the attention,” adds Dr. Qiao. Help your kids realize that asking questions is the locals’ way of showing that they care. If the tension or anxiety becomes too much to handle, consult a psychiatrist.
Returning Home as an Expat
For those moving back to their home countries, reverse culture shock is a common issue. Reverse culture shock (also known as “re-entry shock”) refers to the difficulty that many expats experience when returning to their home culture after becoming used to a different one. Luckily, reverse culture shock is usually temporary; the adaption period typically varies between two to six months.
To combat reverse culture shock, Dr. Qiao recommends that individuals start by recalling fond memories that remove the “strangeness” of their not-so-new environment. Secondly, it’s important to surround yourself with familiar people who can give sincere advice. Third, don’t rush back to work – allow your body to adjust from the inside out. Fourth, spend time listening to the radio, watching TV, and reading newspapers to re-familiarize yourself with local voices, laws, and news. Lastly, build trust and communication with co-workers and classmates.
Though she still sorely misses Beijing, Yurika’s 9-year-old daughter Sora is starting to show signs of improvement in New Delhi. “[She] already knows how to ask the school cafeteria workers to give her bigger scoops of ice cream,” says Yurika.