The difference between an “immigrant” and an “expat” is sometimes explained as an immigrant intends to stay in their new country permanently, whereas the expat plans only to spend a few years there before returning home or moving elsewhere.
In practice however the distinction is rarely so simple. Life intervenes and plans change. For some the challenges of a different culture prove too much, while others find themselves putting off their return year after year. Often, meeting someone and falling in love is a turning point.
Whether you’re here for an adventure or putting down roots, it can be difficult to manage the balance of life in Beijing and in the country of origin. And when you have children, the question of how you ensure that they appreciate their cultural heritage while also feeling secure in their day-to-day life needs careful handling.
Children of international families might see that balance very differently to their parents, either because they had little say in the decision to move to Beijing and miss their friends back home, or because they were born and grew up here and Beijing is “home” to them. (I remember as a child visiting my father’s family in Ireland, and being mystified when they would ask how long we were “home”. “This isn’t home,” I would think. “England is home.”)
And thanks to technology, staying in touch with family far away is easier than ever before. Email, social media, and video calling bring us closer together even when we are oceans apart.
We talked to two families about the challenges of maintaining lives and relationships in two (or more) very different worlds, and then sought the opinion of two experts in their fields in dealing with the issues remaining on the screen.
Preston Thomas is an English teacher from the USA, currently working at The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China (RDFZ) Chaoyang Branch. His Chinese wife Nicole is an actress, and they have a daughter Lisa, age 7. Before he met Nicole, Thomas had lived in Bulgaria and Turkey, so he’s very much a global citizen.
Where, we asked him, is “home” for you?
“For me,” he says, “I consider Beijing home. It’s strange for me to say that because I feel like sometimes I’m living in a double world. When I am back in Buffalo, New York, I refer to Beijing as home. But when I’m in Beijing I refer to Buffalo as home. But I honestly feel more rooted to Beijing than I do to Buffalo.”
And for Lisa?
“My stepdaughter would consider Beijing home. When we go back to the States, it doesn’t invoke the same feelings that it does for me. I guess maybe that is because she has only been living in China.”
For Patricia Reme, Branch Manager of LINKS Moving Beijing, the question is even more complicated. She’s Mexican, her husband is French, and her two children were born in Beijing and Hong Kong. Emiliano, the 北京人 (beijing ren), is 4 and attends the Lycée Français international Charles de Gaulle de Pékin (LFIP), while little sister Pia (age 1.5) has just started at a local nursery.
“There has been a lot of moving involved since my husband and I met,” Reme tells us. “We thought we would stay only for a couple of years, but we have managed to hit over a decade in China already. We both arrived with our Business Schools to Hangzhou where we met; we then moved to Beijing; then a brief time in Melbourne; then back to Beijing when Emiliano was born; Hong Kong where I gave birth to Pia; now back in Beijing again.”
So where is home for the Reme family?
“Every place we have been has been important. But I have to admit Beijing does feel like home know. We recently spent long holidays in both Mexico and France, and my son kept on asking when would we go back “home”. When we ask him where he is from, he confidently says Beijing!”
Those visits home countries of both parents are important for children with complex cultural identities, though.
“We go back to France every summer,” Reme says, “and we try to travel to Mexico once every two years, though I am lucky that my parents also try to come visit us or meet us halfway when possible.
“Now that Emiliano is older, I love to see how he is starting to notice cultural differences between France, Mexico and China. For example, he is starting to comment on the road crossing in China, he says he prefers taking an Uber in France as he claims Chinese taxis smell bad. Now he can’t have a proper birthday celebration without a piñata, and I have to admit he has inherited being super loud as a proper Latino-Chinese!”
Thomas also sees regular visits as important.
“I try to go back at least once or twice a year. Sometimes I just go by myself and sometimes my wife and daughter come with me. My parents are back in the States so I feel the need to see them as much as I can. [I usually go back] in the winter and summer because that’s when I have a holiday.
“My daughter loves visiting my parents in Buffalo. She loves being able to go outside without a mask, playing outside without worrying about traffic, shooting guns, having fires, fishing, and shopping. For her it’s the best vacation because she has so much opportunity back in the States. For example, we are not stuck in traffic for hours, we don’t have to run an air purifier, and she can eat as much home cooked food as she likes.”
But there are challenges too for Lisa.
“I think the major thing she dislikes is leaving her friends behind. She doesn’t have anyone her age in America to play with. Also, she’s not used to American food all the time.”
For both families, the children’s friendships are firmly rooted in Beijing. However it’s important to maintain relationships with family around the world, and technology can be a great help.
“We do weekly Skype calls with both grandparents,” Reme says. “I have a family WeChat group and keep in touch with family everyday!”
Social media is vital for communication to Thomas too, but of course different platforms predominate on different continents.
“I’m an expat so I live on WeChat. Got my mom connected to it since it makes my life easier. Of course I have a VPN, and I do keep in touch with friends on Facebook. But I have tried to convert them to using WeChat because it’s much better.”
But technology brings risks as well as benefits. Many parents worry about the impact of technology on their children’s health, both physical and mental. For help in steering the right course we turned to Dr. Marc Murphy, psychologist at United Family Hospital (UFH). Dr. Murphy recommends that contact with family back home should be regular.
“It’s important that it’s part of a routine, so it feels normal, and children can communicate about day to day things,” he says. “It’s the same as when families are intact. I recommend that mealtimes should never be a lecture time. If children believe it’s going to lead to reprisals then they’ll be reluctant to participate.”
He acknowledges that carving out a regular scheduled time can be challenging.
Dr. Marc Murphy is a clinical psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital. He specializes in the treatment of mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and trauma. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“My wife came out to China first, and we made time for half an hour every day at 7pm Eastern Time, which is 7am here. Obviously if your family is in Europe it makes it more awkward. Somebody needs to find time in the early morning or early evening.”
Children should not feel under pressure to behave more formally than usual.
“Research shows that young people now don’t feel that a technological communication is any different to a personal interaction. If they’re making faces, saying somewhat inappropriate things, then that’s just what kids do.”
Online interaction is not enough though.
“They will miss the things they used to do with their friends, like sports. When you go home make sure they get together with their friends, and have time together to augment the technological communication.”
However, there are major and minor downsides to children’s use of technology.
“To start with the minor ones, many institutions give children an iPad or laptop, and as part of their homework they’re required to be on a screen. It’s an opportunity for distraction, and a challenge for younger children to learn the organizational skills they need to cope earlier than they usually would.
“And LED screens emit blue spectrum light, which reduces the body’s natural melatonin, a hormone associated with healthy sleep. Evidence suggests that for every three hours of exposure to screens, there’s an interruption of 1.5 hours of sleep. This sleep disturbance means they’re less likely to fend off a common cold, their studies are affected, and so on. There are ways to mitigate this effect though. Some screens have the ability to not emit blue light, or there are orange lens glasses which screen it out.
“What’s more worrying, although the jury is still out, is that the UK Department of Health and the US Pediatric Association both officially recommend that children under two should not be exposed to screens at all, not even an ebook.
“This is because the primary way a child becomes a healthy human is by bonding with a caregiver. I hear people say, jokingly, ‘Watch my baby stop crying when I give them my phone.’ However this prevents the child seeing their primary caregiver as a resource for bonding. Research suggests too that it stimulates the same pleasure center in the brain as cocaine. It creates a brain reinforcement pattern that they need this type of stimulation on a regular basis. The result is that they don’t know how to quiet their own mind. I recommend a book by Catherine Steiner-Adair, titled The Big Disconnect. It has a whole chapter dedicated to the ramifications of screen use of children under two years old.”
Another major concern is cyber-bullying.
“There are several categories of cyber-bullying,” Dr. Murphy says. “Often young people don’t see it as bullying. They see it as defending a friend. Somebody will say something to which people take offence, and a group will gang up on them online. The separation allows them to believe that it’s not actually bullying. They’re anonymous so can say things bluntly that they would never say face to face.”
So what can parents do if they’re concerned?
“My advice is first to have an environment where the child can talk about it. If they think a parent will freak out, or respond inappropriately, like threatening to talk to the other child’s parents, they won’t talk. You can ask at the dinner table: ‘What websites are you and your friends looking at?’ Or you can ask if they know anyone who’s been bullied. Give them an opportunity to share. If your child does divulge anything, you need to respond calmly, and act in cooperation with school. Ask them: ‘How can we help?’”
It’s not all bad news though.
“There are definitely upsides to children’s use of technology!
Access to educational resources, improved ability to communicate, more opportunity for social interactions… The benefits to their sense of responsibility and understanding of risk are well-established.”
The hardest part comes when you have to miss significant family occasions, whether a death or a wedding, because it’s just not possible to get back.
“Whenever there’s a death,” Dr. Murphy says, “whether it’s distant or in the same town, people feel they’ve not been able to say goodbye. What I do when I’m working with families is try to teach them a way to say goodbye. It can can be done in writing or with a card; even young children can draw a picture, even if it’s just stick figures.
“Then we say we’ll get it to them. For example, we might attach it to a balloon and release it. The method depends on people’s religious and cultural beliefs. In one case where I recommended they wrote a letter, they got feedback from home saying how moved people were, and they felt that they had a presence at the funeral.”
“Unfortunately,” Reme says, “it is one of the downsides of being an expat. We have missed most of our friends’ weddings, births, and other important occasions back home. Cost and not enough holidays are the main reason.”
Thomas wryly points out that these things cut both ways.
“I have missed several weddings for my friends because it’s expensive to fly back or I can’t take time off from work because of it. Thankfully my friends were forgiving. And when I got married they didn’t come to China, so I guess in the end we broke even.”
For some expert advice on managing these issues we talked to Ron Drisner, student counselor at Yew Chung International School (YCIS) Beijing. “For most expats finding how to live life in two or more countries comes through trial and error,” says Ron, who has been helping families with the emotional consequences of relocation for ten years. He gave us these tips, which, as he says, “hopefully will minimize both the trials and the errors!”
It goes without saying that an international move can have a dramatic impact on relationships, either positively or negatively. Much of this impact has to do with managing expectations and making sure everyone expresses their needs.
– Needs vs. Wants: What family wants to happen compared to what is realistic is sometimes not clearly expressed. Often this creates confusion about holidays and where you’ll visit and for how long (especially when grandkids are involved!). Clarify for yourself what you can realistically do first, so you don’t create unrealistic expectations.
– Find a Balance: Once you know what you can do, start a discussion. This might be a bit of a “give and take” with family at home, however the key is trying to find what works best for everyone.
Communicate About Communication
As with so many things in life, one of the keys to experiencing success is finding how to communicate effectively. In living overseas, the dynamic of how people talk to each other is changed dramatically because being physically together is eliminated and time differences make frequency of conversation a challenge. It is then a significant challenge on how to adapt the routines of a relationship.
– Be Clear: How often are people able to communicate and how often do they need to communicate? Don’t assume other’s needs are the same as yours. Clarify by asking how much is too much or not enough before someone is disappointed.
– Make it Easy: What works best for both parties? The great thing about modern communication is we have lots of options, email, Facebook, Skype, WeChat, and FaceTime, which all allow for increased sense of connection. Find out what form of communication is easiest for people to use. For example, if Grandma is more comfortable making a phone call rather using Skype or email, then stick to the old fashioned telephone.
– Consistency: With a combination of busy lives and time differences, communication can fall by the wayside, especially for phone or Skype calls. Find a time and frequency that works for everyone, and then try as much as possible to make time to be available.
Create a Plan
Have a plan on how often and how long you will make visits back home and also how you’ll intentionally maximize your time.
– Plan in Advance: Know what you want to do during your visit. Some activities need to be planned out beforehand, such as summer camp registrations or doctor’s appointments, so make sure these are thought out in advance.
– Invest in Relationships: Know your key priorities for whom to see. Time is often limited, and realistically you may not be able to see everyone. Spend some time thinking who do you and your children need to see and make time for these individuals.
– Resource Lists: In Beijing you can get a lot but not everything! Make lists early of the extras you can get at home which makes life a bit easier and aren’t easily accessible in Beijing. When you think of something like a certain medicine, clothing, books, or special treats, make sure you write them down immediately so you don’t forget!
This article originally appeared on page 46-49 of the October 2016 Issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact email@example.com.
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF OH_DEBBY (FLICKR), WOODLEYWONDERWORKS (FLICKR), PATRICIA REME, PRESTON THOMAS, YCIS