Leaving China and the Challenges of Returning "Home"

Leaving China and the Challenges of Returning "Home"
Nov 15, 2009 By Paul Bacon , eChinacities.com

In a recent article, I discussed the intricacies of relocating to China. This can be a complicated and stressful process. It can, in fact, determine whether or not an expat's stint in China will be successful. Because of the importance of the process and the potential pitfalls involved, plenty of attention is paid to ensuring that any move to the Middle Kingdom goes smoothly. However, when the time comes for the expat to make the opposite journey – to leave China and return to one’s home country – the whole process somehow fails to grab the same kind of attention.

So, why is it that one half of the relocation equation gets far more attention than the other? The major reason is one of image. Typically, people see moving to the Far East as a major life changing experience and going home as something safe, easy and predictable. Because of this, expats treat the process of moving back far too complacently and their employers assume they will be fine as they are just making a return journey. Although this logic is clear and simple, it is slightly flawed. Expat relocation is not a black and white issue. It is not simply a case of moving from west to east and back again. Once an expat begins to put down roots and stays away from home for a significant period of time they begin to change as human beings, and at the same time things at home will also change – the two hemispheres begin to blur.

As I prepared to leave England for China, almost everyone I knew told me that it would be an experience that, “Would change my life.” This has certainly proved to be the case. Everything has changed. I have changed, and, crucially, things at home have also changed. Having been here for four years, I have put down roots, I have formed attachments and I have developed new ideas and opinions. Simultaneously, family members have gotten older, some of my friends back home have moved to other cities, some have got married and there are even people who have passed away. It is as though I – and thousands of expats like me – have moved into a space somewhere between east and west.

For an expat who has spent a lengthy amount of time in the Middle Kingdom, defining the term “home” becomes slightly trickier as roots in China grow stronger and links to your home country begin to strain over time. Whilst birthrights may pull you to a certain city or region in your home country, the longer you spend here in China, the looser the connection actually becomes. At first, when you arrive in China, things are new, strange and alien. However, over time, what was strange becomes the norm. Simultaneously, things at home that were safe and familiar become far more distant. An obvious – and slightly superficial – example of this is food. Strange exotic dishes at first are fantastic novelties, but gradually become staple parts of a diet. At the same time, cuisine from back home, which used to be defined as “essential” begins to be forgotten, at least slightly. On a deeper level, the same can be true of friendships and personal relationships. Moving to China means opening up to new people and a new circle of friends. As you spend more time with these friends and the bonds begin to grow, those bonds with other friends back home begin to weaken with time. This certainly does not mean that most expats shed their lifelong friends after just a few weeks in China, but there are likely to be other relationships that will not stand the strain of such distance.



It is because of factors like this that many expats begin to experience “reverse culture shock” when they finally return home as their tastes, ideas and social circle have changed. In simple terms, reverse culture shock is the shock of moving back to a native culture. People rarely expect to feel it because they assume moving home will be a smooth experience. However, it is only when they are immersed back into their native culture that they begin to realize just how much they and their home have changed. In a worse case scenario, it is as though they are, in fact, becoming immigrants in their own country. Common symptoms of reverse culture shock include:

Reality not quite living up to expectations: I am sure we have all heard expats about to leave China listing off the things they will do when they arrive home – the food they will buy, the beer they will drink the places they will go. Most of us living in China will have at least one home comfort we miss. The problem is that, in many cases, these things become to look and taste much more delicious from 5,000 miles away and can often fail to live up to elevated expectations. This can be true of foods, of places and even of people. Time apart from friends and acquaintances can often add the type of clarity to a relationship that reveals it was not so close after all.

People moving on: “I am so keen to get down to the pub with the boys” declared one of my friends as he prepared to bid adieu to Tianjin and head for England. The only problem with this plan was that, in the three years he had been away, one of his friends was married with kids, another had moved to another city and the rest were tightening their belts because of the financial crisis. His circle of friends, as he knew it, had ceased to exist.

Nobody caring: As you touch down on the tarmac of home, you are full to bursting with stories about drunken nights in Shanghai and lengthy trips to Sichuan to tell your friends. You have hours and hours of them ready to unload. For the first few anecdotes, your friends are genuinely interested. But, after a few days, their attention turns back to other issues, such as jobs, families and paying the bills. You begin to realise your return is big news for you, but less so for others.

Looking back over your shoulder: Over your last few weeks in China, everything is focused on going home, on catching up with what you have missed. Then, after a few weeks, the pangs begin to reverse. You have had enough Guinness or cheese or whatever specific thing you were missing about home and suddenly it is Tsingtao and your favourite local dish from China that you are thinking about.

Most of us will return to our home countries, many of us will return to the cities we grew up in or went to school and where our friends and relatives still live. Just because moving back home can be difficult doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. But just as we prepare ourselves mentally for our move to China and the strange things we encounter, we need to prepare ourselves psychologically for returning home and finding that everything is not as familiar as we may have imagined.

Related Links
Moving to China: How to Settle In and Start Work
Culture Shock: Rules and Tools
The Life Cycle of a Teacher in China

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Well, I've been here for 8 years now and will soon hit my 9th. I've taught in a hugely diverse amount of places and schools throughout China and have, for the most part, loved it.
I've never gone back home and except for a few brief forays to HK, I haven't left the mainland.

I too, am worried about going home, where the cars are driven on the left side of the road. Being so used, now anyway, to the Chinese ways, I fear I'll get hit and killed back home. This is something that hasn't happened in China, obviously, but now, when faced with going back home to say hi to all, this becomes a very real problem.

ANother issue is, as has been discussed, friends and family. I seldom hear from any of them and over time, their lives have moved off to such a different place, that I doubt I'd know them or ahve anything to say after simply saying "hi".

I do know, that I'll not be hiome for long, will have a contract signed and everything prepared for when I return to China.
I'm not your typical "old China hand". I don't eat the food much any more. I far prefer to buy my own country's produce in the supermarket. I eat at home with a knife and fork and don't chew my food and have the general table manners of a pig. I don't slurp my drinks and I certainly don't toss garbage on the ground. These things are no different back home and I think that it's good I prepare myself in this way because when I go home, and I exhibit such disgusting behaviour, my mother will clip me a good one upside the head, even though I'm in my mid 40's.

I look forward to my visit back home but also fear it in a way. While it'll be nice to see family, most of whom will be siblings kids that I've never met . It'll be good to have a few beers with the boys back home but I also reaslise that life has moved on for all of us and now, the concept of home isn't as clear cut as before.
The lines of demarkation between home and here are too blurry now.

Jun 28, 2012 15:58 Report Abuse