Expat feels

Here is another in my series of reflections on popular content from the past year. Today I’m sharing three posts from May, August and September last year. One is the most popular post I’ve ever written on this blog, and the others are in the all time top 20 most viewed. All three focus on emotional experiences connected to expatriate life.

Homesickness and the price we pay to be expats

This is the most viewed post on my blog, thanks in part to being picked up and shared by a few expat networks online. It also talks about something that’s been an important part of my expat life – openly acknowledging what this life costs me, and allowing myself to feel that pain, but alongside the sure knowledge that this was my choice. This emotional integration is an essential tool for finding contentment in life generally, but especially as expats.

There are two sides to this. First, the cost is real. The fact that I choose to pay the price doesn’t change the fact that it costs me something – something real. In my first years overseas, expressing my sadness at this cost often led to comments from my sisters about how “you chose this!” That was true, but it didn’t change the fact that I was sad about missing this event, or seeing that person. . .

Secondly, it is a choice, and that reframes the loss and pain of paying the price. I don’t just lose something – I have given up something good (many good things) in order to gain something I have deemed better. When we hold these two things together – both the reality of the cost, and the reality of my choice to pay it – we can integrate these difficult emotions, and come to a place of peace.

Click here to read the full “Homesickness and the price” post.

Expat Guilt: Being far from family

This piece is related: part of the price of my choosing to live overseas is being far from my family. That is a choice which impacts both me and them – and that brings guilt. I made a choice which affects them, which may feel at times like loving them less. In this post I share my own struggles with this common phenomenon of expat guilt.

Video chats are amazing but they don’t take the place of cuddling a niece or nephew, of interacting with them in person. I am so thankful for sisters who work to make sure I’m a part of their children’s lives, but I still miss being able to see them in Real Life. I know what it’s like to see my grandparents in person, and how very not the same it is to be far away – especially when they don’t use the internet at all, and now struggle to keep up with even a phone call.

And then comes the guilt.

Knowing that I can only blame myself. That I’m the one who decided to go. That I could be closer but chose not to be. Knowing I valued something more highly than being near the family members I love so dearly. That’s a hard truth to face – and yet also a hard one to escape!

Click here to read the full “Expat Guilt” post.

Phantom Pain: Feeling the pieces of self you leave behind

When I decided to share this, I honestly didn’t know how it would be received. I wondered if anyone would relate, or if they would think I was weird. But I put it out there anyway. In this post I explain a lightbulb moment I had after repatriating to Australia, trying to explain how I felt about China, now that I no longer lived there. I lived in China from age 21-32; it was where I lived out almost all my adult years and grew into my own woman. And even after I’d moved to Australia and settled into a life there that I enjoyed, China still felt like a part of me – albeit a part no one else saw, a part that was not tangible. It was particularly interesting for me to reflect on this now that I’m living in China again – a move I had not expected in the slightest!

Australia didn’t really feel like home. Not completely. I had settled into a routine, I had made friends, I liked the place I lived. But something didn’t feel right. I could still *feel* another place, a place that felt like part of me. I could feel the person I’d been there, I could feel the routines I’d had there, I could almost smell and taste the place I’d left. . .

I suspect anyone who moves around has the potential to develop this kind of phantom pain. The pain of sensing a part of yourself missing – a part of you which only exists in one place, one context. Losing a language, a role, a position – something you were or had becoming invisible, unreachable. Perhaps this is an inevitable (or at least highly likely) part of connecting deeply in and to more than one place. Another price we pay for this life.

Click here to read the full “Phantom Pain” post.

Re-reading the phantom pain post now, I realise it reminds me of something I shared in a recent Recommended Reading post – from an ATCK reflecting on how the language of her childhood home is a part of her even though she hasn’t lived there for a long time, and doesn’t often use it in daily life now.

That’s my reflection on the Expat Feels I’ve written about in the past year! It’s been a rollercoaster year of transition for me, and sharing these posts with you has been good for me, too.

I’m going to FIGT 2019 – are you?

I’ve written before about my excitement that the annual Families In Global Transition conference is coming to Asia for the first time in 2019! Registration is now open, with early-bird pricing for the next week (until the end of January). Have you thought about coming? You should! Click here to register!

figt-earlybird

I am already registered to attend, plus I will be presenting twice during the conference – an early bird session looking at cross-cultural education, and a lightning session (a short talk to the whole conference) about our relationships with geographical locations.

I would love to see many of my friends and readers and other connections in the international world make it to FIGT 2019! It’s an incredible event, very much worth your time. In my previous post I gave this list of reasons why:

  • Fantastic resources – great speakers, great books in the bookstore, and lots of great brains to pick.
  • Solid research – there are always researchers presenting fascinating recent work on expatriates and Third Culture Kids.
  • Relational opportunities – there are so many wonderful people at FIGT. It is one of the warmest groups I have ever walked into. It’s so intimidating to walk into a conference knowing no one, but FIGT makes it so much easier!! There are big sessions and very small sessions, so there are ample opportunities to meet different people throughout the three days.
  • Real answers – if you have a question about global mobility and international life, how it affects you, your family, your organisation – this is the place to come.
  • Inspiration – when a group of people like this gets together, there is a sense of energy and momentum, lots of new ideas and new projects sparked. (This was very true for me in 2017!)

Now there is more specific information about the 2019 conference available! You can see the draft schedule on the FIGT website. Here are some highlights:

Newcomers

A special welcome breakfast on the first morning for anyone attending their first FIGT conference. If you’ve never been before this is a GREAT reason to come this year! It’s a fantastic opportunity to hit the ground running and get the most out of the conference.

Presentations

There is a wide range of presentations at FIGT – long and short, serious and light-hearted, covering a wide range of topics that affect cross-cultural families. A list of the sessions available is on the FIGT website, along with a short synopsis of each session and biographies of the presenters. (Yep, I’m in there!)

Some presentations are made to the whole group, specifically the keynote sessions (still to be announced); Panel Discussions, which bring together a group of speakers; and Lightning Sessions – a series of 6 minute talks on a wide range of topics. My lightning session is titled: “Falling in Love, Breaking Up, and Everything in Between: Our Relationships with Place”. You can read the full synopsis on the Lightning Session page.

Through most of the conference you can choose from a wide range of topics being offered simultaneously. There is SO MUCH great content this year it’s going to be really hard to choose! Early Bird Forums happen first thing in the morning, with a 1.5 hour mix of presented material and group discussion. Concurrent Sessions are hour long presentations. Kitchen Table Conversations are 45 minute long discussions.

A new type of presentation is Posters – a visual presentation of a subject. There will also be a Q&A time with the poster presenters during the conference.

Research

There is always fascinating current research into expat and TCK issues being presented. This year includes eight researchers are presenting their current research in three sessions: Current Research on Asian TCKs and CCKs, Current Research on ATCKs’ Educational and Career Choices, and Current Research on Expat Adjustment Abroad and Repatriating. These presentations traverse a wide diversity of cultures — samples representing diverse cultures plus studies focused on Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Israel. I am always encouraged by the increase in research from a variety of angles.

And don’t forget the bookstore, full of fantastic resources (including Misunderstood!) and opportunities to have your book(s) signed by their authors! I will certainly be available to sign copies of Misunderstood, and many other authors will be there, too.

Convinced yet?? Click here to register! I really hope to see many of you there.

 

Recommended listening

I’m not quite ready to jump into Recommended Reading reviews just yet, but I was recently interviewed on a podcast which I’m going to recommend to you. So I also made a list of a few different podcasts I’ve appeared on in the past year or so as some recommended listening until I return to a regular schedule of Recommended Reading.

Migratory Patterns

I recently had a great conversation with Mike Shaw for the Migratory Patterns podcast. We talked about a lot of things, but particularly focusing on Third Culture life, both for kids and adults. I also explained a little about my current research, and why I’m preparing to write a book for twenty-something TCKs.

“Most of my interviews were with twenty-somethings and so I was really into these issues and aware of it and it was informing everything that went into Misunderstood. I was talking about their childhood experiences from that perspective of looking back on them… But what happens for a lot of those kids is they get to university and it’s like they walk off the cliff. There’s no support for what they go through, because their process of growing into adulthood looks really different. They’re juggling all these different cultural inputs, these different attachments, so their identity formation takes a lot longer. Not because they’re behind but just because they have a lot more information to process. The decision of how to work out what you want to do with your life is a lot harder when you have way more options. When your idea of what success is – you’re not even sure what you think, because the answer for you has always changed depending on who you’re talking to. When you now have to decide for yourself, when it’s not “my environment is determining for me”. Where I have to, as an adult, make my own independent decision. That’s a new skill.”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Mike

Mo Sibyl

Podcaster Mo Sibyl is a Nigerian academic in the US with an interest in Korean culture – among other things! I really enjoyed talking with her – we turned out to have many shared interests, including a love of language and statistics! At one point she said: “This is now a conversation between two language nerds!

What I appreciated most was how she got me talking about my work. She asked different questions from interesting angles, eliciting interesting responses from me in return. Even if you know me well, have talked to me about what I do, there’s probably something new in this. Here’s a few excerpts:

A lot of what I do is translating the TCK experience… Articulating things that they aren’t able to… Because of what they’ve been through, this is how they see the world, and here are some ways we can support them and understand them better. . .Over ten years I developed a set of tools that work. So now what I’m doing is sharing with parents and teachers the tools I developed on the ground.”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Mo

Go Ye There

The first podcast I was invited to speak on happened while I was still in Australia completing my studies. It is a podcast by/for missionaries, but our conversation is a great primer for anyone raising kids overseas. We go through the basics of the TCK experience – what “TCK” means, what the Third Culture is, how growing up overseas shapes a child’s worldview, and more.

“All expats live in the Third Culture, but adults and children experience it very differently. Adults are viewing their international experience through the worldview shaped by their own childhood. Whereas a a TCK’s worldview is shaped by an international childhood. And this determines how they view the rest of the world, including their home country. When you grow up with more than one culture as a child, it affects the way you understand life, and the world, and yourself… Your kids might not be “struggling” as such, but they’re absolutely affected, because childhood experiences shape who we are.”

Click here to listen to my interview on the TCK basics

TCK Summit

I recorded a ten minute talk for The Change School‘s TCK Summit shortly after Misunderstood was first released. The TCK Summit is a series of short talks hosted on youtube discussing different aspects of cross-cultural life, especially as it affects TCKs. The month I contributed to was themed “Cultivating the Mind”. Two areas The Change School focuses on are “developing a Global Mindset” and lifelong learning, so my talk included what this looked liked for me.

The core of my talk was about connection to multiple cultures, and why this requires cultivation of mind. There is stress attached to navigating differing cultural expectations, which can dim mental clarity. This is something that came out in a number of my interviews for Misunderstood – TCKs faced with the need to make a decision about the future often experienced anxiety they needed tools to work through.

“The influence of multiple cultures can be quite stressful at times. If you are influenced by two cultural systems that means double the information to take in, double the social rules to learn, double the means of communication to master, double the values to internalise… Knowing yourself deeply, consciously processing emotion, acknowledging difficulties, creating mental space – these are all strategies that make it easier for each of us to grow through our engagement with multiple cultures rather than become overwhelmed by all the noise.”

Watch my TCK Summit talk on youtube

That’s it for today! I hope to be back with some Recommended Reading catch up next week.

Easing into the new year

As I wrote in my previous post, over the past month (nearly two) I’ve taken a break from working on my various projects. Now it’s January and I’m beginning to ease into the new year. I am taking my huge to-do list and breaking it down into manageable pieces. I’m trying to prioritise which projects need to be completed now, which could slowly use a little attention, and which can wait. I’m trying to balance passion and practicality – while keeping a firm hold on my health.

One decision I’ve made is that while I want to get back to posting regularly, I will not try to write new blog posts every week in January.  Instead, I am going to highlight some previous posts that have been popular. I will share some of the comments I’ve received from readers.

I also plan to start sharing the backload of Recommended Reading, but to begin with I may end up with simpler comments rather than full summaries and reflections. I need to start somewhere, and I’m trying to start small.

After that, however, I want to get writing again! And I’d love to know what you’d like to see me writing about. Do you have any questions about TCKs, the Third Culture, expatriate life, what it means to grow up cross-culturally, or anything else? Send me your questions! I may not have all the answers, but that will just give me more to learn so I can share it with you.

What would you like to learn about?

What would you like to share?

What do you want to know?

What do you wish others knew about your experience?

My inspiration for writing has always come from people. Sometimes it comes from listening to struggles – parents who feel guilty or discouraged, TCKs who feel confused or misunderstood, expatriates who feel alone and disconnected. Sometimes it comes from listening to joys – celebrating lives of cross-cultural confusion and joy, finding your own way through international life, or fondly reminscing over a time and place and community that may no longer exist outside memory.

Whatever is on your mind, I would love to hear from you.

I look forward to hearing your stories, as I always have!

Lessons from a Third Culture childhood, part 3: after “everyone leaves”

My first post in this series explored a “lesson” TCKs learn through growing up internationally: that everyone leaves. Next, I paused to address a very common response: “what about the internet?” The internet allows for relationships to be maintained long-distance, which is so very helpful! But it doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.

Now in part three, I am finally (delayed due to a month of ill health) getting to the “solutions”. Only after we stop to really hear the sadness TCKs experience can we start talking about what happens after everyone leaves. With that foundation under us, I’m going to work through a few ideas that can be helpful for anyone dealing with the life lesson that “everyone leaves”. The bottom line is this: you can’t change the past, but you can choose what sort of future to build. Understanding what we think, and learning new ways of thinking, can make a huge difference in this regard.

Change, transition, and goodbyes

While the focus of this post is dealing with the aftermath – the life lesson encoded from a childhood full of goodbyes – it’s worth taking a moment to consider what to do in the thick of things. It’s important to understand the relationship between change and transition, and the impact transition has on our daily lives – whether we stay or go. Understanding this process, leaving space for it, and practicing self-compassion during it, goes a long way toward encouraging future healing and growth.

Saying good goodbyes is also really important. I’ll write a full post about this at some point, but as a summary thought – anything that matters (a person, animal, place, group) is worth saying goodbye to. Any relatiosnhip that will be changed, any routine that will be lost, is worth marking. There are lots of ways to do this (parties, gifts, memory books, photos, last visits, etc.) but it can also be an internal process. I can stop and recognise the importance of each person/place, expressing sadness and gratitude, any time – even after the fact, even years later, when a good goodbye was not said at the time. This is especially helpful when a family moves unexpectedly – for both the ones who leave, and the ones left behind.

Living “everyone leaves” long term

What I really want to focus on in this post is what to do later in life, when the lesson that “everyone leaves” has sunk in and affects the way I think and act. As I’ve listened to and mentored young adult TCKs in particular (especially as I start preparation for my next book) I’ve found a few tools that help us reframe our thoughts – and take control of the future. Taking time to consciously understand how these very valid past hurts impact our present-day reactions allows us to stop the past from stealing the future.

Saying goodbye sucks. Losing friends sucks. There’s no point sugar-coating that. The reality of change and loss can be painful, and it can’t be changed. The past is what it is. But staying in that place of pain, and the helplessness and hopelessness that often goes with it, doesn’t change the past. We must acknowledge the truth of our lives. But we don’t have to be ruled by it forever. We get to choose what happens next.

Sunk costs

In business there is a term for money you’ve already paid: a “sunk cost”. It is money you can’t get back. You’ve already paid the rent, bought the inventory, paid the salary – whatever it is, good decision or bad, it’s done. The question now has to be what is the best way forward, given that you can’t get the “sunk cost” back. This rule means that sometimes the best decision for a business is to sell old inventory at a loss – because that’s better that having it take up space in a warehouse. Let me use a mundane example to explain. Imagine you’re at a restaurant, and having eaten 3/4 of your meal you are feeling very full. Part of your brain is saying you should eat the rest because you’ve already paid for it! A “sunk cost” mentality says that you pay the same price for the meal no matter how much you eat, that the money is already spent. So, would you enjoy the meal more by stopping now, or by making yourself sick eating too much? Forget what you can’t change, and make the best decision starting from now. Perhaps you can take the small leftover portion home to be a snack later. But even if that’s not possible, eating it all in order not to leave waste may not be the best decision.

I’ve found sunk costs an extremely helpful concept in my personal life. Something has already happened in my life. I can’t change that. So what am I going to do about it? I don’t need to “fix” something that’s already happened. Blaming myself for a bad decision, or blaming someone else for causing me pain, doesn’t change the situation I find myself in. Instead, I can look ahead and decide what to do next.

When it comes to the “everyone leaves” lesson, we can’t change what has happened. We can only decide what is the best way forward, all things being as they are. Yes, I have experienced many goodbyes, and that hurt. But what sort of life do I want from now on? What choices will help me build that sort of future?

Change happens

Change is a part of life everywhere – you can’t insulate yourself against it, no matter what you do. You may decide you want to settle down in one place for the rest of your life, to minimise the potential for change and loss. But anywhere in the world, your best friend might choose to move away, perhaps without warning. No matter what you do, you can’t eliminate change. To be happy and healthy moving forward, therefore, you must find a way to cope with change.

Some people want to be the one who initiates change, so they are in control of it. They may move frequently, change jobs, or locations. One adult TCK told me that she had lived in the same town (with her husband and two kids) for six years, but in five different houses. Most of those moves happened simply because she wanted to move. She would find a better area, look for a better house. It took her years to realise she felt uncomfortable staying put for too long; when work kept them in one place, moving house helped soothe her itchy feet. Having recognised this, she wanted to try addressing the underlying feelings, but in the mean time she was pleased she had found a compromise that worked for her – that kept her living in the same city, not running away.

Another ATCK finds moving stressful, but still has a deep desire to see the world. So he and his wife travel frequently, but always come home to the same house.

I think the important part of this isn’t how I cope with change, but that I do cope with change. That I am able to face my feelings about change, and make conscious choices about how to respond to those feelings – not be controlled by fears I avoid. Each of us needs to acknowledge that change happens, and we can’t avoid that – but it doesn’t mean
we don’t have choices.

Pick your poison

Many TCKs I’ve talked with over the years have laid out the two choices they have: either go through the horrible pain of saying goodbye over and over, or don’t invest deeply in people to begin with. For many, avoiding deep relationships seems like the obvious and logical choice. The problem is that it’s not a choice between pain or no pain, it’s a choice between two different kinds of pain.

Yes, getting close to people only to have to say goodbye, over and over, is painful. But going through life without those close friendships, without people who know you, without anyone to share life with, is also painful.

So this is the real choice: either enjoy the beauty of friendship while you can, and pay the price in grief when someone moves away, or swap that sharp pain for the constant dull ache of feeling isolated and unknown. There is pain either way. But one path leads to relational connection – pain with gain. The other leads to isolation – a more lonely and sad kind of pain.

Faced with the reality of this choice, most of us instinctively understand the benefit of continuing to take the risk of investing in people.

And THIS is where the internet comes in

Maintaining friendships via the internet helps with a middle ground here. There is still the grief when a friend moves, or something happens and I’m not there in person. Tthere is still the ache of not sharing everyday life. And yet, an ongoing bond through different life circumstances (in different countries!) can be rich and rewarding. My own best friend and I have only spent two of our 13 years of friendship in the same country. We both travelled across oceans to be in each other’s weddings. We come from different passport countries but have each visited the other’s family home, met parents and siblings.

I’ve had to grieve the changes in our relationship many times. But each time, I knew it was worth continuing to invest in her, and in our friendship.

This is the bottom line: you can’t go back. you can only go forward. Take the time to acknowledge hurts and grieve losses – then move forward.  Make choices about where you want to go, and who you want to be, rather than what you want to avoid. Invest in people, even though it means investing in harder goodbyes. Work out what you want from life, and start building toward that.

You can’t change the past – but you can make choices about what happens next.

Talking about TCKs and expat life with Mo Sibyl

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been sick the last 2+ weeks, while also being busier than normal. This means I still haven’t finished the article I’d intended to post today. Thankfully, I providentially have something else to share with you! In a Recommended Reading post back in June I shared a piece by Mo’lanee Sibyl. Following that, Mo and I connected through social media and soon she invited me to appear on her podcast, More Sibyl. The episode we taped just went live, and you can listen to it here!

I really enjoyed our conversation, and reliving it by listening to the finished podcast was lovely. Mo and I found we had a bunch of shared interests, including a love of language and statistics! (At one point she says: “This is now a conversation between two language nerds!”) We kept finding new tangents to chase, and shared experiences and perspectives to exclaim over and laugh about.

What I appreciated most was how she got me talking about my TCK work. She asked different questions from a different angle, and got a different response from me in return. Even if you know me well, have talked to me about what I do, there’s probably something new in this. Here’s a few excerpts:

“A lot of what I do is translating the TCK experience… Articulating things that they aren’t able to… Because of what they’ve been through, this is how they see the world, and here are some ways we can support them and understand them better. . .Over ten years I developed a set of tools that work. So now what I’m doing is sharing with parents and teachers the tools I developed on the ground.”

Click here to listen to the whole conversation.

7 Helpful Hints for Raising Kids Overseas

This week I’ve written a post for Expatriate Specialist, sharing 7 Helpful Hints for Raising Kids Overseas:

“Don’t you wish there was a step-by-step guide to successfully raising a family abroad? Or anywhere, for that matter! Unfortunately, no one has all the answers. What I can offer, however, is years of experience listening to young people who were raised overseas. I’ve learned a lot about what their parents did to help (or hinder) them along the way. These 7 helpful hints for raising kids overseas will point you in the right direction, whether you’re thinking about a move, starting out, or years down the track.”

One of the things that motivated me to write Misunderstood was wanting to support parents who worry about whether they’re doing the right thing for their kids, and how it will all work out long term. Yes, raising kids overseas complicates things, and every kid is unique. That said, there are things any family can do to help smooth the way through some of the harder aspects of international life, and set kids up with tools for future growth.

In this piece I give short summaries of several key pieces of advice I regularly offer to parents. I talk about the comfort of familiarity, emotional health, building connections, and recognising the difference between the experiences of children and adults. Please take a look, and let me know what you think!

Read the full post on Expatriate Specialist

National Day holiday in China

Today is National Day in China – the start of the October Holiday Golden Week. (There’s a whole long story about how public holidays are scheduled in China. I wrote about it on my personal blog five years ago if you’re interested in that side story!) There are national flags and flower displays everywhere, and clean skies as everyone goes on holiday.

One of hundreds of flags around our neighbourhood this week (and probably millions around the city!)

One of hundreds of flags around our neighbourhood this week (and probably millions around the city!)

The National Day holiday marks the anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949. I really hope I’m in Beijing for October 1st next year, because then I’ll have been here for the 50th, 60th, and 70th anniversary years! (My first visit to China, as a teenage student and tourist, coincided with the 50th anniversary in 1999.)

I don’t have a regular day job to take a holiday from this week, but I’m trying to create some extra space anyway. (Not something I’m good at, but I’m trying to get better at rest!) One way I’m doing that is by giving Recommended Reading a break today. I’ll be back next Monday with a bunch of posts about Third Culture Kids and expat life for you! In the mean time, if you haven’t checked out my latest post on the TCK lesson that “everyone leaves” I’d love for you to take a look. In only a few days it’s become the most read post on this site, and I’m honoured to see that it’s striking a chord with TCKs and expat parents around the world. I have follow up posts in the works, too – so stay tuned!

Expat guilt: being far from family

I’ve written before about homesickness and the price we pay to be expats. Anyone who has lived overseas for an extended period knows there’s not one price tag – there’s many. One of the biggest ones, and a contributor to expat homesickness, is being far away from family.

I’ve spent countless hours and dollars visiting family. And while I’m very fortunate to have family who have made the trip to see me more than once (something not all my long term expat friends have experienced) I’ve definitely spent more time and money visiting them. But that’s how it goes, because I was the one who left them.

And yet – I miss out on so much.

My choice to live overseas means I missed my grandpa’s funeral. I missed two cousins’ weddings. I wasn’t there when each of my parents went through cancer diagnoses, treatments, and all-clears. I have cousins I’ve never met. I have two nephews I haven’t met yet – one is 9 months old, the other is 3 weeks old! (I’ll see them in 11 and 12 weeks – not that I’m counting!) And let’s not even get started on the list of friends’ milestones missed.

Spending three years in Australia recently gave me the opportunity to spend more time with family. I could go on outings with my aunt, getting to know her as an adult. I could drive to visit my grandparents for the weekend. For the first time I could be an adult child who visited my parents easily, readily. Go home for my Mum’s cooking, or have lunch with her when she was driving through my city. I could call them up and say “so, I need to come run an errand this weekend, I’ll see you in five hours”. Seeing my grandparents was very important. During my three years in Australia their health declined markedly and it was such a relief to be nearby, to be able to help, to pitch in, especially with me living a few hours closer to them than my Mum. It was a blessing to have time with them before, and even while, things became more difficult for them.

While my sisters lived on the other side of the country, I still had more opportunities to see them than I would have otherwise. Plus there were so many events to celebrate with them! One sister got engaged, then married, then pregnant. Somewhere in the middle of that my other sister gave birth to my first niece. I was more connected to them and all these huge life milestones than I would have been were I further away.

But now I’m far away, again.

Somehow, that makes it harder.

Video chats are amazing but they don’t take the place of cuddling a niece or nephew, of interacting with them in person. I am so thankful for sisters who work to make sure I’m a part of their children’s lives, but I still miss being able to see them in Real Life. I know what it’s like to see my grandparents in person, and how very not the same it is to be far away – especially when they don’t use the internet at all, and now struggle to keep up with even a phone call.

And then comes the guilt.

Knowing that I can only blame myself. That I’m the one who decided to go. That I could be closer but chose not to be. Knowing I valued something more highly than being near the family members I love so dearly. That’s a hard truth to face – and yet also a hard one to escape! In a recent recommended reading post I linked to a really good post about the guilt of distance. It’s something a lot of expats (if not all of us) feel, at least sometimes.

To be honest, I wonder if I would have so readily made the decision to leave Australia again this time if I hadn’t become engaged to a man who was not Australian and did not live in Australia. To be even more honest, part of me thinks “Phew! Glad that stopped me getting trapped in one place!” And it does give me a pretty solid and good and guilt-free (or at least reduced guilt) reason to be far away. And yet…

I think the guilt can be like homesickness – coming in waves, rather than constant, sometimes taking you by surprise.

I was recently reminded of my grandparents by a simple scene – a decorative planter box outside a burrito place we often go to, in which was growing the unusual combination of begonia flowers and fresh mint. My grandfather grew lots of begonias (among tonnes of other flowers!) and he taught me to grow them from cuttings. We would select them, wrap them in wet newspaper, and after the 6 hour drive home I would plant them and tend them until they bust into vibrant patches of colour. My grandmother had big tubs of fresh mint outside the house (I suppose she still does?) which would go on boiled baby potatoes, in sauce for roast lamb, and into ice water with lemon. So many memories wrapped up in those two plants!

This happened shortly after I read several messages about the ongoing situation with my grandparents, their health and capacity, and wanting to work out what’s best for them. And while nothing had changed, there was also a comfort in those plants. I carry them with me. I carry all the people I love with me. They are a part of me, no matter where in the world I am.

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Phantom pain: feeling the pieces of self you leave behind

While I’m living in Beijing again now, four years ago today I left – for good.

I left Beijing with very little expectation that I’d return. I hoped I’d visit, but I really didn’t think I’d live here again, and certainly not so soon. I wasn’t ready to say I’d stay in Australia, either, for that matter. But there are other countries. One thing expatriate life has taught me is that there are always options you haven’t begun to dream up yet!

Near the end of my first year back in Australia I was talking to a friend about my feelings about leaving China, my home of over a decade, and moving to Australia. I am an Australian citizen and my family all live there (albeit scattered around the country) but Australia didn’t really feel like home. Not completely.

I had settled into a routine, I had made friends, I liked the place I lived. But something didn’t feel right. I could still *feel* another place, a place that felt like part of me. I could feel the person I’d been there, I could feel the routines I’d had there, I could almost smell and taste the place I’d left.

And I said the words, without thinking: “It almost feels like phantom pain.”

Later I went looking for information about phantom pain, beyond my general layperson concept. It turns out that “phantom limb syndrome” affects about three-quarters of amputees. They feel as though the amputated limb is still there (although it may feel shorter) and this can be accompanied by severe pain.

Once I made the connection, it made sense. Something that had been such a big part of my life for over a decade was gone – out of my reach – but it still impacted me. That piece of me, the person I was in that life, was cut off. But I still felt like her, still felt like that was me.

I wasn’t in China, and as far as I knew I wasn’t going back. But I still FELT my China life. And sometimes that feeling came with pain. Pain of not being that person any more. Pain that no one in my new life knew me in that way. Pain of losing a place I loved – even for good reasons, even by my own choice. Some days it was mild nostalgia, but some days it was really painful.

I’ve felt a mild version of this the last few months living in Beijing again. Those three years in Australia changed me. I made a life for myself there eventually, a life I enjoyed. There were people and places and activities that mattered to me. I was a different person there than I am here. I was known differently. And just as it sometimes hurt that Australian friends couldn’t see or understand my Chinese side, who I was in my Beijing life, I sometimes feel a longing here, too. My friends in Beijing, even those I’ve known a decade or more, don’t know me in that Australian setting. I miss college life, living on campus. Don’t get me wrong – I was ready to go (and my anxiety has decreased markedly since I left such a hugely social environment)! But there are pieces of me that came alive there which aren’t exercised here.

I suspect anyone who moves around has the potential to develop this kind of phantom pain. The pain of sensing a part of yourself missing – a part of you which only exists in one place, one context. Losing a language, a role, a position – something you were or had becoming invisible, unreachable. Perhaps this is an inevitable (or at least highly likely) part of connecting deeply in and to more than one place. Another price we pay for this life.

sydsunset

One thing I miss from Australia: regular glorious sunsets, no filters required.