Home sweet home? Expat life and the fear of going back
I’m heading home to Manchester for the first time in almost five years. I’m writing to you from the airplane with a gin and tonic in hand and another six hours to go of a 14-hour flight from Shanghai to London. As I prepare to reunite with my family, anticipation is tinged with a bittersweet blend of excitement and anxiety.
I’m desperate to touch my mom’s skin and melt into my dad’s arms. But the passing of time has not been kind. The question playing on my mind is whether our relationship can withstand the weight of everything endured over our forced separation. They say time’s a healer, but is that always true? Or can time apart drive an irreversible wedge between us and those we love most?
Perhaps we should count time not in minutes, months and years but rather in the lived experiences within them. In the time apart from my family, there have been missed anniversaries, birthdays and personal achievements. Unseen battles, job losses and personal adversities.
And in the span of half a decade we have evolved as individuals, shaped by the constantly changing nature of life. The last time my family saw me I was a bride, full of optimism and Champagne. After our honeymoon in Scotland, parents waved us off at the airport as we made our way back to China. I’m not the same women I was. I have moved to a new city, changed careers and been diagnosed with a serious mental health condition. What more, since our farewell, the pandemic hit, which impacted the whole world in ways we never expected and left scars on the hearts of all.
Everyone has their own story to tell of that time, and no one account is more significant than the next. Mine involves catching COVID in March of 2022 and everything that went with it. Shanghai then went into lockdown, and I endured a social media trolling that near killed me. You don’t go through those things and come out the other side unchanged. Will my parents recognize this new version of their daughter? I worry that this new her will be too alien to accept.
I think at the core of my fear is the need for connection. As expatriates, we walk a tightrope between the foreign and the familiar. We personify two lives lived in one body. We exist between places wherever we are, and part of us is always left behind, meaning we are never fully home and never wholly ourselves. Living in the international community means immersing yourself in a different culture, language and way of life. Going home means slipping back into a life once lived but since left behind, and a version of ourselves that’s familiar to others but not ourselves.
The difference between our adopted country and place of birth can be hard for others to grasp. People in England rarely ask about my life in China. I don’t think it’s because they don’t care, they just don’t know where to begin. And without a shared frame of reference, it can be difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation. That isolation is anxiety-inducing. And the aeroplane I’m on is packed with people who feel the same.
“I morph into a completely different person when I’m back,” Mark tells me. Whereas John suffered reverse culture shock. For Matt, going home feels like retuning to an old partner or job he no longer understands, and Rob has concerns about whether his Asian partner will suffer racism. Ruth feels less confident in her native country, and Coleen finds it sad to feel removed from everything that once felt familiar. It’s tiring living between two worlds.
Maybe my expectations are high and my nerves unwarranted. A few friends have told me to accept that people cannot fully appreciate our lives abroad. And I guess the same must be said in reverse. I know some aspects of my parents’ lives, but I do not know all of it. Can a relationship be real when it’s lived in the shells of who we once were?
I have four weeks in England to find out. The closer I get to Manchester, the less anxious I am. That could be the gin and tonic, but I think it’s the unmovable truth that when I hold my family, they are mine and I am theirs. Maybe it comes down to learning to live within the chasm between us. We should tend to it like a garden, set out deck chairs and build a bonfire. There, nestled together, we’ll listen to one another with empathy and a willingness to learn. By doing so, we can foster a deeper understanding of each other and sew together holes formed by years apart. How nice!
It’s that, or we could just go to the pub.
Reach Emma at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook (EmmaLeaning) and Twitter (@LeaningEmma).