On February 15, 2016, my husband and I moved to Nanjing, China. It’s been exactly 38 weeks since that day and I’m writing this in my Beijing apartment, preparing to go back to the US in just a few days.
Why I Came To China
We came to China because my husband was accepted into a prestigious Chinese language program that involved a semester at Nanjing University and a 16 week internship. I came with him on a family visa (in other words, I cannot become employed in China) for 2 reasons: I love travel, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work full-time creating video and written online content. I never learned Chinese, and if you’re wondering how on earth I’ve survived 9 months in China, you can watch this video. Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s move onto the juicy stuff.
Reverse Culture Shock
Reverse culture shock and post-travel depression are real. I know this because of what it was like moving home after 5 months in Ireland. Things that at first seemed like weird quirks became my daily life by the time I was getting ready to leave. I felt like a completely different person and when I got back my hometown felt exactly the same. My exciting European adventure was over and my old familiar life was waiting for me. Coming home was shocking and horribly depressing.
Coming home from China is going to be very similar, but completely different. Ireland didn’t have a language barrier, and it was a western culture, but this time I know the shock is coming.
Feelings + Anxiety
Everything Is A Circle
I think most of life’s events are theoretically circular, but this has been even more obvious to me as I prepare to head home. I’ve been living in Beijing since August and recently took a trip back to Nanjing to speak in front of the new students in my husband’s language program. After our presentations we spoke with several students, who had tons of questions for us. During our conversations, I realized that some time in the last 9 months I became comfortable and confident in China, and was now a source of knowledge for people whose situations I felt so familiar with. Hadn’t I been in their shoes last week? Or was it 4 months ago? I had mentally looped back to the beginning of my time here, and finally realized my circle is almost complete.
Exotic Is Over
My most pressing (and selfish) concern about leaving China is that it’s the end of another exciting adventure. Despite anxiety, I’m an explorer at heart, and the lure of traveling to unfamiliar places is one of my biggest joys in life. I’m dreading the idea of leaving the chaotic streets of Beijing, the lively local produce markets, the vibrantly painted temples, the fact that I have to speak broken Chinese just to buy a bottle of water… the list goes on. These things make my life less convenient, but they make it more exciting, too.
I’m in a state of limbo right now. Life in Beijing has all but completely wrapped up, and the to do list of things for my arrival back in the states won’t stop growing. I have so much I could do, but I’m just not in the right mental state to do anything. Time is moving a mile a minute and standing completely still at the exact same time.
Even though I spend most of my time in the apartment, working towards a life of self-employment, I’ve made a few friends here in China and I’ll be sad to leave them. There’s something different about the friends you make abroad – relationships build quicker because its always uncertain when you’ll fly home or what you’ll do to get the next visa. You’re both away from the friends, family and culture you grew up with. Without even speaking, you already know you have a lot in common. Relationships made fresh back home can take more work than the ones abroad, and talking about your travel experiences can feel like bragging, but to you it’s just an attempt at catching up.
I was standing on the Nanjing Railway Station platform preparing to board a train to Beijing when I had a realization. I’m going to miss China more than I’ll miss my husband. He’s headed back more than a month after me, so it’ll be sad to say goodbye, but I know exactly when I’ll see him again. China and I don’t have that luxury. I don’t know when we’ll be reunited. I never expected to feel at home here or to love this country, but I do, and in a way it’s heartbreaking to leave it behind, uncertain of our future together.
I didn’t get to see everything. No shit, right? China is massive, and I’m not made of money, so of course I didn’t see it all. But there’s still this hint of regret in the pit of my stomach. My list of places to see in China never shrank while I lived here – it actually grew – as did my desire to see it all. I’m leaving knowing I want to come back, knowing exactly what I want to see, and, to be honest, bummed out that I didn’t get to see more. That’s selfish and shortsighted because I’ve seen so much, but the feeling is there nonetheless.
Making an international move requires a lot of planning on the way there, and just as much on the way back. On my return, I have totally new responsibilities to worry about: my dog, my car, my cell phone plan, taxes, health insurance, residency, and of course the big questions like: Where am I going to live? and What will my next job be? The emotional turmoil of moving home after living abroad is nearly doubled by the number of “adult” things there are to be done.
Despite all this, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was excited.
I’m not going to sugar coat it – my apartment here in Beijing is terrible compared to everywhere else I’ve ever lived. Cracked floor tiles, a moldy sheet as a curtain, plaster falling from the ceilings… I think you get the picture. As soon as I get back to the states, my living standard is guaranteed to improve. No matter my budget, I can almost be certain I will never live in a place like this in America because it’s simply not acceptable to rent out an apartment in this condition.
I moved to China with a very limited amount of stuff and I’ve got all kinds of things stored back in the states – kitchenware, clothes, books, instruments – and I don’t even remember what half of it looks like. It’s like opening a ton of early Christmas presents that I don’t have to pay for!
Convenience + Language
Daily life in my home country is going to be WAY more convenient than life here in China. I can read labels and signs, and I can actually communicate with people when I need help with something. The language barrier that makes everything here difficult is going to disappear the second I land in Seattle. On top of that, the cultural barrier will go away too, meaning the little differences that still confuse me will just cease to exist. I still don’t understand why it’s okay for little kids to pee on the ground, or why babies are always wearing those split pants with their butt cheeks hanging out, but I know that won’t be a daily sighting for much longer.
Most of you know I’m an adventurous eater and that I love Chinese food, but the reality is that no food will ever comfort or fill me up quite like the Mexican-Asian-American-other-things-I’m-forgetting combo of what I eat when I’m at home. I’m excited for my daily meals to return to normal, and for my dietary preferences to be met with ease. (I’m thinking of doing a 30-day vegan challenge in January!)
Friends + Family
Above everything else, I’m excited to see all the familiar faces again – my family, my dog, my closest friends from high school, buddies from college, and the friends we made and quickly left behind back in SF. I have butterflies just thinking about all the reunions that will start just days from now 🙂
I’m still daily vlogging, so most of my reactions to returning home will be posted on my YouTube channel, but before that, you guys will see part 2 of my Moving Home After Life Abroad series (if you haven’t seen part 1, click here). A week after my move back home, I’ll post an update on this site to let you know how the transition is going, and from there you’ll have to wait and see 🙂
Thank you to everyone who’s been following this crazy journey!