If I could write a letter to my weary self in the spring of 2015, as I was surrounded by 20 years of our China life, packed in semi-sturdy fruit boxes from the market…
In that stressful season, when my sense of accomplishment each day was how many trash bags I could send down the trash chute from our 9th floor apartment. When my biggest dread every trip outside was discovering our rejected stuff in the overflowing trash heap—waiting for pick up by the Jingle Bells-playing trash truck–and then having second thoughts of maybe needing to rescue something that I might one day regret throwing away. When more than one person asked me if I needed someone to fly out to help me pack because they could see that I was not handling life all that well…
This is what I would write:
You need to let go of what you can’t keep. All of the memories and mementos will not fit in your well-worn suitcases or in the boxes that you’re shipping back. Trying to decide what to keep and what to give away or toss is truly exhausting. Let your kids make their own choices on their stuff and trust them in their decisions. Give yourself breaks. Get some fresh air. Take time to say goodbye to the people and places you and the rest of your family need to, in order to bring closure.
Your foreigner identity in China will need to be exchanged for the “look very American on the outside but not fully American on the inside” kind of identity. And even though standing out as a 老外with white skin wasn’t always desirable, it’s become who you are. So, when you get back “home” in America you will need to be ready to take on a different identity than one who is serving Him in China. Returning to the States without a plan for going back on the field will bring struggles of feeling like a failure and becoming a “has been.” But it’s important to remember that letting go of the old you means you can make room for the new you to blossom.
You will learn how blend your two worlds in ways that fit your family. Be sure to keep Chinese language in the conversation at home (and it’s also handy to be able to switch languages when you’re in public and want to have a private conversation). Remember to keep celebrating Chinese New Year, as its a bigger deal to your kids than many of the traditional American holidays. When Jordan comes home from college with her roommate and wants to spend all day in the kitchen making jiaozi from scratch (even though you’d rather save time and buy the frozen kind) and she wants to find recipes for all kinds of special Chinese dishes, say “yes” because cooking is one of her ways to keep her China experience alive and it’s an opportunity for her to share it with others.
Look for ways to share your overseas experience with others, but don’t have unrealistic expectations. Getting to speak to Daniel’s 2nd grade class about China will be a huge treat, both for his classmates to better understand where he’s come from and for you to be able to bring China to life in a new context. David and Daniel making bilingual life story books in their ESL class will also be very meaningful for them to learn how to tell their stories in pictures and words. Finding TCK camps and other connect points with those of similar life backgrounds will help your kids not feel so alone on this journey. Remember that people asking and taking time to hear your stories will be a real blessing, but not everyone will be able to to relate and that’s ok.
Give plenty of grace and space to yourself and to your family. Reading Amy Young’s book Looming Transitions will be eye-opening, especially to help you see that there are pre grievers and post grievers. This will help you better understand why it will be harder for you before the move and harder for Charly after. Being aware of how moving to the US is a unique experience for each one in your family will help you try to create a grace-filled space for everyone to process their positive and negative feelings. When your biological kids argue that China is better and your adopted kids insist that America is better, just let them debate. They are growing in their ability to articulate the differences they are experiencing and to express their own values in what they like and don’t like.
All of you will appreciate the gift of living in closer proximity to extended family. But you will also miss lifetime China friends, and it will be a challenge to figure out how to maintain those long-distance relationships. There will be the convenience of Wal-Mart but also the pull of materialism. There will be the gain of freedom through having a car, while missing the slower pace of China life and being able to bike or walk almost everywhere. Talk to each other about what you specifically miss about China and what you most appreciate about America. Grieve the losses and embrace the blessings.
Mostly, what I want you to know as you begin to return is that just as God has been with you the past 20 years in China, He is with you in this present moment so full of unknowns, and He will be with you in your new place of planting. He will water your thirsty soul and help your roots to grow deep. No one said returning would be easy, but through His empowerment, you can do hard things. And thrive.
If you are preparing to return to your home country, what are the myriad of emotions you are experiencing?
If you’ve already returned, what would you have wanted pre-return self to know?