Being an expat is the easy part, being good at it – not so ‘all in your stride’ straightforward.
I’ve just arrived back in Hong Kong, bleary-eyed from an overnight flight with a two year old (say no more) and feeling a little bit, well, empty.
It’s been six months since I was home, the longest period since my ‘stint’ as an expat began. So far I’ve been lucky enough to get home on a pretty regular basis, but two and a half years into this mad Asian adventure, saying ‘goodbye’ doesn’t get any easier.
It’s the quiet drive to the airport, everyone lost in their own world.Here we go again – brace yourself, don’t cry – smile, make light-hearted banter, pretend you’ll be back in no time and they’ll be none the wiser you’ve even gone, lost in translation somewhere over the Orient.
When you live overseas you can’t just pop home for a few days – the expense and a long flight with kids means the visits most likely a few weeks or more (like giving birth, you really need time to forget the pain of flying nine plus hours with toddler, cooped up in a space no larger than a port-a-loo, before you do it all over again).
So it’s a sure bet by the time you leave, you’ve become fully immersed in your old life or a life that resembles what you could otherwise be doing if you weren’t gallivanting half-way ’round the world trying to do something akin to ‘Carpe Diem!’
The lead up to home-comings is always filled with anticipation. There’s so much to be said that can’t be said over Skype or on a text, there are the laughs waiting to be had at someone’s expense (usually mine), the hyped up chatty catch-ups with friends and the precious moments that remind you, family really is your safe-place.
You count down for weeks until there are no weeks left and you can safely count sleeps. Finally the big day arrives, suitcases stuffed to the brim, you hot-foot it to the airport. You know this is no luxury cruise at 40,000 feet…there’ll be no excited shimmy discovering the latest movie is yours for the viewing, no relaxing glass of wine, leisurely read book or mid-flight snooze.
It’s more than likely going to involve the patience of a saint (which you probably don’t have) as you pace up and down the aisle chasing after your small person for the 46th time (if it’s overnight, you’re in the dark, narrowly avoiding protruding elbows and legs while the rest of the flight snores blissfully). Then when your over-tired, hyped-up toddler refuses to sit still and squeals like a banshee at being “stuck” in the seatbelt for take off, turbulence and landing you inhale deeply (wishing you were brave enough to swallow a valium and disappear into your own flight of fancy.)
But ultimately you don’t care because when you choose to up stumps and move to the other side of the world, despite the onboard horror movie that’s rewound and replayed more times than you care to count, there’s the coveted prize at the end of this blockbuster – seeing your loved ones.
Your head buzzing with all that anticipation it’s also about taking a good dose of reality and learning to keep those absent months of built-up expectations in check. Everyone knows those precious moments with family are priceless, but having a set time-frame to make all your dreams of frolicking by the beach playing happy families come true, often results in a pressure cooker environment where springs get too tightly wound and ultimately unravel.
It’s human nature and par for the course. Most fellow expats will tell you the same. Usually you’re staying with family which whilst cosy and fun can be intense and for want of a better phrase, in your face (for everyone in the equation). Add a new baby and no sleep into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for family feud 101.
In the early days as a new mum every time I went home I would feel my inadequacies come rushing to the surface, all guns blazing. There’s no hiding them from those who know you best. Everything’s on display in all its ugly glory and it’s hard. I’ve come to realize you have to let things slide…let each other be and simply enjoy your time and each other. (Even when there are tornadoes, cyclones and power outages resulting in something that resembles indoor camping. More on that later.)
This time with sleep under my belt and a more at-ease attitude with expat life, I had a chance to look at my old life with a fresh perspective. A new set of (refreshed) eyes. Keen to see how we’d feel about our beloved sunburnt country after becoming lost in Asia for a moment in time that will eventually end with us finding our way home, we had to see for ourselves, what are we missing? Can you ever go back?
For starters, James and I marvelled as we arrived in Sydney on a clear, summer’s night. It was smog-free and we could see the moon. Yep! It was bold, shiny and bright! Ava squealed with delight as we chimed “Look Ava, it’s the moon, it’s here in Australia and wow there are stars too!” Our pollution-free party aside, it wasn’t long before we were abruptly reminded of the vastness of the land down under and its extremes.
We woke up on our first day in Sydney with the sunburnt country well and truly living up to its name – the mercury topped 46 degrees. Yep folks, that’s almost 50 stinking hot degrees! Not even the fish can stay cool in that kind of weather. It turned out to be Sydney’s hottest day on record. (About then I realized my skin is probably thankful for some time-out under Hong Kong’s ozone layer where the holes that literally see you fry in the shade aren’t quite so big.)
A few days later we travelled north to the sunshine state of Queensland (perfect one day, beautiful the next, they say) I smiled as my inquisitive daughter wondered why there were so many birds fluttering about, chirping incessantly. “They like to hang around these parts sweetie,” I say. There’s a reason its home to Birds of Paradise.
No sooner had we settled in for summer cocktails by the pool it was less than beautiful watching the state suffer as it was struck by cyclones, tornadoes and flooding that did no less than wreak absolute havoc. The coastal town I lived at during my uni days was all but wiped out… major flooding closed roads and trapped friends heading south for my toddler’s party…but we were lucky, the worst that happened was losing power for three days.
My dad despaired as the power went kaput the minute the tennis final began, we laughed at him and ourselves as one by one our phone batteries died leaving us in the dark and isolated, rendering a whole new technology-free experience. (You should try it some time.) In the morning we took camping to a whole new level as dad tried to boil water on the BBQ for coffee, while the flame kept blowing out …and I took a freezing cold shower.
First world problems and first class memories, especially when as all good hotelier’s wives do, we escaped down the fire exit and checked ourselves into the Sheraton for a piping hot coffee and the all important hair straighteners. Speaking of memories, I loved that I could drive a car and listen to mushy songs on the radio. I professed to mum I’d forgotten how emotional music can make you.
In the street, I found myself overhearing (unavoidably of course) the conversations of passers-by. I was fascinated that I could read (and understand) all of the signs on buildings, shop fronts and on products. (Ahh so that’s what this is!)
I revelled in watching half decent TV and was highly amused and entertained by the local ads (when did they become so um ‘expressive?’)
Then I thought maybe I’m better off in my bubble of ignorance where there is no local radio, TV is limited, the ads are in Chinese and I can’t understand a bloody thing anyone is saying on the train?
I smiled the day I went to meet a group of best friend’s in the hotel lobby and I realized I couldn’t tell who was who – so many blondes! I stood shell-shocked for a moment as I squinted to make out my girls. I wondered where all these fair, blue eyed bombshells had emerged from, had they always been here? So much skin on show, so tanned and so tall. Had I really become so removed from this laid back culture of sun-loving Aussies that I probably wouldn’t even recognize myself.
Back in Sydney we felt exhilarated as we caught a ferry across the city’s stunning harbour, sea breeze blowing, wind in our hair, we gazed at all that wide open space and the way the tall buildings seemed sheepishly ‘small’ and spaced out. No mass of skyscrapers snuggled together as far as they eye can see here.
I muttered annoyance on more than one occasion as people packed up around me when it was closing time – at 5.30 (in the afternoon!)
I heard myself say the words I thought I’d never say about the big smoke, my big smoke, my bustling energetic everything where I’d lived where it ‘all happened’ (didn’t it?) for the best part of a decade. “It’s so quiet.”
I found myself anxious as I visited my old stomping ground, Sky News. Would I know anyone, would they know me? Would I look at it and wonder in amazement how I could ever have possibly managed to read the news. Would it make me wish I’d never left? I needn’t have worried as my little girl sat at my old desk while I chatted to familiar, friendly faces. It was all still there, not quite as I left it, things move on and progress, as have I, but it was there and a little piece of my heart is still there…and I was happy with that.
The rest of my heart is still heavy with another goodbye under my belt but I know I’m not quite ready to hang up my boots and quit on this adventure yet. Just like they quoted on a popular TV show I watched (in Australia of course) “You don’t have to be able to see me to know I’m always here for you”.
But Australia it was good to see you and while some things have ultimately changed….as they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same and when it’s eventually time to return to my homeland, I know there’s a lot to look forward to.
Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband.
Mum to hyped up blondie Ava, Nicole has swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag but is still enjoying the best of both worlds, freelancing as a Journalist, Presenter, Master of Ceremonies and Media Trainer.
Read more of Nicole's Expat Focus articles here.