As an expat who has lived in China for several years, it’s safe to say that I’ve learned a thing or two about adapting to a new culture. Living in a foreign country is a unique opportunity that can be hard to put into words. It’s a bit like a rollercoaster ride. Some days, it’s exhilarating and you don’t want the ride to stop. Other days, you’re ready for it to end and never get back on. However, you can’t just “get off the ride” and book a plane ticket back home when you’re having a bad day. I mean you could, but it would be really expensive. I wouldn’t advise it.
If you are currently living overseas or thinking about moving there soon, this post is for you. Hopefully, it will put into words some of the things you wish you could express to your family and friends. And dear family and friends who have loved ones living overseas, this post is for you, too. I hope this can give you a little glimpse of what your beloved one would like you to know as they live cross-culturally for a season. So buckle up and get ready to experience a little bit of China from wherever you might be reading this today!
Let’s start with food. Food is always a good place to begin. Your loved one overseas might have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the local food. Here’s what you need to know: Chinese food is awesome. It just is. Chinese food has quite a bit of variety, so you can eat something pretty great every day. That doesn’t mean it never gets old. I have what I call a “rice threshold”. I basically hit a point every week when I’ve had my fill of rice, and the desire for Mexican food or sandwiches becomes stronger. At this point, I am craving a taste of home.
A great tip for any friends or family reading this: If you’re talking to your loved one, and he or she is telling you that they are needing some good ole’ Tex-Mex, it’s not the time to say how delicious the enchiladas were at your favorite restaurant last night. If there’s silence on the other end of the phone, it might be because they silently wish you didn’t have access to your favorite foods. Or maybe they are just so happy for you that they’ve been moved to tears of silent joy. While your loved one enjoys eating Chinese food every meal, it’s a normal thing to not want to hear about all of the delicious food that they left behind. And when they come home for a visit, please don’t suggest to eat at a Chinese buffet with them. I promise they don’t miss the food that much, and it’s not really legitimate Chinese food. Instead, while they are living overseas, ask them if they’ve tried any interesting foods or ask what Chinese food is really like. What are his favorites? What is her go-to meal? When they are getting ready to come home, let them choose where to eat as you catch up on their travels! They’ll appreciate this more than you know. Just some food for thought.
Let’s move on to language learning. Your loved one probably has a love-hate relationship with this too! Obviously, it’s the reason they are here in China, but that doesn’t mean they are always loving it. It’s exhausting to study in class and then go out and try to use what you just learned, making small and large mistakes along the way. One day I was trying to say, “I like to eat strawberries.” Instead, I said, “I like to eat America!” You know you’re homesick when you accidentally say you want to eat your home country.
While you’re your loved one is telling you how hard the language is, it might not be the best tactic to say, “Yeah! I totally understand. I felt the same way when I was learning Spanish, but then I became fluent within a few months of studying.” That’s truly an amazing experience. Still, you may want to keep it to yourself and remember that Chinese is infamously one of the hardest languages to learn. Be a listening ear as they tell you what they’ve learned and how they’re struggling. Encourage them to remember why they are in Xi’an and challenge them to keep going! A word of encouragement goes a long way!
That brings us to the topic of communication. Depending on how both of you proceed, communicating across time zones can either be one of the most meaningful things you do or one of the hardest. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important, so listen in.
Though both of you care about the other, it’s easy to fall into an “out of sight out of mind” mindset after a while. You can’t jump in the car to go hang out. Not to mention your WiFi keeps breaking up your call every two minutes. My best advice is to keep reaching out to each other consistently. If your loved one is living overseas, you may need to fight the belief that you’ll bug them if you text, call or email them. If you are the one overseas, you might need to fight the lie that no one cares and everyone has forgotten you. Neither is correct. Yes, people overseas have a full schedule; and yes, people at home have stayed busy with daily life. Keep scheduling those phone calls and sending those texts. Let the other know you’re thinking about them and that you hope they are having a great day. Whether you live eight miles down the street or 8,000 miles across the sea, consistent small gestures over time make a difference in not only maintaining your relationship but also growing it.
I want to leave you with a few last thoughts when it comes to homecomings. The transition can be tricky, with the potential to leave both sides with unmet expectations and disappointment, but it doesn’t have to be! If you are eagerly awaiting the arrival of your loved one, the important thing to remember is being intentional in what you say. I know you mean well—and they probably do, too—but it can relieve a lot of tension if you skip certain comments and questions. Don’t be too worried! There’s no need to feel like you have to walk on thin ice as you welcome your loved one home. Just be aware of their heightened emotions during the transition back home. Knowing a few different dos and don’ts can make this a joyful time. Here are three examples of what not to say and why:
1. “I bet you’re SO glad to be back home!”
While this is a normal thing to say and they are thankful to be home, the situation is a little more complicated for the person who just arrived home. They just had to uproot their life again and are now in the middle of a pretty big transition. They left a place and a people they have come to love during their time overseas. So, while they are so happy to see you again, they are also grieving leaving their life in China and missing everything and everyone still there. Also, remember their feelings at the moment are probably really hard to express.
2. “How was your trip?” or “How was China?”
The first is my personal favorite, and it’s guaranteed to make your loved one cringe when they hear it. Again, I know it’s not meant to be offensive, but they weren’t on a trip. When you pack your bags to move overseas, whether it’s for two months or two years, it is not a trip or vacation. The experience is very much real life, with real-life complexities. And if you ask them “How was China?” they might just stare at you and wonder how in the world to answer that broad of a question within three sentences before moving onto the next topic. Again, just be aware of how you word your questions. That will make all the difference!
3. “Now you can get back to the real world and start living your life!”
Dear friend, please just don’t say this. I know it’s hard to understand, but they were living in the real world and living their real lives. They were just doing so in a unique way on the other side of the world. Yes, they will probably be going back to school or getting a new job in their home country, but it doesn’t discount the life they just left behind.
So, now that I’ve made you afraid to ask any questions upon your loved one’s arrival home, what can you do instead? If you’ve read this far, I know you really care, and I really want to help you out by giving you one rule to follow: Ask good, specific questions and then listen. The more specific the question, the less overwhelming it is for your loved one to answer. They will love you for it and you might learn some interesting things about the culture they love! Here are some simple questions to ask in place of the ones mentioned above:
“I bet it feels a little bittersweet to be back home. What is something you’ll miss the most about the country you just lived in?”
“I’m really interested to know more about your time in Xi’an. What was the name of one of your friends? What is something y’all liked to do for fun together?” or “Tell me about one of your friends. What was their personality like?”
“I bet there were a lot of interesting places to go sightseeing! Can you tell me about one of your favorite places you visited?”
“What was one of your favorite parts of learning the language? Can you teach me how to say a simple, daily life phrase?”
Again, the best advice I can give is to ask simple and specific questions. You know, kind of like when you meet up with friends for lunch and you ask them about a specific part of their lives. Apply the same principle when asking about experiences they had while living in China. It’s really that simple!
One last thing for those of you returning home from China: It’s going to be okay! You are going to feel different and feel like you don’t exactly fit in back home anymore. Just let yourself identify and experience those complicated emotions as they come. Being simultaneously happy about being home and sad about leaving the place that has become a second home to you is okay. It’s an adjustment process. You have grown as a person, and you will keep growing. This is just part of the journey. Be patient with yourself and give grace to others. Allow yourself to keep processing your thoughts and emotions about re-entering life in your home country, share stories with friends and family members who are interested to hear them, and be thankful for how your time in China has shaped who you are and who you will be in the future!
There are a million other helpful things I wish I could impart to you, but sometimes it’s just best to start small and focus on a few. Being thoughtful and aware can really go a long way in caring for the people we love—especially when those relationships are being lived out in very different places.
To my friends living overseas, you are doing great navigating a new language and culture! Add in an extra dose of kindness and understanding for those who haven’t had the same experiences. To the family and friends back home, thank you for loving them and letting them have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study a new language and culture so far away from home! Add in an extra dose of kindness and understanding for those living in a foreign country when it’s hard to know what their daily life is really like. If you really want to take it a step further, book that plane ticket and go visit them!
You all are on this journey together and can learn a lot from each other if you are willing. Embrace it and enjoy the ride!