Expat Exodus

IMG_0809

Tuesday’s SCMP article is not yet on-line, but here’s a photo and a longer version of the text below:

Tuition for many international schools was due at the end of March, so by early April, word began to spread quickly among the expatriate community about who will be leaving Hong Kong this summer.

The emotional perils of June for expats is well documented. This is the month when groups of friends gather repeatedly to say farewell. Those who remain feel abandoned and claim that it is much worse to be left than to leave. After eight years as an expat, I am all too familiar with this feeling. I bid adieu to upwards of twenty families every June. These were people who touched our lives, to whom we felt close connections and with whom we shared meaningful experiences. Farewells can take an emotional and sometimes even a physical toll.

But what if it’s your turn to leave this year? Leaving gracefully is an art, but there’s a whole lot of work that goes into making it happen. As soon as the decision to move is made the list of tasks grows a mile long, and emotions start to flare. While it’s essential to get things done, it’s also critical to take the time to express gratitude and to celebrate the time spent in Hong Kong and especially the friendships you’ve made along the way. Taking this time is even more important to help your children transition gracefully.

One of the benefits of having said goodbye to so many wonderful friends over the years is that now I know people around the globe who have the benefit of hindsight having successfully orchestrated an international move for their families. I recently polled several of them to gain insight and advice. If you are leaving, these tips may help smooth your way. If your bidding farewell to friends this year, here are some suggestions that will be truly meaningful.

Photographs of all sorts are by far everyone’s favorite gift and memento to help with the transition. Take lots of photos! One friend recommended using a Polaroid instant camera to take photos at a going away party and paste them immediately into a book with messages from the friends at the party.

Many of the schools make framed photos or picture scrapbooks for each of the departing kids. Most tell me that their kids regularly look at these long after they have settled in their new home. My teenager still has a collage hanging in his room that was made for him by his friend when we left London six years ago.

Celebrations are important for children too. Pool, beach and club parties are popular, as well as more elaborate foot massages, simulated driving, and tram parties. A must in planning a party is to be inclusive. Design a party that is simple and fun, and focused on the children playing together and not the activity. This is not the time to hire an entertainer or organize a craft.

Loosen the rules before you go. Let bedtime lapse a little, indulge the sleepover requests and always say yes to the play date offer. Be easy on them and yourself. Make sure there’s ample unstructured time to spend time with special friends, especially as the departure date nears.

As a family there are things you can do to prepare too. Make your family “bucket list” of things you want to do in Hong Kong and document your adventures along the way. Consider printing family calling cards with your new contact information that kids can hand out to friends. List the great things about Hong Kong and the new place.

Gratitude is a central element of leaving well. Don’t forget to say thank you to the people who have been a big part of your life. Try to think ahead, because when it gets busy toward the end, expressing gratitude is the first thing to go.

The key factor in the success of the move, however, is not the parties or memory books, but your attitude as the parent. You must focus on the positive, especially if one spouse is less excited, and get on board with the plan.

Most people think it’s harder for kids than adults to transition, but judging from the responses, it’s the parents who seem to have the most difficult time. One mom who left last year said, “Stay upbeat even though you are stressed and crying on the inside. Kids take their cue from you.” Another friend advised, “Hike, drink the rose, hug the friends, let the movers pack, don’t think about your possessions.”

While few good resources seem to exist to help children transition “home” or to a new country, here are a few to consider. For the youngest children, A Kiss Goodbye, by Audrey Penn follows Chester Raccoon’s process of saying goodbye. Alexander, Who is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst uses humor and hyperbole to express the range of feelings that are typical with a family move. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi is about a girl who tries on many names in her new school before settling on the one she likes the best; her own. Moving Day, by Ralph Fletcher, is a delightful collection of insights about moving for all ages.

One silver lining story, for teenagers especially, comes from my friend who said the best thing she did was encourage her kids to get on social media. “That’s the best (and only) way to keep in touch. Now they have a constant flow of news and photos from Hong Kong as a result.” If nothing else, technology might be your fillip to bring an ambivalent teen on board with the move. And, if all else fails, you can try the age-old advice given by my dear friend who slyly told me, “We just promised them a puppy.”

Modern Family Easter

I hate Easter.  Wait.  Before you judge, it’s not the message I hate, but my total epic parenting fail each year as I attempt to create a meaningful experience for my non-church-going family and instead end up disappointed with myself and angry at all of them.   This year was the most ridiculous yet.   When my teenage son accused me of channeling my inner-Claire and labeled it the “Modern Family Easter” I had to admit he was right.

Easter was my favorite holiday when I was a kid.   The few years dad and I were on our own were lean.  A private school music teacher didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we were happy and I didn’t really know how poor we were.  My clothes and our furniture came mostly from hand-me-downs and the Encore Shoppe on Route 1 in Kennett Square.  I loved combing the thrift store to find treasures for less than a dollar, and putting together funky outfits. It was the ’70’s, so thrift store chic wasn’t so far off the mark.

But Easter was different.  Every Easter I got to pick out a brand new outfit.  Dad would take me to Sears or J.C. Penny’s and I could pick out a dress and shoes.  The night before Easter felt like Christmas Eve.  I couldn’t sleep in anticipation.  Easter morning I awoke to a lovely Easter basket (much bigger once my dad married my wonderful stepmother).  My stepmother headed to Church, but dad and I went to our Quaker Meeting.  After the close of meeting, the children handed out pansy plants to each member to take home and plant in the garden, heralding the approach of spring.  Fourth grade members of the First Day School  received their very own monogrammed bible, and 7th graders got a copy of Faith & Practice.  Dad would often play a few songs on the piano then the whole meeting would retire out to the yard to watch the Easter egg hunt and sip lemonade.  I loved hunting for eggs among the gravestones and later cut my teeth in leadership roles by organizing the hunt for the younger kids myself.  After meeting (and a few years later) we went to Easter lunch at Grandma Skip’s place.  She would make a feast and use the fancy china.  Our Easter had the perfect combination of religious piety, community, childhood indulgence, family, beautiful food and seasonal reverence.  It was perfect.

Fast forward a few decades and a few countries and our family hasn’t been able to settle into a Sunday church routine despite more efforts than I can count.  In lieu of church we usually resort to hiking, the farmer’s market, brunch, or a solitary run for me while the others sleep in.  I have resigned myself to the state, but on Easter and Christmas, I really suffer the lack of tradition and religious community.

Last week I saw a sign at the school that advertised a beachside sunrise Easter service at 6:30 am.  I reasoned that we could get up and out, join a casual outdoor service and check the box on worship before we were really awake – thereby appeasing my restless yearnings – then get on with the day.  I prepped everyone that this was the plan the night before and they grumbled, but didn’t refuse.  When the alarm went off at 5:30 Easter morning, all but the youngest protested.  My husband, already begrudgingly up and showered, didn’t appreciate my last minute attempted acquiescence and I think I might have said something about not being his mother (apologies to his mother!) when he asked if he had a choice about going.  The teenager was the hardest to rouse, but I was on a mission.  Un-showered and with headphones firmly ensconced in both ears, he shuffled to the car with a “what the hell” thrown in for good measure.

I parked at the wrong end of the beach, so we took off our shoes and skirted the surf to the other side.  Arriving after the service had begun we found about two dozen people happily singing along to the guitar as the children ran around.  All the park benches were accounted for, so we sat on the ground.  The nice minister was enthusiastic and happy, declaring over and over, with a sportsman-like whoop, that “Jesus has risen!  Yea!”  “Woo-hoo!”  Communion emerged from a screw cap roadie and a ziploc baggie and was awkwardly decanted into more fitting vessels.  My youngest, accustomed to receiving communion in other churches, was bummed when he was passed over in lieu of a blessing and asked loudly if he and I could split the host I was offered.  I don’t think the teen took the ipod out of his ear the whole time as he sat propped against the beachside trash can.  The minister was afraid to approach him for a blessing and so air blessed him from three feet away.

As the group sang an impossibly falsetto contemporary Christian song we didn’t know, an elderly Speedo-clad Chinese man wandered through the group, stretching his arms and clapping to the tune.  Surprisingly he didn’t really look out of place in that setting, but picturing my husband showing up to that service in a similar outfit made me chuckle.  Just as the service ended and the minister offered his carton of OJ and paper cups to stick around and get to know everyone, a completely naked female swimmer emerged from the sea and strode up the beach, entirely unburdened by her public nakedness.  Watching the churchgoing men try to avert their eyes over OJ was hilarious.

We headed home.  I took the younger two for brunch and a swim while my husband and teenager went back to bed.  Later, my son’s lingering cold wasn’t improving, so we headed to the hospital for a check and everyone else puttered for the rest of the afternoon.

The day would have been a total write-off were it not for a dear friend who knows how to celebrate holidays and every day with style, kindness and fun.  She invited us for Easter dinner and it was as perfect as could be.  An egg hunt for the kids, beautiful flowers, hand-blown eggs painted with chalkboard paint for our place cards at the table, beautiful food, drinks, friends and individual bunny cakes for dessert.  We told the story of our morning, and somehow telling it made me laugh and let it go.  Maybe some year I’ll be able to make my kids feel as excited about Easter as I was when I was a child. Until then, I will feel grateful for the blessings of friends who can do what I cannot and try not to take it all too seriously.

Reflecting later, I realized that my son’s Modern Family moniker for our day really was astute, as even though Claire and Phil and their family can be ridiculous, neurotic, silly and selfish, the one message that rings true in each episode is that family comes first, no matter what happens.

IMG_0606 IMG_0613 IMG_0628 IMG_0629