Expat Exodus

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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.”

One thought on “Expat Exodus

  1. This is beautiful, Gwen. I can’t wait to have you back on the same continent with only three hours calling time difference, but I too am sad that you are leaving HK. It has been so good for J, Z, & E especially . You have such a wonderful network of friends, and you personally have made so many contributions to the Ex-Pat life there. I continue to be so proud of all you have accomplished and will continue to do as a person, wife, mom, daughter, friend. You are amazing and truly one of the greatest blessings of my life. I love you.

    Sent from my iPhone

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