Dr. Beth: The Reality of Repatriation

Spring is upon us, which means that suddenly Shanghai is filled with flowers, the sunshine, and repatriation.    

It’s impossible to avoid or ignore repatriation this time of year. For the years we spend in Shanghai, the repatriation of others is a constant reality. We face skeletal social schedules, inexperienced co-workers, and personal loss as our friends and colleagues leave. And then one day, it is our turn, and repatriation becomes a mess of paperwork, packing, and goodbyes. We must leave the life we have built in Shanghai, which has come to feel more like home than anywhere else in the world. It’s quite impossible to be completely prepared.

As a psychologist, I talk with people regularly about their concerns for themselves and their families as they repatriate. The concerns that people have are diverse, and there is certain practical advice that all individuals repatriating receive regularly. However, I wanted to be able to offer more insight that isn’t always so forthcoming. So I reached out to a group of women who had repatriated from Shanghai in recent years, and asked the question: What surprised you about your repatriation? Women shared stories and offered advice, which I’ll summarize here.

We are all warned that “things will be different when you get back.” And we know this. Children grow, people die, friendships shift. The life you left years prior simply does not exist. You will have changed dramatically as well. Common advice is to prepare yourself for the things that you know have changed before returning. That way, you are better able to address them when faced with these changes head-on. However, this advice is incomplete. A better option is to return home with an attitude of acceptance that everything will have changed. Attempting to predict the aspects of our former life that will still exist and those that will not can be exhausting and disheartening. Women noted that things like traffic laws and public school systems had undergone changes while they were gone, leading to some frustrating circumstances. If we repatriate with an appreciation of the fact that nothing will be how we left it, that reality will be easier to face.

Prepare yourself to miss the things you never thought you would love about Shanghai. When first making the choice to move here, there were likely certain aspects of this life that you were told would be amazing: close proximity to amazing travel destinations, opportunities to meet new people from across the world, the wondrous concept of an “ayi”. However, there are other things that we come to appreciate only after living here.  One woman I talked to misses the bike culture in Shanghai, which they never expected to find. Numerous others miss the friendly attitude of the expat community. Personally, before moving here, I didn’t think about how nice it would be to not have to de-ice a car until I saw my friends complaining about it back in Michigan. While you may have always been preparing ourselves to return to a life without an Ayi, we may not have had that same forethought it came to life before Sherpas. Consider how to adjust to those losses as well.

If there is one thing to be said for life in Shanghai, it is that it is easy to stay busy. There are countless restaurants to try, fantastic shows to see, diverse clubs to join. and endless people to meet. The idea of leaving all of this excitement can be difficult to cope with when considering a move anywhere else in the world. I was told by women in different cities across the U.S. that compared to Shanghai, their current city is just “boring.” Therefore, it is important to take steps to ensure that you will not become isolated or feel dispirited when you arrive home. It is easy to delay prioritizing your own happiness. Planning social outings, choosing clubs to join or finding shows to see might seem frivolous as you are organizing your repatriation. We may find ourselves thinking “there is so much to do here, I will figure that out when we get back.” However, there is so much waiting to be done on the other side of repatriation as well. Establish some things to look forward to before getting on the plane, and it will make getting off it that much easier.

Repatriation is a different experience for everyone. There is no guaranteed way to make go smoothly and easily. However, by listening to some seasoned veterans and being honest with yourself about the challenges ahead, you’ll make it through in the best way possible.

Dr. Beth Rutkowski is the Lead Psychologist at Olivia’s Place in Shanghai. If you have questions or concerns about your mental health or that of loved ones, you are welcome to contact her directly at ber@lih-oliviasplace.com or the Olivias Place team at (8621) 5404-0058.

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