Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving and the weekend

Thanksgiving and Black Friday 

My last Thanksgiving in the US was in 1999. Thanksgiving, to me, is the quintessential American holiday – more so than the 4th of July. Christmas and Easter are global; the 4th just doesn’t have as much holiday tradition nor is it anchored to one day of the week like “Turkey Day”. In my mind, Thanksgiving weekend demonstrates some of the best (and maybe some of the dark side) of American life. 

What does this have to do with repatriation? Moving back to the US the week of Thanksgiving gave me a good opportunity to see how I related to this special American holiday. I was happily surprised – the holiday seemed totally normal even though I had missed a decade plus. 

Since we are living in a hotel until our shipment from China arrives, it was nice to be able to spend the holidays with relatives living nearby. Our daughters flew to NC from their respective colleges on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

We started Thanksgiving by running an 8 kilometer Turkey Trot, and then had the traditional Thanksgiving meal. All the carbs combined with lingering jet lag and I was sleeping by 7PM. That was probably a good thing as I did something I have never done – get up at 3:30am on Friday to go with everyone to the “Black Friday” sales. I doubt I will do it again but standing in line for Target’s 4am opening, Best Buy’s 5am opening and Macy’s 6am opening was interesting. Not being much of a shopper, I focused on people – why they were there. Quite a cross section – the classic bargain hunters, the curious, and kid’s just wanting something to do – late for them rather than early as it was for me. 

Two things struck me – the increasing diversity in NC since we left and the change in technology – more than half the people in line were checking bargains on their phones, texting, etc. Around me, I heard Spanish but also Chinese and other languages which would have been much less likely in 1999. 

The options in electronics are mind boggling vs. 1999. I felt a little like a technological Rip Van Winkle. We were not Luddites in Asia but we lived in places where the flat screens and satellites were provided for us. We did not have to buy them or set then up. Now as we are getting ready to furnish a house, we have to learn a new language as it relates to plasma, pixels, etc.

We returned to Charlotte from Cary Friday afternoon and went to our favorite Japanese restaurant for dinner. After sashimi and sushi, we went to a local supermarket in search of pumpkin pie. Maybe this repatriation thing won’t be so hard after all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Third culture adults

Nov 23 2010

As parents of ex-pat kids, my wife and I had the concept that we were raising "third culture kids" explained to us many times - by the international school staff, long term expats and any number of  "experts" in the business of living overseas. The concept is that the longer they live away, your child is not really "at home" in your native culture nor are they "at home" in the culture in which you are living in. They are really living in a mixed or hybrid culture hence the name "third culture kids". This is not really good or bad but for long time ex-pat kids, it can complicate their return to the home country.

Our younger daughter, Cailin saw her first football movie ("Friday Night Lights") after we had lived overseas about four years. Technically, she saw the movie in the US - we were in Guam on vacation. Cailin had never been to a football game. After the movie she said: "football is a lot like rugby" her frame of reference being much different than a child growing up in the US. Cailin did not see her first football game live until this year - her freshman year at the University of Southern California.
"Football is a lot like Rugby" said my younger daughter
I visited her in LA a few weeks into her freshman year. I was a little surprised when she commented that the "local English" was different from the English spoken at the International school in Shanghai.

Fortunately she is adapting quickly to her "new world". She did not feel that she was coming "home" to the US when she left Shanghai in August. Asia is "home" to Cailin.

It is a well accepted that kids are greatly impacted culturally by extended time overseas. Certainly this is not an earth shattering concept - it seems quite natural. What is not appreciated is that adults can become "third culture adults" if they live overseas for an extended period. Ex-pat literature talks about the "repatriation issues" of long term adult ex-pats" but tends not to attribute the difficulty to the third culture phenomena. Rather experts talk about being "forgotten" by the home office, the lower standard of living when ex-pat perks go away, etc.

Update from November, 2014 Actually, for the most part, I liked being "forgotten" by the home office and focusing on the business in Asia which is probably why I don't work for the same company now but that is another story.

My experience was that after being overseas for about four years, I related much more to Asia than the US. I did not try to become "Japanese" or "Chinese" but I tended to interact more with locals than ex-pats especially in Japan. I was sneered at by many Americans when they would see me out by the "artificial river" where we lived socializing with local residents in Japanese rather than drinking beer with a cluster of of ex-pats on the "other side" of the uniquely Japanese ersatz river.

Rokko Island Japan - a "fake" river runs through it
After living outside the US for over a decade when I was told I would be moving back, it was a very unattractive thought. I felt that I didn't want to leave "home" for the US. Last week as I entered my last few days as a resident of China, I had a very uneasy feeling about my return. I didn't feel like I was going home. I felt like I was going to a new country where I was fortunate enough to be completely fluent in the language. As I get ready to celebrate my first Thanksgiving since 1999, I am interested to see if I feel "at home" or not. Fortunately, it feels good to be back in the US and I hope to feel "at home" soon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

first full day - Nov 21

Nov 21, 2010

Likely this blog thing will be a short term interest but since I am up in the middle of the night with jet lag - why not? Not sure why anyone other than my family would be interested in the  my thoughts but then again people watch "the housewives of XXXX" so who knows?

Athough during my decade plus overseas, I came back to the US more than 70 times on business trips - moving back is quite a different kettle of fish. Over the years I began to feel about America the way I always felt about NY - "great place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there"

Sunday was my first full day in the US as a "resident" since Bill Clinton was president. Until we close on our house south of the city, we are calling a hotel in the South Park area home. Charlotte is a beautiful city and the late fall weather is great. What's not to like? My run was very familiar - I always stayed in this area on business trips so I feel very comfortable. The thing that strikes me as I go through the day is how clean, pretty and quiet Charlotte is compared to the wild west feeling of Shanghai and how, in this area of town, almost everyone is white and dresses the same. I am used to being the only white person in the room much of the time and the only native speaker of English. In China, I am used to using very basic English much of the time to be understood or struggling to communicate in the local language.

Church was very different  here compared to China (yes, we went to a Catholic church in "communist" China). Foreigner's can worship in the big cities in China, locals need to go "underground". In Shanghai, the English mass is probably attended by people from 40 to 50 countries from all continents. Our priests were Chinese and Australian. In the upscale part of Charlotte, I saw 99% white and got the feeling I was looking at a video from an "yuppy clothing catalog" - not bad but not something familiar to me.

After a jet lag induced nap (better to skip the trouncing our local NFL team took), we went to a huge upscale grocery store to stock the kitchenette in our two room suite. I have to say shopping is a joy at this monster store. We bought staples and take out sushi/edamame to have for dinner. They even have ginger root so I can make ginger "tea" here. Even when we shopped at the major foreign stores in Shanghai, local law required the English label be covered over with Chinese label that was almost always impossible to remove without destroying the English label. I never understood why the government felt it was necessary to slap Chinese label on goods being purchased 98% of the time by people that couldn't read Chinese OR why thy couldn't put the Chinese label somewhere else on the box so both could be read. After a few years in Asia we had learned to make do rather than to question each affront to common sense.

As we checked out, I was surprised that our store VIP card (it was the flagship store from a chain we used to patronize in the 1990s). The card still works, 15 years after it was issued. Kind of like we never left......

Anyway, as we ate sushi and humus in between trips to the coin laundry down the hall, the day was a mix of the comfortingly familiar and the "just slightly off". I watched more football on Sunday than I have in the past five years. I went to bed pleased to see the Eagles beat the Giants. As a lover of dogs, I was incensed at the Michael Vick situation but if one thing is "American" it is a redemption story. I am rooting for Michael Vick. He has given me a reason to do another thing that used to be normal - watch football. I want to believe he has changed and learned his lesson. What does Michael Vick have to do with our repatriation? A lot, the Asian cultures are much less likely to "buy-in" to a redemption story. More evidence that despite feeling odd at being back here, I am American and will be fine.......

Leaving Shanghai - Nov 19 2010

Nov 19th,  2010
The “three year” assignment I accepted back in 1999, ended today. After more than a decade and with too many interesting experiences to number, I fly back to the US tonight. The morning began very early - golf with a colleague, followed by packing at the hotel and lunch with my team at a Sichuan restaurant. Back to the office in the early afternoon to watch the mover’s pack up my office which was well endowed with various memorabilia and gifts from customers and new friends that symbolized life and travel in Asia – calligraphy that I still cannot fully read but expresses concepts that I understand, a thanka from Tibet (a gift from Connie who went back and bought it for me after I could not get the price I wanted from the shopkeeper in Lhasa  - a great example of the gift of a wife who understood that leaving the trip of a lifetime to Tibet without something to remember it by was a mistake her husband should not be making), various bottles of Japanese sake and Chinese alcohol that comes in nice display boxes but is not to my liking as a beverage – symbols of friendship. Various commemorative coin sets from the Beijing Olympics, Shanghai World Expo, and plant dedications – symbols of the rise of China that we were fortunate to experience first-hand. 

One by one, I spoke with each person in my office – people that I hired over the last five years in Shanghai. Each person special to me, uniquely different – it was a very tough hour. We were not saying “goodbye” we were saying “see you soon”. The group knew what I was feeling having seen me get choked up for the first time ever at the dinner during the goodbye weekend they carefully planned for Connie and me. I knew the hollowness I felt in my heart was a symbol of success – I told each person when I hired them that they were joining a family more than a company or at least that was the goal. Not the stuff found in corporate HR manuals but an aspiration I set for our office. Largely we succeeded.

Feeling like a lost child, I handed my office key to my assistant - said “see you in January” and rushed to the elevator bank determined to make a tearless exit. As I left the building I was confronted again by what I knew would be the hardest challenge – saying goodbye to my friend, adopted little brother and driver – Phillip. I knew I had a few more hours before the actual final goodbye. My flight was not until almost midnight – I still had time to meet a Japanese friend for dinner. In an experience typical of ex-pat life, a Japanese and an American decided to have sushi in Shanghai before I went to the airport to fly home through Munich on a German airline. We met my friend and after a drink at the hotel drove to the restaurant. Philip, as usual, joined the conversation. We spoke in English, Japanese and Chinese – Phillip proudly using the Japanese I had taught him to make a new friend. We went to a small sushi place and had a great dinner but the hardest part of the day was about to begin.

The hour ride to the airport was two old friends talking. I asked Phillip to tell me his memories of the five years. When we met Phillip could speak very limited English. Connie, Erin, Cailin and I (along with countless DVDs) were his English teachers.

Philip had no trouble filling the hour. A skillful raconteur, he held forth, only hesitating to ask if I remembered each example or incident. His love for our family was clear – the kindness and respect he received from “laoban” (Connie), his sadness when Erin cried in the car after a basketball loss, the night he followed Cailin and her boyfriend from afar as they walked the Bund at 2am after a big dance. He was worried that maybe “a short guy from Xinjiang” would try to pick their pockets or harm them but he was very sensitive to Cailin not thinking he was treating her like a child. I was never clear about some of Phillip’s prejudices – in his mind almost all crimes in Shanghai are committed by “short people” from the far western province. The highest compliment came when he said that watching our family taught him to treat his wife differently – less dominant. He was always surprised that I was the boss at the office but had no trouble letting Connie make decisions without “asking for permission”. I explained this as normal in America. Philip and I nicknamed Connie laoban (“boss”) after he worked for us about six months.

 Phillip and his wife wanted to have children but were unable. In his heart, he adopted Erin and Cailin. He often said that our dog Yuki was the “luckiest dog in China” born on the street in Shanghai and then being adopted by a family that gave her air con 24/7 and a maid. When Philip spent a couple days trying to find a pet container for Yuki’s flight to the US, he referred to it as Yuki’s “business” seat.

As we pulled in front of the airport, I got my first real words of the hour in – I thanked Phillip for five years of friendship, great service, and a local perspective on the good and bad of his country. My parting words were that the friendship would remain even if he decided to leave our company when his driving assignment became more “normal” as an office driver rather than a family driver. I walked away knowing that our family had changed Phillip’s life and that he had an equal impact on us. 

I called Connie from the lounge and put my “travel face” on. Two, more than ten hour flights and a five hour layover would give me plenty of time to process the events of the past few weeks.

Nov 20th

I landed in Charlotte and went to customs with a landing card that said “US resident” – it felt strange since the last time that happened was almost 11 years ago.