How to do cross-cultural transitions right: Build a “RAFT”

Moving cross-culturally is a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is easy. You leave behind siblings, nephews and nieces, parents and grandparents, and friends, plus places and things infused with memories and meaning, like the house where you grew up and park where you proposed.

We did that once, the first time we moved to Asia. After three years we returned to Canada to have our first child, and then we did it again. After another two years in China we returned to Canada a second time for the birth of our second child. And now we’re back in China for the third time.

The return trips to China after each birth were harder than the first time we left. Taking your children away from their grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, Sunday school friends (never mind all the grass and trees and oceans and lakes and air) hurts.

You realize more what you’re doing when you’re also doing it to your kid.

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There’re others you leave behind, too: coworkers, people you don’t like, people you have a grudge against. And there’s the nasty bonus surprise: returning to your culture of origin (like our friend Rob) after a long time away is often harder than leaving your original home ever was in the first place. Not only are you leaving behind so many friends and places and memories, but “home” has changed since you left, and so have you, and it won’t feel the same. Much of the familiarity you’re expectantly anticipating never materializes. But this post isn’t about entry or re-entry; it’s about leaving.

Regardless of which direction you’re going, the experience of leaving so much behind is huge whether you take the time to acknowledge it or not. And how you leave it can have a big impact on you personal development, on the kind of people you and your lover and your kids are becoming. This experience impacts all of you, and some ways of intentionally navigating the experience are healthier than others.

We received some great advice about how to do cross-cultural transitions before our most recent move back to China, advice we tried out a little bit in the months before we left, and we think it’s worth sharing. I wish we’d put more of it into practice than we did. It’s called “building a R.A.F.T.” and comes from chapter 13 of Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (pages 200-204 in our 2001 edition). Below is my summary/paraphrase/riff of what they wrote.

Building a R.A.F.T.

tckcover How to do cross cultural transitions right: Build a RAFTYou’ll see quickly that this process takes some forethought and planning ahead; put it off ’til the last two weeks and you’ll likely not have enough opportunities. You’ll also notice that it’s something for every family member to do, not just the adults.

Closure matters. Festering bitterness matters. Making peace matters. Emotional baggage matters. Guilt and regrets matter. Forgiving and being forgiven matter, and that’s what reconciliation is all about. Reconciliation means growing up. It means attempting to communicate hurts and forgiveness, and initiate apologies.

A cross-cultural move presents a tempting cop-out: to run away and ignore strained or broken relationships. But refusing to resolve interpersonal conflicts sabotages healthy closure, and this lack of reconciliation sabotages the rest of your “RAFT” — the rest of your transition and entry/re-entry experience. You can’t really move away from these kinds of difficulties anyway; you’ll carry the emotional baggage of unresolved problems with you. Bitterness is unhealthy, unresolved relational issues can interfere with new relationships, and if/when you eventually move back, those problems will still be there, and they’ll be even harder to resolve.

A cross-cultural move also provides a great excuse, if you need one, for attempting to make peace: “Hey, I’m leaving for China for who knows how long, and I don’t want to leave a mess between us…” or however you need to do it.

You can’t always achieve reconciliation, of course, because it takes two willing parties. But you can always attempt it, and at least own up to the part of the relationship you’re responsible for. In our recent personal experience we found that the attempt is worth it whether the other side engages or not.

Think through your list of friends, coworkers, supervisors, neighbours, classmates. Do more than just say goodbye. Affirm people; let them know you respect and appreciate them, acknowledge that they matter. This is good for them and for you: it strengthens your relationships into the future and makes you more aware of what you’ve gained from living in the place you’re leaving. Pollock and Van Reken illustrate with some examples:

  • Make time to tell coworkers that you enjoyed working with them.
  • Tell friends how their friendship has been important, and maybe leave them some sort of memento.
  • Send a note and small gift to neighbours, mentioning positive things about your interactions with them.
  • Reassure those close to you of your love for them and that you don’t leave them lightly. Order flowers for the day after you leave.

Affirmation helps with closure by acknowledging the blessings you have in the form of relationships, and mourning their passing.

Making farewells to people, places, and possessions helps avoid deep regrets later. Schedule ahead so that you won’t end up missing anyone or anywhere or any thing that was in any way significant, and make a real ‘official’ farewell to each. It’s a time to acknowledge all the positive things and feelings, and acknowledge that it’s sad to leave each person and thing behind.

People - this is crucial, even more so for children, who will need guidance. You want to say and do something, make some sort of gesture like baking cookies or writing a note, that acknowledges the importance of that person to you, expresses thanks, and lets them know they will be missed.

Some sort of “rite of passage” ritual often accompanies major life transitions like graduation or retirement parties. Taking the time to do something similar in spirit creates a significant memory acknowledging the importance of a person or place, and helps face and process the fact that you’re leaving them.

Places - Visit emotionally significant sites to reminisce and say goodbye. Everything from the tree you loved climbing to the park where you got engaged. Some people plant a tree, or hide some little treasure that they could dig up later if they ever return. The point is to openly acknowledge the time as a true goodbye, admitting that the stage of life these places represent will soon be in the past.

Possessions - You have to leave a lot of stuff behind in international moves. Certainly, adults and kids have to learn about letting go, and we all have too much stuff anyway, but everyone should talk over what to take and what to leave behind. It’s also important to deliberately choose and take what become “sacred objects”, a slowly growing collection of physical objects that connect the different places and stages of your life. When important objects must be left behind, try giving them as gifts to a friend and taking photographs. Jessica and I have a Christmas tree ornament (or something we use as one) from most of the significant places in our life together. Every year we can remember.

In addition to all her teachers and ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, we had our three-year-old say good-bye to her classrooms, playground, the lake where she swam all summer, places we visited regularly, her bedrooms, toys she was leaving behind, parks we often walked in, and a bunch of other stuff. And we took pictures of it all. This gave us plenty of opportunity to verbalize what was happening then and later after we’d returned to China. It helped all of us put words to the experience and mourn all that we were losing in a healthy way.

Think Destination
During the goodbye process, start shifting gears mentally, reorienting your thinking to the near future: you’re arrival and adjustment in a new place. Think realistically: identify positives and negatives and differences about your destination. List problems you’ll likely encounter. Make a list of your coping resources, both external (finances, support people you can lean on) and internal (your ability and methods of dealing with the stress of change).

Thinking ahead and identifying these things helps make the transition much less rockier than it could be. Forming realistic expectations helps avoid disappointment (from too high expectations) and makes sure you don’t miss out on available resources (due to too low expectations). You aren’t mentally and emotionally leaving so much behind in order to go nowhere; every step away from what you’re leaving can be a step toward what you’re gaining.

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Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x]

[Update 2 -- SunVPN sent a fix less than 48 hours after the 'China problem' - which affected several major VPNs in China - began. And I didn't contact them about it to complain, they sent it out on their own. All I had to do was download an attachment and copy the files to the folder they specified. Simple. And it worked! Friends using different VPN services had to wait longer... one up to a week.]

[UPDATE 1 -- Right as I went to publish this, our previously flawless VPN service stopped working. I suspect it has something to do with this: Chinese Internet Connections Unreliable in Run-Up to Party Congress and Why Using the Internet in China is So Frustrating These Days.]


As foreigners in China, we automatically have this little problem:

fbmaplabeled Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x]

ChinaCybercops Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x] BlockedInChina Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x]

It doesn’t matter if your grandmother wants to see your pictures of her great-granddaughters on Facebook, and the same goes for YouTube. If you want to access those kinds of sites in China, you’ll need a little help in the form of a VPN. Thankfully, you don’t even have to know what “VPN” stands for in order to use them. We’re not all that technologically literate, but the VPN we’re currently on works fine and is simple to use.
sunvpnmobile2 Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x]
Facebook, YouTube and many others weren’t blocked when we first arrived in China, and back then VPNs weren’t that common. But now with tighter internet restrictions, VPNs are becoming standard-issue for expats. We’re probably online less than the average foreigner, but Facebook is where we share our kids’ pictures with family and keep tabs on friends from back home, so access is important.

Over the years in China we’ve used a couple different VPNs to get over the Great Firewall, and right now we’re test-driving SunVPN.


sunvpnmobile11 Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x]SunVPN installed easily the first time(!) on both our laptops and phones, and works like they said it would. I was surprised how hassle-free it was because I’ve come to expect hassles with this sort of thing. There are multiple servers in multiple countries to choose from, and we only occasionally have to pick a different one when the one we’re trying to use won’t connect or quits working. Either way, there’s plenty of back-up and we’ve never been without a connection.

See the image below for the list of servers. I don’t know what any of that techie stuff means, but I don’t need to. All I do is right-click and choose one that says “fast”, and it works.

Here are their main features and links:

  • VPN service
  • buy VPN
  • China VPN
  • OpenVPN/PPTP VPN available
  • the safest OpenVPN encryption available (256 bit AES)
  • custom OpenVPN/PPTP installer for Windows
  • custom Tunnelblick installer for Mac OS
  • worldwide server network
  • other common VPN features: unblock all Internet restrictions (China, Oman, UAE etc), watch USA/UK TV from abroad, keep safe from Firesheep etc.

sunvpnservers Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x]

P.S. – I did learn, however, that there is one detail in the instructions that must be heeded: when clicking the desktop icon to open the program (after it’s been installed), you can’t double-click it like normal. You have to right-click and then choose “Run as administrator” or “Open as administrator.”

P.P.S. – I’m usually loathe to encourage people to get online more than they already are. If you aren’t on Facbeook and don’t see a specific need, I suggest you just skip it, and spend more of your life having real human contact. I only got on it several years ago to stalk my sister’s sketchy boyfriend, but once all my extended family became users and we moved overseas we’ve been stuck with it.

P.P.P.S. – Apparently even VPNS aren’t invincible. Even as I was going to hit “Publish” on this post, we started having problems connecting for the first time, and did a lot of people using various VPN services: Chinese Internet Connections Unreliable in Run-Up to Party Congress and Why Using the Internet in China is So Frustrating These Days. But SunVPN sent a fix in less than 48 hours that was easy to apply. So we’re back online, despite the ever-tightening Great FireWall of China.

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Cross-cultural living and the desire to be intimately known

Guest post! Cindy is one of the very few 100% fully bi-cultural people I’ve ever known. She originally wrote this in Facebook, and after reading it I asked to repost it here. I think it connects powerfully with everyone, especially those of us who live far from home, and most especially with Third-Culture Kids who aren’t really sure where ‘home’ is.

Let’s get to know each other

by Cindy
I had a conversation with my girlfriend about the hypothetical situation of whether we should remarry if our husbands died. I know my married girlfriends have had this conversation too, don’t deny it people. Her response was how hard it would be to have to get to know another person as intimately all over again.

Truly one of the greatest gifts in relationships is to be understood by another person. And trusting you will be accepted and loved in spite of the intimate knowledge. However, the process from acquaintance to intimacy takes time. It takes time to tell stories, to react to circumstances in life, to laugh and cry together, to argue and disagree, and then to make up. These experiences build layers of trust and loyalty and compose the patches of material that make up friendship. Through time we weave our lives together and enter together into the depth of relationship that allow us to be known by one another. And we are created to long for that depth. To be deeply known.

The trouble is, then we move. We pick up and move to another town. Or in my case, across the freakin’ ocean. I grew up in a small school where my friends were like my brothers and sisters. We were that small and that close. At graduation we scattered literally all over the world. Our new communities didn’t know our collective history and we had to start over from scratch with the storytelling and the laughing and crying and all that relationship building stuff. Then we’d move again. And start all over again. It’s no wonder people who are forced to move around a lot, like military families, have intimacy issues. It’s simply too exhausting.

Each time we enter a new community, that new place shapes us, molding us into someone different. When I left Wheaton, I was starting to question some of the conservative elements of my beliefs. Fuller helped introduce a broader spectrum of theology and how to incorporate doubt and criticism into a vibrant faith. In a sense, there was a Morrison Cindy, a Wheaton Cindy, a Fuller Cindy, a China Cindy, and a back-to-Taiwan Cindy. As time went on, the world changed and so did I. In the moving river of life, people who stepped in along the way journeyed with me downstream without the knowledge of who I was before I became who I am. Like a diamond, we can only reflect light off of one surface at a time even though we are made out of many facets.

The potential for misunderstanding is alarming. In our limited perspective, it’s too easy to make judgments regarding a person’s comments without a fuller understanding of their background. Wheaton Cindy would be appalled at some of the theological slants of back-to-Taiwan Cindy, and Chinese Cindy cannot hardly stand American Cindy most of the time. The complexities of our biological, cultural, mental, and spiritual identities is what fuels the psycho-therapy economy. And yet there exists inside of me the desire to be wholly known. The impossibility of somebody understanding the nuances of every past experience, every hat I wear, every idea and action and word I exhibit, doesn’t stop me from trying.

So I tell stories. I share my reaction when stuff happens. I laugh and cry. I argue and disagree. And I make up. Then I listen, not only to stories but to the stories behind the stories. I try not to jump to conclusions about people because I don’t know where they’ve been upstream. I look for the other faces of the diamond that make up each person I encounter because seeing only one side is not satisfying. I lean deep into the relationships around me to know and be known. It’s what I was created for.

I’m Cindy. It’s nice to meet you. Let’s get to know each other, shall we?

Christmas Essentials for the Black Hole of China

fbmaplabeled Christmas Essentials for the Black Hole of China

That’s an image of the Facebook friend connections between cities. The more connections, the brighter and whiter the lines. (See an explanation of how they made it is here.) You’ll notice a few conspicuously dark areas: Brazil and Russia have more popular local social network competitors; Africa has less internet users. And then there’s China.

Christmas is the hardest time of the year to be on the other side of the world from family. Living in a FB black hole would only make it that much worse. We have a toddler, my one sister is pregnant and the other just got engaged, in addition to all the usual family fun that happens during Christmas. That’s a lot of family-ness to miss out on. Thankfully, there are ways to access Facebook (and everything else) in spite of China’s ‘harmonious’ internet. These last two weeks we’ve been burning a hole in the internets with all sharing family photos and videos back and forth. Skype, of course, is getting a good workout, too.

fbmapsmalllabeled1 Christmas Essentials for the Black Hole of China

I have issues with FB, and if I could start again with it I would do things differently. After all, they are out to get you (they harvest and calculate your information and behaviour patterns to make you easier to manipulate for advertisers and, one day, governments. I only first started using it to stalk my sister’s then-boyfriend). But, I am thankful — very thankful — that it’s so easy to communicate between continents. We almost effortlessly and instantly share pictures, videos, and make video calls. It’s not as good as being together, of course, but we’re definitely grateful!

Merry Christmas 2010!

P.S. — And Merry Christmas from China, too:

chinachristmas Christmas Essentials for the Black Hole of China

P.P.S. — And Merry Christmas from my rock star soon-to-be-brother-in-law:

Thank-you to! just gave us another free subscription to Freedur! This means that our family still gets to see photos and video of our daughter on Facebook for the whole next year, even though we’re in China where Facebook is blocked. So thank-you!

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Foreign baby in China essentials: FACEBOOK SUBSTITUTE (or VPN) & SKYPE

The Problem

Problem: you have someone’s grandbaby, niece, nephew and/or great-grandbaby, and you live on the other side of the globe. Aside from mom and dad, all the people who love him or her the most are far, far away. This really, really sucks!

We were in Canada for the first four months of Lilia’s life (she spent her first month outside her mommy in the NICU). During that time our Facebook accounts were filled with baby photos and videos as well as daily comments from family and friends all around the globe. And that was when we were still living with family in our own country; we hadn’t even left yet.

In China, Facebook is was the ultimate tool for sharing baby photos and videos with far away family members (and, thanks to the privacy options, not the entire sleaze-saturated, creep-infested, pervert-enabling internet). Everyone from my grandparents to their great-grandkids are on Facebook, and it just kills to not get to share our daughter with them. We also miss the weekly and often daily FB interaction revolving around our nieces and nephews and whatever other family adventures are going on (most recently: the 2010 Olympic Games in our hometown!). Obviously it’s not as good as being within driving distance of your relatives, but FB was a big help and it’s sorely missed.

Some Options

So, 怎么办? Here’s the three options we’ve come across for making the physical distance from family members a little less painful. If you have other ideas, please let us know in the comments!

1) Get a VPN
We haven’t bothered to used a paid service to unrestrict our internet in China. When it comes to the internet less can be more, I’m really cheap, and I assume those VPN services will be blocked eventually anyway. But for $60 bucks a year (wow, I really am cheap…) you can get great services like the one we just won for free! The good folks at had a free giveaway and just yesterday we won six months of free VPN service! We tried it this morning and it’s working great; click here to see the details — you can get a discount code from (Thanks tons, guys!) Our original strategy didn’t involve VPNs, so I don’t know if we’ll keep using it or not once our free six months are up.

2) Get/Make a Facebook substitute
I’m really cheap, Facebook was already sucking up too much of my time, and I wanted a baby-photo-sharing backup that would work even if/when China blocked every proxy and VPN in the world. So we set up a private, password-protected, family-only WordPress blog. Since we already pay for our own domain name and hosting, this didn’t cost us anything extra. It’s not as slick as Facebook, of course, but we can still share photo galleries and upload video clips that our family can download, and everyone can leave comments and share their own stories and photos. It’s also nice to have some family-members-only space on the internet. Our families can see photos and video the same day we take them.

There’s no guarantee that our domain name/hosting server won’t go the way of Facebook, YouTube, and a growing list of proxies and VPNs; personal sites get blocked, too. But we try to play nice by staying away from topics and words that the gov. deems sensitive. Plus sites like ours aren’t as high priority for censors or as high profile as proxies anyway.

3) Use Skype
You don’t need a top-of-the-line computer or video camera (we have older stuff) to pull off great Skype video calls. And it’s free! And if your grandparents are too computer-illiterate to handle Skype, you can just Skype their phones for pennies a minute at the most ($0.02/minute to Canada and the USA). When international video calls or phone calls are this easy, it’d be tragic not to take advantage of the opportunity.

Any other ideas? How do you stay connected with family and friends back home?


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November 10K

Just a short post to update on the goal that I had set back in August of running a 10k on the treadmill at my gym by mid-November. The “race” was last Friday, November 14th…so this post is a little overdue.

Anyway, running the 10K (that’s 6.2 miles for you non-metric users) went really well. I’ve definitely gained a lot in endurance and stamina throughout this training process, even if my overall pace for the 10K is a bit slower than for the 5k I did in August. I’ve also been quite excited to realize how well having a specific goal and training plan really helps me stay motivated on a day to day basis. Other than a few days that I was out with a cold back in October…I really didn’t miss any runs! But the biggest surprise of all for me is that somewhere between the end of the 5k and the completion of the 10k, running actually became very enjoyable for me…and something that I would look forward to!!! My time for the 10K was 55 minutes 25 seconds…for a pace of 8 minutes 56 seconds per mile. I’m very satisfied with my time, especially since I had set a goal of 55 minutes or so for the race. Overall, I do believe that would be slower if I were running outdoors…the treadmill really helps me to push it and keep up the pace more than I might if I were pacing myself on the ground outside.

My friend Nicole, who also ran the 5k with me in August, kept going with the goal for the 10k and completed it on Saturday the 15th. She finished with a great time of 1 hr 7 minutes and 8 seconds. I’m totally impressed, as the area she runs has lots of hills and gradual inclines! Best of all, her wonderful husband and daughter cheered her on…they stopped at a few of the places they knew she would run by and cheered for her, and then when she arrived home they had stretched a “finish ribbon” for her to break through. I just thought it was so awesome to see the ways that they encouraged her throughout the process.:D I can’t wait to visit her when we are back in North America for the spring and go for a jog together…I can just imagine that the smell of the fresh air and pine tress will make the run even better!

Now…there were a few others who had planned to participate…but I’m not sure if there were any others that completed the 10K over the course of that weekend. If you did, just add your time and a bit about your run to the comments!!!