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.

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.

You’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.

Reconciliation
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.

Affirmation
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.

Farewells
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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Intercontinental Jet-lag with a Toddler is Like…

Jessica’s Facebook status after our second night in Vancouver, BC:

Jet-lag with a toddler is the stuff of which bad dreams are made. Except that you’re awake.

It’s 4:37am Vancouver time (7:37pm Tianjin time), and she’s in her crib singing Sunday school songs and Happy Birthday in Chinese and having conversations with her stuffed animals in English. Feel free to commiserate and/or share your advice/secrets/magic tricks below!

Testing Beijing security checkpoints… with a gun and brass knuckles [Updated]

My sister’s backpacking all over southeast Asia this summer and I meet her at the Beijing airport a couple days ago. We’re gonna hit Tiananmen Square and the cheap parts of the Forbidden City before heading to Tianjin. The problem is she’s got two of her boyfriend’s souvenirs (thanks, Josh!) in her backpack: a lighter that looks like a handgun and brass knuckles. This means that we’re going to — unavoidably — test multiple security scanner checkpoints between the airport and home: the Beijing airport express train, the Beijing subway, Tiananmen Square and the Beijing South Train Station.

The Beijing Airport Express Train
We walk out of Terminal 3 toward the platform for the Airport Express, which connects to the Beijing subway. A friendly young woman who looks like a recent college grad motions for us to put our backpacks through the scanner. Turns out that gun looks fantastic on the scanner screens.

“You have a gun in your bag,” she says, turning the screen toward me.

“It’s just a lighter.”

“OK,” she motions us on. No inspection, and nothing about the brass knuckles. Those express train passengers are lucky we didn’t decide to go postal on them.

Beijing Subway: Dōngzhímén (东直门)
They make us scan our bags to enter the subway. No one says anything. We pick up our packs and move on, hoping that the stifling rush hour subway crowds don’t trigger our claustrophobia in a bad way.

Tiananmen Square
We exit the subway and head down the underpass to enter Tiananmen Square. Finally some security that cares! :) They immediately spot the gun and the brass knuckles, don’t feel like taking my word for it that it’s just a lighter, make us take them both out for examination, and temporarily confiscate the brass knuckles. No Canadians will be hauling off on anyone in Tiananmen Square today, at least not these Canadians.

We leave the Square to find lunch and re-enter at a different checkpoint, the gun is still in my sister’s backpack. They catch it again and make us take it out for inspection before letting us repack and continue on.

Beijing Subway: Tiānānmén Dōng (天安门东)
We return to the original checkpoint to pick up the confiscated brass knuckles on our way out of the Square. Then we enter the Tiananmen East subway station. Scanned again, ignored again, and we’re on our merry way.

Beijing South Train Station
Honestly can’t remember if we had to scan our bags entering Beijing South Station from the subway or not. We didn’t get searched, in either case.

We have to do it again when I take her from Tianjin to the Beijing airport, which means going through the high speed train, Beijing subway, airport security checkpoints. After that we’ll wait and see what Canada customs does…

[Update: Aug. 12]
On the way to the Beijing airport from Tianjin we’d made the gun and brass knuckles easily accessible, thinking we’d need to take them out for inspection.

Tianjin Train Station
Scanned again. Ignored yet again. Had to fight through some overly-anxious fellow travelers who were nervous about leaving their bags on the conveyor belt a split second longer than they had to.

Beijing South Train Station subway entrance
It looked like they were staring at the screen, but nobody blinked and we sailed right through.

But even with the apparent holes in Tianjin and Beijing’s subway and train security, I have to say it’s a lot tighter than what I remember of the security on Vancouver’s Skytrain, where you can walk right on without paying. But to be fair to the Skytrain, we did see the security in action last time we were in Vancouver and it seemed to work pretty well.

Taking a “hard sleeper” train in China

Over Spring Festival my parents and I took a “hard sleeper” (硬卧) train for the first time. After all the stories I’d heard I was expecting the worst, especially since it was 春运,the Spring Festival travel season when public transportation gets beyond maxed out. It wasn’t really all that bad, though I can easily imagine how it could be really bad, depending on your fellow passengers. Definitely wouldn’t want to do it with a baby. The hardest thing for us this time was getting tickets in the first place, which required some serious string-pulling by a friend of a friend — I’m afraid to ask how he got them. But if you like to chat/practice Chinese, and you bring snacks (that you can share), a book, a cup and some instant coffee, a hard sleeper doesn’t have to be a brutal experience, at least going from our recent first trip.

I put a bunch of photos into a gallery, along with details about our ride in the captions. If a hard sleeper train ride is in your near or potential future, the photo gallery will give you a good idea of what to expect, snogging couples and all. Haha, poor mom!

Click a photo to go to the hard sleeper gallery.

[Photo Gallery:] “Hard Sleeper” (硬卧) train

On the way to Xīnxiāng, Hénán (新乡,河南) from Tianjin we took a 动车, or fast train (often translated “dynamic train”). That was about 4.5 hours — super fast, super comfortable, and sparsely populated. On the way back we took an “express” (快速) train from Zhèngzhōu (郑州), which is the old kind of train but not the slowest old kind (to compare: Tianjin to Beijing takes three hours, 1.5 hours, or half an hour, depending on whether you take the slow train, express train, or “dynamic” train).

We rode in a “hard sleeper” car (硬卧车) on the way back to Tianjin. It was eleven hours long and completely full, arriving in Tianjin at 3am (final destination was Harbin, a 25-hour ride from Zhengzhou).

Sleeping was difficult because (1) it was really hot and stuffy until the sun went down, (2) the university age couple in the middle bunk opposite wouldn’t stop talking/snogging, (3) the snotty kid in the top bunk opposite wouldn’t stop coughing and sneezing and snotting everywhere. The bathroom is a metal closet, like an airplane bathroom in size, and that’s good because you don’t want to be falling onto that floor when the train rocks. Drains directly onto the tracks through a pipe. I mention it here because there’s no picture.

If I’d been thinking “blog” at the time maybe I would have taken better photos (these aren’t so great) and walked the length of the train just to see the different kinds of cars (soft sleepers, standing, dining, etc.). But these’ll give you an idea, anyway. Next time I’ll make it a big photo shoot and do it right; it’ll at least give me something to do! More info in the captions.

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Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home (PART 2)

In three weeks we’ll leave for another couple years in China. Looking back over the last eight months in Vancouver, B.C. (unavoidably longer than we’d planned), I can see some things now about my re-entry adjustment (a.k.a. reverse culture stress experience) that I couldn’t see at the time.

After almost three years in Taiwan and China focusing on Chinese language and culture, we were initially out of our element when we came back to B.C., as we expected. I was a little hesitant, for example, to jump right back into city driving, among other things, but it didn’t take too long to function more or less normally again. Soon I was driving all over the place in Vancouver’s notorious traffic and it was second-nature.

But I’m realizing now that when it comes to people, like hanging out and stuff, I didn’t feel fully at home or totally relaxed or 100% not-more-awkward-than-normal until around six months in, maybe even later. I can look back now at particular social events and see how things weren’t normal for me — not that it was so bad or I couldn’t function, but that I didn’t feel totally myself and wasn’t as effortlessly engaged with people as I would have liked to be. In a few early instances I was a total dud, and I’d much rather blame reverse culture stress than my personality! ;) It feels much easier now after almost eight months, but of course we’re leaving again in a couple weeks. I guess that’s just how it goes. Hopefully when it’s time for 老二 to come along we’ll get to do it all again!

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Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home

Planning to eventually move back to your home country after an extended stay in China? Then you have a problem. I suggest you be on the lookout for this sneaky little bugger, because he will get you, and there’s no escape.

He won’t jump up in your face and assault you outright; that’s not this saboteur’s modus operandi. Instead, he’s spent the entire time you’ve lived in China scheming against you, lurking just outside your range of perception, slowly sabotaging your much-anticipated homecoming from within the subconscious regions of your mind. His name is usually some variation of “reverse culture stress” or “re-entry shock,” and he can be a nasty piece of work, especially if you fly home with unrealistic expectations, unaware and unprepared. Fortunately, although you can’t avoid him, you can be ready for him when he comes, and that can make your re-adjustment back into your home culture a much less stressful and negative experience.

Welcome… home?

When you arrive back in whatever overdeveloped, obscenely rich nation you probably came from (no offense meant to the minority of expats from developing countries; offense to expats from the overdeveloped “first world” is entirely intentional, but when you’re in the middle of a bout of reverse culture stress you’ll happily agree with me anyway), re-adjustment might not seem like too big a deal at first. Your nominally curious friends will ask you, “So, how’s China?” And you’ll answer, “Uhhh… good?” Maybe you’ll all go out for “real Chinese food,” and they’ll give you painfully awkward looks when you eat bite-by-bite straight out of the serving dishes and hold your bowl off the table close to your mouth. Or maybe your sister will freak out when she discovers that somebody put used toilet paper in the garbage can. Or maybe you’ll do like me (I wouldn’t know anything about the aforementioned toilet paper incident) and refuse to accept the fact that your home city was built for cars, not bikes, and become a road hazard by insisting on walking and biking everywhere even though you’ve forgotten how the traffic works, violating numerous by-laws in the process and making the local motorists nervous.

There are myriad ways you can be surprised by the fact that you are no longer effortlessly at home in your own culture. Many such experiences are superficial and even funny, but the accumulation of such anecdotes can result in strong, confusing and stressful underlying emotions that leave you feeling almost as disoriented in your own culture as you were when you first arrived in China. In a way it’s even worse in your own culture: unlike in China, at home you have no excuse for not fitting in, nor do you expect to ever need one. But after a few months, the romanticizing of your home culture in which you indulged while away takes a U-turn. You become more critical and angry than ever with your home society; its flaws appear all the more damning and its benefits superficial or discounted. Reverse culture stress bleeds out through your negative attitude and actions. This is not only out of character, but seemingly without cause. Your family wants to know what your problem is, but you don’t know. Re-entry stress is a sneaky little son-of-a-turtle.

Friends’ Experiences

Bio returned to his native Brazil after years of graduate school in Texas, and he describes his cultural re-adjustment experience this way:

Take it easy on reverse cultural shock. It was awful to me. I started questioning everything as if it was totally different from before I left. It’s such a strange feeling! Till today I still react. There is a bit of American/European value in me after the experience living abroad. I guess I learned to appreciate it.

Beth, an American physiotherapist in Tianjin, likens it to the ultimate foreigner experience:

Reentry is like you’ve been abducted by aliens and had tests performed on you then you are returned back to your planet. When you go back to your home country you look about the same but you can feel completely different and feel like you don’t know how to do some normal things you used to do every day because of the alien experience you have had living overseas.

Sonja, a native of Germany who lives in Tianjin, describes it this way:

It’s part of the parcel, I think, and often hits when least expected and can be as nagging as toothache. Toothache you can figure out quite easily, but it sometimes takes some time until the realization “Oh, I’m culture-stressed!” hits home.

Who are you and what did you do with my home?

How did this happen? It’s simple, really: You left Blueland and went to Yellowland, and after a few years you’ve taken on an odd greenish tinge. You haven’t really noticed or understood this gradual change, even if you think you do. In ways deeper than you realize, Yellowland has altered your preferences, comfort zones, expectations, even the autopilot that guides you through crowds and traffic. On top of all this, while you were away Blueland faded to a slightly different shade of blue. Neither you nor “Home” are the same as when you left. This means that arriving home expecting to effortlessly slide back into the way things were is a small tragedy waiting to happen. Bethany, an American grad student in Beijing, experienced this first-hand:

When I’m in a foreign country, I don’t expect to understand anybody, and nobody expects to understand me – and since this total lack of understanding finds expression in every aspect of my daily life, my expectations are all fulfilled; and though uncomfortable, I at least find comfort in knowing what to expect. When I come back home, I expect to understand everyone and for everyone to understand me – but because living in a foreign country has indelibly left its mark on me, i just end up confusing and being confused by everyone else, and I feel even more out of place and disjointed at “home” than I did in the foreign country.

Tianjin English teacher Shannon Ingleby succinctly and unforgettably describes the experience this way:

Re-entry stress is like the direction of water when you flush a toilet in China… backwards and stinky.

It’s a rude awakening – rude because it sneaks up on you, biding its time to one day ambush your hitherto subconscious assumptions with the realization that things aren’t the way you remember them in your home country, and your home country could say the same about you.

How to Deal

To anticipate and respond to your inevitable experience of reverse culture stress, it helps to go in with both eyes open and informed, expecting, recognizing and understanding these inevitable feelings for what they are when they hit you.

Reverse culture stress doesn’t engulf everyone with the same force. Your particular experience will likely be shaped by several related factors. Here are three of the big ones:

  • the amount of time you spent abroad,
  • your degree of cultural adaptation while abroad,
  • your personality and personal flexibility.

The longer you’re away, the more opportunity both you and your home each have to change. How much you change, of course, depends on how you spent that time abroad, how meaningfully you engaged and adapted to your host culture. If you lived, worked, and played in one of Tianjin’s lǎowài ghettos (aka 洋人街), living the life of a long-term tourist, chances are you got a smaller dose of Chinese culture; you’re still mostly blue with maybe the slightest whiff of green around the edges. But if you lived in an average Chinese neighbourhood for several years and spent most of your free time with local friends doing local things in Mandarin, you might be bright green in a few spots. The people who changed less while abroad have less adjusting to do when they return. Hard core, KTV-loving, Mandarin-speaking, culture-snob lǎowàis (p.s. – more power to ya) will probably be in for a harder time when they try to re-adjust back home. The upshot is that if you were flexible enough to adjust to China, then you are flexible enough to re-adjust back home whether you feel like it or not.

There are several things you can do to ease the stress of re-adjustment:

  • Find others to talk to who’ve also returned home after extended time abroad.
  • Recognize your feelings for what they are: the totally normal result of re-entering your home society after extended time away. It doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you, or that you’re a failure, or that you’re inflexible or can’t handle change.
  • Expect to experience the culture stress cycle again: honeymoon (initial euphoria of returning home), disillusionment (negative reaction to home not feeling like home), adjustment (correcting unrealistic expectations and accepting the new situation).
  • Realize that your perception of your home culture, while possibly enhanced and enriched due to your time away, is also heavily coloured by your culture stress feelings. When you’re in the second stage of the culture stress cycle, resist the urge to romanticize your host culture while demonizing your home culture. This urge arises from your reverse culture stress, not reality. If you feel like moving off to a monastery or a hippie farm, give it a few months first.
  • Re-engage the relationships you left behind when you went to China. You can’t simply pick up where you left off because everyone has changed over the years, but you can catch up and move forward.

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