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.

Related stuff:

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!