Expat life: making a home visit

‘We care locally.’

That three-word profundity comes from a weblog written by Joe Posnanski, a sports writer whose work I enjoy.

Joe has just returned to the USA from Japan after covering Japanese baseball’s version of the World Series. He made the comment in reference to the deeply uninterested reactions he received when he tried to convey to his associates the wonders he’d witnessed in Japan. He actually was there to see the unprecedented phenomenon of two pitchers combining to throw a perfect game, and it --

Let’s stop right there: thanks for reading this far, but you don’t really care about Joe, or the Japanese World Series, or what I think about either of them, do you? You didn't follow those links. You’re wishing already that I move on to some more interesting and relevant topic.

Well, that’s just the point: for most of us, our range of interests is relatively narrow, and we’re far more interested in the places we live, or at least have visited, than we are in even the most exotic place we’ve never seen.

This can be an unpleasant lesson for expatriates to learn. We move overseas, and the first months and even years of our overseas experience are so exciting for us, so vivid, so often lived with an intensity of emotion we’ve rarely felt at other times in our lives. And then we make our first trips back to our hometowns, or the place we’d lived before moving overseas, and we meet up with friends or relatives. We’re just bursting with stories to tell, experiences to recount, emotions (forgive me, O high priests of good taste) to share.

Our home-country visits often start off well: our moms or our siblings or our life-long friends are truly happy to see us; they hug us, and tell us we look just fine, then they sit us down and say ‘Now, tell me all about your new life!’

So we plunge in, and do just what they say. Right at first, their eyes glisten, their heads nod, and their mouths hang gently open at the wonder of it all. Yet uncomfortably soon we notice their eyes flicking, just once, over to the oven where cookies are baking; or at the street, where a car has just passed; or – making us feel really special and valued – at a mobile phone, which doesn’t happen to be ringing . . . .

So we blame ourselves. The eager expat thinks: ‘I am doing such a poor job telling this story! I am being boring. I will stop talking so much about myself and how I felt about the things I’ve done and seen, and say more about the sumptuous details of my exotic new home – I’ll describe the colors, and the flavors, and the sounds, and yes, yes, the smells!’

And, with redoubled effort, we try again. This time, we notice that our friend is unusually diligent in keeping the teapot filled with hot water . . . she claims to hear Napoleon III (the family’s pet hamster) squeaking in distress, and jumps up to investigate . . . . finally, when she returns, she breaks in and says ‘So when you were over there didja hear about that Bernice Buxom who was in the class below us in school who ran off last month with the guy who catered the 40th birthday party she was throwing for her husband Bruce?’

It’s not really that bad, of course – most people are actually quite polite, and a few may be genuinely interested in our expat exploits.

But the cruel truth is, as my man Joe has learned, we care locally.

And like Joe, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. I love talking about my overseas experiences, but I realized early on that I had to rein myself in pretty severely when back in the USA.

So here are just a few dos and don’ts I’ve accumulated over the years.

  • Don’t take home a huge album (or computer, or camera with viewscreen) full of photos and expect to go through it with everyone you visit. Even more so, don’t take along homemade DVDs so that everyone can watch your home movies. The excruciating home movie session has been a stock sitcom scenario since the days of I Love Lucy, but you may be tempted to convince yourself that because you’re living overseas, your situation is different. It’s not.
  • Don’t, especially don’t, ask your friends or rellies to view great masses of photos/video from trips you’ve taken away from HK to exotic destinations such as Bali or Thailand or Japan. Not only will you violate the basic rule of sitcom home movies stated above, you’ll be making them feel bad because you can make these trips with relative ease, while for them it would be a much bigger deal. Again, including a few photos might be nice, but almost no one beyond the members of your immediate family is going to want to see more.
  • Do take along maybe one small album of hard-copy photos that show things like your home, your building, the street you live on, your kids’ school, and maybe a few of your best shots of Hong Kong’s skyline, a view from the Peak, a hiking photo to prove that HK’s not 100% paved, and so on. Many people, especially older relatives, really may be interested in the ways your day-to-day life is different. But I’d keep this little show to maybe 30-40 photos at most.
  • Don’t use your visits home as therapy sessions. That is, if you’re at the stage of culture shock where your expat life is wearing you down, or if you’re tired of living overseas, or if day to day problems are giving you headaches, don’t make a visit home an opportunity to unload on everyone about it. The problem is, they won’t understand. There are too many facets of expat life that are opaque to someone who hasn’t lived it, and they coincide neatly with the things that you may be finding it hard to deal with. For example, let’s say you’re having trouble finding a good domestic helper. How many people back home are going to want to hear about it, much less sympathize with you?
  • Do ask your friends and relatives just as many questions about what’s going on in their lives as they feel obligated to ask about yours. This sounds like basic courtesy, but looking back on when I was a young expat, I fear that I found myself and my experiences quite special; I felt almost as if it were just and right that I hog the floor so that I could expound on that specialness. Maybe that was just me – but I fear the temptation is there for many of us.
  • Don’t expect every single one of your relatives and friends back home to read your website or blog if you’ve started one to recount your expat adventures! Your enthusiasm for writing things up will likely far outpace their enthusiasm to keep coming back day after day to read about someone else’s life.

Most of us Hong Kong expats are unable to visit home as often as we would like. We should try to make sure our time with friends and family is as pleasant and productive as we can make it.


great article

Not really a comment - just a hugely useful article, and VERY true!

Expat life: making a home visit

Very good advice! May I offer these:
Bring along a few photos of yourself taken when you left HK. For people like me absent for about one-half entury, I know they are curious how I have aged, Internet and phone calls notwithstanding. Likewise, the hosts could bring out photos of bygone years. It bring backs precious moments no words can match.
Ask them to spend the time with you together at your mutually interested places - schools, parks, picnic places, etc. Reliving history together reinforces the bond people have.

Making a home visit

Mr Tall,

You say "Don’t use your visits home as therapy sessions.". True, but it's not a bad idea to throw in at least a few grumbles about life in HK.

If you've moved here for a regional job, you can probably tell your friends about your hectic schedule, the number of foreign countries you get to visit, and many, many more wonderful things. Hopefully your friends will listen and be happy for you. But still it's not hard to cross the line where they think "Hmm, how much more of this bragging do I have to listen too? Thinks he's a real bigshot now!".

So a few reminders of what you've lost - how you envy their beautiful big home & garden, what you wouldn't give for clear blue skies they have - can help balance things up.

It can also be good to get together with groups of friends instead of one-to-one, especially if you haven't met up for several years. It's tough to arrange a weekend visit to a friend and find out in the first 30 minutes that you really don't get along as well as you used to! An afternoon with a group of friends helps minimise the chance of running out of things to say. Worst case you can sit & listen!

If you're tight for time, seeing a group also means less dashing around trying to see everyone individually. Maybe let your one of your friends know you'd like to meet up in a group a couple of weeks before you arrive, and see who they can pull together.

You may well be taking a new boyfriend or girlfriend along with you. However much they love you, they're probably not that interested in hearing several hours of detailed re-runs of your school years. Better to have them join you say half an hour before you're all finishing up, so they can meet your friends without being bored senseless.

And make this group meeting something early in your stay. When it goes well there's plenty of time to arrange more get-togethers before you're due to fly back to HK.

Any other ideas?


never ever go back

in all our moves, the hardest one was when my husband had to go back to head-office for 18 months!  Which is why I think most expats just keep on moving and never settle down.

When I go back to where I've been before (since I am homeless so I can't go back home) I make sure it is all about them, and I try and get filled in the 'novel' of their lives from the time I left until when I go there again.

For those who are remotely interested in my life abroad, I keep my blog. My friends and family dip into it as and when they want to, I don't know when and if they do so, and if they don't, it doesn't affect me emotionally at all.

I'm just in an internal debate with myself this year as to whether or not to write the 'annual xmas letter' or not ... 

Expat life: making a home visit

In today's global economy and academia, refusal to relocate can render your job redundant if not losing your responsibilities and influence.
Of all the challenges I have faced, moving was the most stressful and disruptive to our family and social life. But had I refused, I would have continued doing the same old boring job (if not laid off or fired), and would have to work several more years in order to save enough for a decent retirement.
The husband and wife must think and talk it over before making the choice. But I honestly believe more understanding is needed on the part of the wife, as it is still "generally" true today the man remains bread-winner of the family. Refusal of company offer could mean him finding another job, and that, could be the most stressful a person in mid-life will face.

the wife ...

Yes, you may need to relocate for your job, and maybe your wife needs to understand that.  But you need to understand the following realities of being a trailing spouse

1.  You leave your entire support network of friends and family behind.  This is essential in helping to exist and bring up children.  You have to recreate this from ground zero.  And no-one in your new country is waiting for you with open arms to welcome you and help you. At best you will be kindly ignored.

2.  When your husband leaves for work every day he has 2 things that you don't have.  He has a purpose to his existence and a reason to wake up in the morning.  He also has some interesting people around him that he can talk to / boss around / bounce ideas off / have lunch with.  As the wife, you have curtains to sort out, plugs to change, paintings to hang. Children who don't want to be here, are depressed, haven't made new friends yet etc.

3.  As a trailing spouse, you lose most of your identity.  No-one knows you and no-one cares.  You have to build up an entire new identity that fits into the society you've moved into and find the space where you're going to slot in.  Your husband's identity is pre-packaged with his job.

 Moving internationally is a 2 person thing.  Unhappy wives is the predominant cause (80%) of why relocations internationally fail.

If for no other reason, but the survival of your new job you're going to have to get into the picture of where your wife is coming from. And soon.  You must understand what she's going through and help her to take steps to make her life happier and more integrated into her new environment. 

 I have uprooted myself 9 times for my husband's career.  It is no joke and it never gets any easier (see my blog: www.gweipo.blogspot.com - particulary the entries from last year when we moved).  But my husband knows and understands this, and does everything in his power to help me with the adjustment.  Including letting me cry and rant and rave.

There are enough ladies on this forum who've been through this.  Ask their advice.   

An alternative

Rather than simply showing the photos or videos, my wife and I have taken to making things with them.

We've presented calendars to our parents with photos from the region. We want to show the entirety of HK, not just the polished images from the Tourism Board. So we go for images of all types.

Gifts that show some real effort are also a plus.

Instead of buying that model of the Petronas Towers when in KL, why not purchase some tea from the Cameronian Highlands? Or Balinese coffee? Taiwanese pineapple cakes?

Glad to see the link to Pos. He's note only the best sportswriter in the States but also one of my favorite writers from back home (KC).

So I was wrong . . .

. . . there actually was some one who was interested in what Mr Posnanski had to say!

He is pretty good, isn't he? I had never heard of him till recently, but started seeing links to his blog, which is great stuff. I read him regularly now.

Your idea of the calendars is pretty good -- whre do you have them made, or do you do them up yourself?

And thanks for all the comments, Grover!


Last time, we did it ourselves. We selected 14 high-res images for the 12 months plus front and back covers. Put them on a flash drive and had them printed on nice paper at the local shop in Happy Valley.

Then we found a nice online calendar template, printed it, and got to work putting the calendar together.

The prices to have the calendar fully made by the shop were a bit too much and we didn't really like the templates. I got the impression that any decent photo shop should be able to perform this service.