Bubblewrapping our marriage

moving boxes

So. we did it. We left Beijing. Discarded stuff we did not need anymore, made ayi happy with my winter coat and danced the night away at our goodbye party. Our accumulated belongings ended up in 204 boxes and 8 suitcases. Plus 2 car seats.

Bye Bye Beijing.

For the logistics you can plan. Scribbling To Do lists and move management meetings with Mr Expat over dinner. The moving company packed everything securely, but we did not realise we should have asked for some extra bubble wrap.

To shock proof our marriage.

Planning your feelings is whole lot more complicated. Sounds all too obvious in theory, doesn’t it? Just when my Beijing life had resumed some sort of normalcy, with an actual job, studies and a stable ayi to take care of the home when I was away, it was time to pack up and leave. And all the Expat partner feelings that I thought I’d worked through and discarded appeared in my suitcase like a cockroach in a Beijing kitchen. The (financial) dependency, the what will I do here all day, and the new guilt: what are we putting the kids through? My daughter had only just settled in preschool, her Chinese was fluent.

Bye Bye Buddies
I also underestimated how hard it would be  to say goodbye to my Beijing buddies. Having said so many goodbyes to many close friends over the past 4 years, I thought I was used to it. We had a lovely time, we’ll stay in touch through social media, I will really miss you for a while but then things return to normal.

I didn’t quite realise that moving away means saying goodbye to all your friends at once and finding a New Normal for your life in general. Of course, I’d done this 4 years ago, but many of these friends I saw during our regular breaks back home. I lost touch with some of them, but most longstanding friendships survived the distance. In a way, our departure from Beijing also made me feel warm inside. having been able to meet so many wonderful people from all over the world, dispelling my greatest fear of those first days in Beijing: how on earth am I ever going to make new friends here? Saying goodbye to all my Beijing friends was heartwarming and heart breaking at the same time. Of course, we will do our best to keep in touch, maybe even meeting up somewhere in the world from time to time. But just running into each other at Jamaica Blue coffee shop, the regular dinners or the hanging out for brunch with the kids- no more.

Hello Stormy Sea
As a couple moving internationally, you need each other more than ever. Without family, friends and trusted colleagues to fall back on, we had to fulfill all those roles for each other. In addition to being a parent and the love of our lives. Throw a cute-but-refluxy baby and a sweet-but-demanding toddler into the mix and voila, no wonder our marriage felt it had been packed up in a sea container too, but without bubble wrap or being properly attached to the floor during monsoon season.

“Our marriage felt it had been packed up in a sea container too, but without bubble wrap or being properly attached to the floor during monsoon season.”

As Robin Pascoe writes in her great book A Moveable Marriage: ‘would anyone in their right mind let a box of fragile dishes ride on top of the car without being securely tied down?’ I guess we did. Before moving to Beijing I remember reading a blog post entitled “Marriages come to Beijing to die.” (can’t find the link anymore). It scared the hell out of me as a newlywed. It certainly wasn’t true for us. Living in Beijing made our bond grow stronger, as a couple, as new parents. It was leaving Beijing that shook our marriage to the core. It is hard supporting each other when you are in the middle of a storm, trying to survive yourself and putting oxygen masks on the kids.

“Before they relocate, couples tend to focus on the externals like where they will live, what schools their children will attend or where they will but groceries,” observes one expert in Pascoe’s book. “They entirely ignore the internal challenges, so many of which are key to the succesful relocation of a relationship.” And “everything that distinguishes you as a person disappears when you move.” If you give up work for relocation, it can feel like “the marriage of equals now has one less than equal partner.” And “negative feelings intensify when your life seems out of your control.” So, that’s where grumpy me came from, I suppose.

Key lessons from the New Normal
Four months in, things slowly start to feel settled again, the New Normal is emerging. Key lessons for me?

Get help with the practical stuff where possible, from family or paid professionals. But first and foremost Connect and communicate with your partner, before during and after the move. Not just about the practicalities, but about appreciating each other as a person. Be compassionate, to your partner and yourself. As Robin Pascoe writes Consultation, Respect and Support.

Put those on top of your To Do list.


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