Substituting adventures with doing chores: The strange relationship strains of repatriating

June 20 2013 | Guest post by Kate Frost
We used to go on adventures together, now I'm busy cleaning up our messes. (Photo by: D. Sharon PruittCC BY 2.0)
Community wisdom holds that the three most stressful life events that a couple can undertake are changing jobs, moving, and death. For us, repatriation combined the first two major stressors while throwing in several others, making our first year back in the US a very tumultuous transition.

Although we grew up in the same East coast city, my husband and I met while we were both living in China. With the exception of vacations and quick trips home, we spent every moment in a place where we could comfortably afford to hire someone to clean the house and walk our dog daily. Twice a year, she would take two-week vacations to visit her family in another city, leaving us to our own devices, "roughing it" in the most laughable way.

Those weeks, we ate even more meals at restaurants. No need to budget, because we could get a delicious (if not balanced) meal for less than two dollars each. We didn't need to tidy up after ourselves, come home early from work to feed the dog, or squabble over time spent with family — they were, after all, half a world away.

Only two months after we married, we moved to the West coast, never having seen it. Suddenly there seemed to be a perpetually wet towel at the foot of an unmade bed, paper cluttered tabletops, and rumpled coats strewn at the entryway. We were incredulous, each suspecting that the other had secretly been raised by wolves. Where before we were blissful, we now bickered endlessly over the pile of dirty clothes on the bathroom floor and the pans that would balance unnoticed in the sink for days.

We knew how to do all these things, but we were willfully turning two pairs of blind eyes, despite not being able to afford to hire help. In this staring contest of sloppiness, I admit that I broke first. Each weekend, I'd lose a full day to cleaning. I'd have to wash up, even if I had spent an hour cooking after my more-than-full-time job. I'm not proud to admit that I stewed in resentment, even while nursing a thousand slovenly habits of my own.

That was the hoarse and teary low point, and I won't pretend that crawling out of it hasn't been a struggle. After countless defensive conversations, we realized that the household grousing was only the most readily obvious symptom of something much more salient; with a one-way ticket and three packed bags, we had lost a larger sense of our identities. While it could never be described as perfect, living overseas had granted us accelerated career paths and access to a world where we were constantly challenged intellectually.

When the customs officers welcomed us "home," it felt like our idea of home had shifted from holding an endless sense of wonder to embodying a stack of drudging responsibilities. The towering mound of laundry only served as a physical reminder of this loss, and we were sulking.

We realized that to give living in this new place a fair shot, we couldn't let "chore-doer" take root where "adventurer" had lived. Through trial and effort, we seem to have hit on a reasonable set of guidelines for building up the sense of self we both felt we lost, while investing in each other.

Allow ourselves the emotional space to miss our life abroad, and acknowledge that China's grass is no less green than San Francisco's. We remind ourselves that we're not stuck here — passports work in both directions.

Schedule Skype dates with our friends that are either still in China or that have scattered to new corners of the world. We are not quarantined to our respective time zones.

Learn something new as often as we can. Make a concerted effort to take classes, find new outlets through which to broaden our minds and extend understanding. In 2012, this imperative ranged from obedience classes with the dog to coding, and may expand to include grad school in the near future.

Set up a budget, saving part of our income each month, allocating those funds to adventuring. Traveling together has always felt like returning home, and it's important to us that this aspect of our lives retains emphasis no matter where we live.

Explore more of our immediate surroundings. We're actively getting to know the area, and taking more frequent, smaller trips to see things we've never seen before. Remember to look at the world with fresh eyes and smile at all small absurdities.

Just for good measure, we now both do 70% of the housework. Because if we're both putting in what we perceive as 70%, we're working equally diligently while we perhaps more accurately each contribute half. Who knows, we may even splurge on hiring someone to help us clean the house once a month!

We may always think of ourselves indulgently as expats at heart, but at least for the near future, we're actively striving to be content with where we are, and discovering how to compromise in the process.

    • Thanks Amy! Though I must give credit where it's due: this was the piece of advice my mom gave to us when we got married, and has been something that we both reference frequently when we begin gritting our teeth at the "unfairness" of our chore breakdown.

    • I love that 70% rule too! Please thank your mom for me Kate.

      I'm going to have a chat with my other half and implement this rule straight away. We both aim to do 50% of the chores, but in actuality we both only do 30% and then our apartment is 40% a mess.

      Chore math is worse then fractions.

  1. It has to be said so I'll say it.

    The grass in China isn't greener.

    The grass that's not dead is covered in smudges of gray and brown.

    If you can see it through the pollution, that is.

    (I used to live in China. Now I live in Taiwan).

    Anyway, that's neither here or there regarding this story, which I think is full of great advice. And China isn't all bad – "adventure" is a good word to describe it. After 7 years in Taiwan (I only lasted one in China) I can't imagine repatriating.

    • I couldn't agree with you more! While there were parts of living there that were difficult and stressful, there are other parts that we both really loved.

      • I really liked traveling in Guizhou, Sichuan and Xinjiang. Yunnan and Xi'an were lovely too, if touristy. I enjoyed my two weeks in Beijing, although I would never want to live there. Hong Kong is awesome. I definitely have a lot of stories to tell.

        But oh, you could chew the air. And I've had three root canals from the acidic water rotting my teeth (and I had it delivered in jugs to a home water cooler!). And I got bronchial pneumonia twice. And the government sucks. And there's so much sexism.

        But I also saw 500-year-old coffins hanging on hillsides, drove up a flight of stairs on a bus, attended a Miao wedding complete with torchlight and antiphonal singing and went to Lake Karakul so I can't say it was 100% terrible.

  2. Wow, this article is PERFECT for me right now- my boyfriend and I are moving back to the States, him after 5 years, me after 8 months. I've sent it to him, thanks for writing this!

  3. I actually think this article applies to more than just those re-patriating, it really applies to any couple or family making a big move anywhere. Even though my husband and I just moved across country, and then back again, our struggles were nearly identical! We had a certain lifestyle in Toronto, it was totally different, and honestly a lifestyle we loved. When we moved back to the prairies we missed our old life, and its taken some significant adjustment… We lost all the ways we used to adventure, and now we are trying to find new ways to do so (some more successful than others).

    This article was a great reminder that we need to keep adventuring ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks!

  4. We're in the process of repatriating too (this week, in fact), from the Netherlands back to Canada. Couldn't be timed better, because I'm already starting to feel a little homesick in my own hometown, and it's an odd sensation. Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. You know, I don't think this just applies to big life changes. My partner and I used to be very active and engaged in all sorts of activities, challenges and fun outside the home, but recently as I was completing my very difficult and personally challenging PhD and my partner was in a job with long hours which was incredibly physically tiring, we realised that we weren't cleaning the house, we weren't seeing friends, we weren't being intellectually stimulated in any real way outside of work. We have now moved across town to encourage that shift to get in touch with people (people not even that far away, living in the same town!), to take up extra activities and to plan and do fun things together that give back our previous sense of adventure and enjoyment. We've realised that you have to actively plan and engage when you're in an environment that doesn't necessarily foster these things.

    • I think a PhD is a pretty big life change! I'm so glad to hear this is applicable for people who are juggling chainsaws in other areas of their lives as well. Best of luck with the PhD and with rekindling the relationships and activities that make you feel whole.

      • Thanks! I finally graduated in December, and I'm really only starting to get back into the swing of 'ordinary' life now, and it's wonderful! It's clearly a life change, but a PhD doesn't feel like that at the time because its a very extended process over a number of years. It's more like an intensely difficult and isolating job that you have for quite some time, so that the things you discussed in your article creep up on you and you don't have an immediate cause for the frustrations and difficulties that come up. But we came out to the otherside and are being really proactive now, it's great! Wish I could have seen this article at the time, it would have given me so much hope – it was very difficult at the time to believe that one day I would be finished and life would get so much easier.

  6. Recently, we found one of those quizzes in an old psych book, the one that lists the most stressful life experiences in order of awfulness and the toll it takes on your body and mind, and realized that between the two of us, we could check of almost the entire list with some stuff added in. In the past four years we've experienced; Job change (him), job loss (me), death of a parent (him), serious illness of a parent (me), chronic illness diagnosis (him and me), and moving. And we moved across town, not across the world. And between stressful life events and just the general logistics of moving and learning to live in a new space, we found ourselves out of whack. We have been experiencing some level of what you are talking about, just because our routine and our lives have changed so drastically and we're burned out and stressed out and not looking after ourselves and our relationship the way we should. I appreciate your tips, I feel like they're relevant to our situation too and we'll be trying to do some of the things you've listed. I think it's easy to get so caught up in the day to day grind, especially when you're forming a new routine, that you lose your sense of play and adventure. Thanks for reminding me that it is as important as the dishes and the laundry. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Thank you for this, Kate! My husband and I moved from Seattle to Jakarta in '09 and I constantly struggle with the idea of repatriating. It's all abstract right now — we own a small business here and are pretty much in this for the long haul, but you never know when the tides will turn.

    My husband and I lived together for four years before moving to Indonesia and while we always had a good relationship, we've never been in a healthier, happier place than we are now. It's amazing how easy a relationship becomes when you don't have to bicker about the small stuff!

    …But then there will be times when I think maybe we should consider setting a timeline for repatriation — we want to adopt kids in the next few years, and we don't want to raise them away from their grandparents and aunts and uncles… Do we? And as we get older (I'm only 32, but you know… Age creeps up on you!), we'll want to be in the States, where we can access quality medical care and actually start paying into retirement and social security… Won't we? And being a foreigner, we always have this little feeling of insecurity — like we could be deported at any time, like nothing is actually permanent. We aren't allowed to vote here. We aren't allowed to own property here. Our entire life here is one of impermanance, no matter how permanant we try to make it.

    And then I think about our life here. We have a good life — way better than the life we left behind in the States. Like you said, we don't have to clean — we have a live-in maid. That means there's no bickering about whose turn it is to wash the dishes, who needs to go to the grocery store, who left the wet towel on the bathroom floor. We wake up every morning to a pot of coffee that's already been made, breakfast waiting for us, and a sparkling clean house.

    We don't have to budget — everything is so (relatively) cheap here that we go about our days without even really considering the financial impact of things like eating out or going on a weekend getaway. There are no arguments about whether we can afford something or whether a purchase was actually necessary.

    Our housing costs are miniscule — we pay for a year what we'd pay for about two months in Seattle, meaning that we have a house that's far nicer and more comfortable than anything we ever had in the States.

    In the States, we were lucky to take two trips a year. Here, we travel all the time. A weekend in Singapore at the last minute? A quick trip to Bali? No big deal — happens all the time.

    I know we can't live this life forever — at some point, we'll repatriate. And I worry about that point, and what it will do to our marriage and the lifestyle we've grown accustomed to. When we visit the States, once every 18 months or so, we experience pretty massive culture shock — OMG, things are so expensive! OMG, what do you mean I have to wash my own clothes?!

    And, in a really superficial way, I worry about how much of my identity is wrapped up in being an expat. I mean, I am an expat — and it's a huge part of who I am. Everywhere I go, all day every day, I am reminded of my 'otherness' — and not necessarily in a bad way. (Being a quasi-celebrity can go to your straight to your head, even if you don't mean it to.) And even though there are plenty of days when my life is anything but fabulous, being an expat, there's still that 'illusion' of adventure and awesomeness. People back home in the States think that we're doing something epic, even when we're just watching a RuPaul's Drag Race marathon on DVD while eating ice cream from the container and staying in our PJs all day.

    If we repatriate, who are we? The same people, for sure, but are we less interesting? More boring? Will life royally suck?

  8. "While it could never be described as perfect, living overseas had granted us accelerated career paths and access to a world where we were constantly challenged intellectually."

    This is one of the most brilliant summaries of repatriation blues I've ever read! My husband and I just repatriated after 5 years overseas, mostly in Central Asia (with a brief stint in Africa for good measure). This is a wonderful piece touching on some of the difficulties, and you've summed up a lot of our thoughts and emotions on the transition.

    Your suggestions are great, and we've definitely use many of these in the last few months. A few other things I'd recommend, which you may already be doing/may be contained in what you've mentioned:
    -Go out of your way to see your old expat friends who have repatriated or are passing through your general area. We've been lucky that a few of our old friends have relocated back to the US (or have emigrated from Central Asia to the US!) to our area, and we're in DC so many more pass through for work, etc…but we also make sure that we go out of our way to meet people along the East Coast when possible. Much like Skype dates with friends who are still over there, these meet ups warm my little 'repat' heart and remind me of the good old days. (This is not to say don't make any new friends, of course!)

    -Engage in your immediate community through volunteering, involvement in neighborhood campaigns, civil society, etc. I don't want to generalize too much, since I've never lived in China, but I bet you faced some of the same barriers we did where you could never *really* be part of the local community because of issues of language, ethnicity, citizenship, etc. While there were other things that made life there worthwhile, you were (probably) missing out on the chance to fully engage as citizens, so appreciating that you can do that now helps to put one more check in the 'pros' column of being back home.

    And @SamanthaB: "And, in a really superficial way, I worry about how much of my identity is wrapped up in being an expat. I mean, I am an expat โ€” and it's a huge part of who I am. Everywhere I go, all day every day, I am reminded of my 'otherness' โ€” and not necessarily in a bad way." — I totally know this feeling, and had this same anxiety leading up to our move home. Being an expat had become a HUGE part of my identity – so much so that I still refer to myself as a 'repat' (or sometimes find myself slipping and saying things like, "Well, other expats feel this way, too…"). What has helped is: (a) Like Kate suggests, we remind ourselves that we're not 'stuck' here – in fact, we have plans to move back overseas for another stint in 5 years. Whether that will happen or not, who knows – but we sure feel better having those 'plans', and we're able to talk about possible regions we'd like to move to, etc. (b) We've moved to a neighborhood in DC where we're still relative outsiders; it's 90% non-white, with a mix of African-American, African immigrant, Latino, and others. Our neighbors speak to each other in Spanish in their backyard, and we speak to each other in Russian (not our native language, but, again, reminds us of being overseas…). We regularly pop into shops in the neighborhood where we're the only white patrons. And when people ask me what neighborhood we live in, and I explain where it is (no one even knows the name of this neighborhood), people look at me like I'm crazy and once again all is right with the world. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I guess my point is that I think you'll know when the time is right for you to go back, and you'll find plenty of 'pros' to balance the 'cons' (oh, but there will always be cons)…or maybe the time will never be right, and you'll be long-term expats. I know plenty of those who have been happily overseas for 15+ years! Either way, you'll find what's right for you. If you do move back then you don't *lose* your identity, you just evolve to someone new. Someone who lived overseas for a long time, but came back for a reason. Trust me, it's not the worst thing you can be. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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