Is it hugs and tearful reunions when expat families make the annual pilgrimage home? Or is it a case of real life not meeting heady expectations? Carolynne Dear explores the reality of heading “home”.
I remember my first year as an expat. I was pregnant, homesick and a long-haul flight from “home”. It was too hot, nowhere sold Marmite and I just wanted a nice slice of mum’s cherry cake and a decent cup of tea. I could almost feel her gently rubbing my back and cooing “there, there” as I lapped up the attention and another slice of cake on the sun-dappled back lawn of my childhood.
Of course the eventual trip didn’t turn out quite how I expected. The reality was lots of argumentative car trips, the length and breadth of Britain as we attempted to catch up with all and sundry. The baby wouldn’t sleep. I was exhausted, and my childhood bedroom was way too small for me, my husband and several overloaded suitcases.
By week three, somewhere outside of Birmingham and trying to locate a university friend’s new country pile, we were tired, fractious, lost and had a screaming baby on the back seat. Arguing over the sat nav, we pulled out of a side-road and straight into an oncoming car. Fortunately nobody was injured.
At that point I swore I would never come home again. The reality of a visit with a baby in tow was an awful long way from gentle afternoon teas in sunny gardens. But of course, we did come back. Again and again. The pull of reuniting with family and old friends is hard to resist.
The reality of a visit with a baby in tow was an awful long way from gentle afternoon teas in sunny gardens.
But it turns out I’m not the only one for whom reality seems to be a long way from what I build up in my mind each year.
“By about day three the grandparents are visibly beginning to flag,” Jane, a mum-of-two, admits. “We’re all so excited to see each other in the first day or so. But then the reality of keeping two children under-the-age of five entertained begins to set in. And of course we’re usually horribly jetlagged as well, which doesn’t help. I’ve learnt over the years to keep it short and sweet. A week at most with my mum, then we move on to a friend’s place for a few days, and then my in-laws. By the end of the trip we’re often exhausted. And to be honest, happy to be back in our apartment in Pok Fu Lam.”
Despite having made the 12,000 km, 12-hour flight from Repulse Bay to London, certain friends and family members have been reticent about hitting the road themselves.
“The excuses have blindsided me,” Catherine admits. “Friends who claim their children are too small to travel to see us – and we’re talking no more than a couple of hundred kilometres – or who are apparently too busy and cannot possibly cancel their plans. I know, I shouldn’t expect them to disrupt their lives for us, but we have just flown halfway around the planet with three small children to try and connect with them!”
“I’ve been planning this trip all year,” admits Emma, a mum-of-two from Clearwater Bay. “I’ve got spreadsheets coming out of my ears. My in-laws live in Devon, mum lives in Yorkshire, so I’ve gone for the middle ground and booked a cottage in North Oxfordshire. But nobody is happy.”
“My side of the family has claimed it’s too far, as have the in-laws, and despite me asking if they can visit at the beginning of July to allow me time to see friends with children breaking up from school at the end of July, apparently they can all only manage the week beginning July 23, the week we leave. The cottage is costing a fortune and to be honest I could have spent the money on a fabulous villa in Bali for a month.”
The cottage is costing a fortune and to be honest, I could have spent the money on a fabulous villa in Bali for a month.
Another long-term expat mum flew her family of five from Sydney in order to christen her youngest amongst family and friends in England.
“Everything was looking good – we’d made it, the boys were behaving, mum had done a great job with the cake – and then my sister-in-law called to say she couldn’t make it. Bearing in mind we’d asked her to be godmother, this was pretty cataclysmic news.”
She said my niece had a ballet exam she couldn’t skip…but there had been no exam.
She said my niece had a ballet exam she couldn’t skip. We later found out there had been no exam, so we could only conclude she just didn’t want to drive the couple of hours from Oxfordshire to London. I’ve never said anything, we just “sucked it up” as you say, christened the baby and moved on – all the way back to Sydney.”
So why is it people often don’t seem to meet our expectations? What is acceptable when it comes to making plans to meet up?
Jo was an expat for fifteen years, first in Singapore, then Kuala Lumpur and finally Hong Kong. She now lives as a “non-expat” back home in Sydney, Australia. “We’ve been through it all,” she admits. “We ended up shedding a whole lot of friends who just weren’t prepared to make the effort.”
“But as a “normal” resident living at home now, I do understand. I think there can be a certain amount of jealousy – after all, you’re leading an exciting new life while things at home might not have been so stimulating. And perhaps people are genuinely busy. School holidays don’t always coincide with visits and non-expat schools frown on unwarranted absences. ‘Oh, we’re meeting Auntie Lou who’s just flown in from London,’ doesn’t really cut it in suburban Sydney public schools.”
“We love seeing you,” admits my own sister. “Having all the cousins together is so special. But we do have our own lives, we can’t just drop everything. No matter how much we want to spend time with you, compromise has to be the order of the day. And I know it sounds harsh and I totally don’t mean it to, but at the end of the day you were the one who chose to live 12,000 km away.”
But in the end you were the ones who whose to live 12,000 km away.
Wise words, and words I hope to remember as the excitement mounts again this time next year. And in the meantime, where’s that Balinese villa website?