Exploring the challenges of moving from one country to another.

Following on from last month’s focus on life transitions, this month we turn our attention to a particular transition undertaken by many Hong Kong and expat families in increasing numbers over the past 5 years. Various issues have contributed to an unprecedented number of families relocating out of Asia – with a significant number going from Hong Kong to the UK.  Many of these families have deep ties and connections with where they’ve been living and the transition, for many, involved challenging and unsettling emotions. These intense emotions have been described as a grieving process, as we close one chapter of our life and transition into the next chapter.

Having relocated to the UK with my family after almost 20 years in Hong Kong, I have experienced my share of homesickness for the country I had called home for so long and grieved for a chapter in my life that was now closing. It is an experience I have seen replicated in many others, both friends and clients. We can find ourselves grieving for our former lifestyles, for a persona of ourselves, career and all the myriad reasons we fell in love with  Asia in the first place.  For some of us, our lives in  Asia allowed us to ‘reinvent’ ourselves: either in our careers, friendships, hobbies etc. With domestic help, endless international travel and lower tax, life can be pretty glamorous in Asia. Places like Hong Kong offer a diversity of food, restaurants, convenience and experiences which are hard to match elsewhere in the world.  

Relocating back to our country of origin, or moving to a new country can stir up all manner of feelings; reintegrating into old social circles can be more difficult than expected, friends and family may not seem as welcoming as you hoped or you might be moving to an entirely new area and need to create a social framework from scratch. In the short term, we lose our sense of ‘belonging’ which can make us feel sad, alone and isolated. 

For some, the grief they feel in leaving their old lives compounds issues that may have been ‘bubbling’ under the surface. Isolation and loneliness can trigger anxieties and depression. Marriages and relationships can be tested with the new reality of life in a different country. The cost-of-living crisis, the fallout from Covid and the war in Ukraine can make the reality of life feel pretty hard.  

So what can help? 

Firstly, acknowledging that you might be going through a grieving process will help bring an awareness of your feelings. As with anyone grieving, give yourself the space and understanding to deal with your emotions. Grief is a deeply personal and complex emotion. It doesn’t have a set timeframe and can come and go, sometimes triggered by an unexpected event or memory.  You may even find yourself experiencing the different stages of grief such as denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and finally acceptance.  Awareness and understanding are key, being kind to yourself and taking some action can help. The good news is that, with time, grief and homesickness can and will fade. That journey may be smooth or rocky but there are certain attitudes and behaviours that may help:

Let’s take a look at some of the key issues which may have the biggest impact when relocating and how you might employ some basic psychology (problem solving, reframing and addressing unhelpful negative thoughts) to make the situation a little smoother: 

  • Change of lifestyle:  Does the impact of losing the domestic help enjoyed by so many families in  Asia mean that you find yourself struggling with housework, childcare and work/life balance?  This is probably the most consistent life adjustment I have heard from friends and clients.  Whether you are a stay-at-home parent, trailing spouse or working parent, the transition to life without all the help most of us enjoyed in Asia is a tough one. It can represent a curtailment of ‘freedom’ for families with younger children and a change in the dynamics in most couples. Add on a longer work commute and dull weather and the stage is set for resentment and fireworks (no, not the fun type!)

Try practical problem solving:  sit down with your spouse and children and explain how the adjustment is affecting you.  Allocate a fair split of housework with everyone in the house, including the children (a friend of mine made sure she negotiated these terms with her family before their move!). Relax your expectations of cleanliness/ tidiness around the house.  Can your resources stretch to a cleaner a few hours a week? Set times for the whole family to help clean on the weekends; cut corners with food preparation and ironing (i.e. don’t).  Allocate set times and limits for housework so that you can get a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break and try and check in with someone who can understand.  You will not be alone!

  • Losing your sense of belonging.   This is a key issue.  Losing the familiarity of your surroundings and the sense of ‘belonging’ can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.  You may begin to feel disconnected, adrift from your old life and not yet settled into your new reality.   This can lead to sadness and low mood.   You might become fixated on the past, looking backwards and unable to move on with your new life.  Take action and engage:  it is vital that you make the effort in your new circumstances to make friends and establish a new social network. Get to know your neighbours, volunteer at your children’s school, sign up for an exercise class at the local community centre. Many community centres provide a wide range of accessible fitness and leisure courses.  Join a walking club, take up a new hobby. 

Use technology to your advantage – remain in regular contact with your old  Asia friends – wherever they might find themselves, set up regular Zoom calls and stay connected and interested in each other’s lives. Hunt out your local Hong Kong or  expat groups – either in person or on Facebook. I guarantee there is someone nearby who would love to catch up for a coffee!  

  • Friendships and relationships – revisiting old friendships can be an interesting exercise.  Hopefully, it’s a positive experience, but many people report that it can be tough to ‘reintegrate’ into their old lives and social circles. This isn’t so surprising – just as your life experiences have no doubt changed you, your old friends and family will have settled into a new way of life.  Logistics of socialising with young children can simply make  regular contact too hard. It’s important to accept that ‘slotting’ back into your old life might not happen and that’s ok – don’t take it personally.  Try not to fall into a negative thought pattern of “I don’t belong here” or “no one will like me”.   Challenge these unhelpful negative assumptions and give people a chance.  Ultimately, you will find your new tribe in this transition and that can be part of the adventure.
  • Culture shock: settling into a new culture or re-integrating can be challenging. Conversations can be nuanced and misinterpreted. Be aware of what is culturally important to you and your immediate family. Your values and traditions are important and you will find it comforting to take time to recreate the rituals and traditions you enjoyed in your previous life. We still adore celebrating Chinese New Year and putting up all the decorations up in our house!

Practice elements of Positive Psychology:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes humans happy and creates a sense of wellbeing.
Try some of these proven mood boosters:  

  • Be in the moment – avoid spiralling and thinking excessively about what you have left behind (or perhaps limit your focus on your old life to one hour a day).  Mindfulness and mediation can help ground you in the ‘here and now’.  There are many free resources online to get you started. 
  • Practice gratitude – list all the things about your life that you are grateful for.  Get into the habit of writing down three new things a day. 
  • Connect with your community – volunteering and joining clubs is a great way to give back while growing your social network.
  • Exercise and get out into nature:  I know that sunlight is limited in Europe but try to expose yourself to natural sunshine at every opportunity. Gather the kids and explore the many trails, coastal paths and National Trust properties that are within reach of you. 
  • Stay connected with your friends and family: Even though you might feel down, staying connected will always help the tough moments pass. 
  • Limit mindless scrolling on social media: Flicking through endless photos of junks, hikes and plates of steaming dim sum will not make you feel better.  Limit these to a set time daily or weekly.  
  • Positive thinking:  Look at this transition as a new chapter of your life and make it an adventure! Reframe your thinking into a more positive mindset. Instead of thinking about what was different back home – focus on all the great things at your disposal now.  
  • Humour!  If all else fails – remember to laugh.

Helping your children with the integration: 

Part of the anxiety in moving for parents is the impact on their children.   Asia might have been all they knew – other than trips back during the holidays,  Asia represents their friends, school, identity, and social structure. A relocation can be every bit as tough on them as it is on us.  Integrating into the local school environment can be an exhilarating experience (more sports facilities; new friends; new adventures) but it can also be a scary and isolating experience for others. Children (and teenagers, in particular), may feel that they have had little say in the move and feel a sense of powerlessness.  Try and include them in the decision making and involve them when making choices. Help them cultivate new friends, interests and gently steer them towards joining clubs that will interest them and help broaden their social network. We found that engaging with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards soon took care of any spare time on the weekends for our teens. Technology has made it easier than ever to keep in touch after a move – encourage weekly or monthly Zoom calls with their friends ‘back home’ or get together with other ‘returnees’ who can empathise with their situation. Ultimately, children can be extremely resilient but look out for signs of homesickness and an unwillingness to integrate into their new surroundings. Keep the lines of communication open!

Finally, and above all, be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve for your past life. Time is a healer, and the pangs of homesickness will eventually fade and you will look back on your previous life with affection and pride. Take control of the narrative for your latest adventure!

If you find that you or a member of your family is finding it hard with this transition, talking to a professional may help. Always take depression and anxiety seriously and seek help.  

Laurence Munoz

MoC

Laurence is our counsellor in the UK team. Find out more about Laurence here.

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