Life Transitions: Relocations

Life Transitions: Relocations

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


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

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Navigating and Coping with Life Transitions

Navigating and Coping with Life Transitions

Changing is inevitable, suffering is optional. Having relocated to London after living in Hong Kong for over two decades, I find myself facing challenging life transitions familiar to many.  Not only in the form of adjusting to my new home, community, cultural nuances and surroundings, but also in terms of an empty nest as my children move into tertiary education; and not to mention negotiating and establishing a new work life as a trailing spouse once again.  But what is it about life transitions that can make them so challenging?

Understanding Life Point Transitions and Human Development 

In order to answer this question it is necessary to understand how change affects our development as human beings.  As we age and navigate life, we go through systematic developmental changes which include physical, cognitive and psychosocial changes that occur between life and death.  These changes across our life span are not unpredictable and fleeting. Rather, they tend to occur in a patterned orderly manner that can be organised into key life stages or periods, starting from infancy and progressing to late adulthood with several stages such as adolescence and emerging adulthood in between.  

However, at any age, developmental change involves both gains and losses or differences from how we were before.  For example, an adult who may be concerned about their career path becomes concerned about their ability to be a parent and the future of their children. Equally, development also involves continuities, ways in which we remain the same or continue to reflect our past selves.  It is also worth noting that our development is also shaped by historical and cultural elements and how our lives play out in the social contexts and times in which we develop.  Several studies today show how adolescent development is being changed by today’s innovations in digital media and communication technologies.  Our development is multi-faceted and multiply influenced; it is the product of nature and nurture, the many interacting causes of both biological and environmental influences, as well as our capacity and ability to change in response to an experience.  Therefore, it is the often unpredictable outcome of ongoing interactions between a changing person and our changing world that bring about life transitions.

As we move from one phase of life to another, we face inevitable change that may require behaviour change. There can be periods in life when relatively little change takes place, and then other periods that are characterised by dramatic shifts from one’s status or way of living to where our personal world is majorly disrupted.  As we encounter these transition points, we can face profound changes to routines, roles and responsibilities which are on a different scale and can result in mental health challenges including stress, anxiety and depression.  Transitions can be unexpected, unplanned and sudden, such as: losing a job, winning the lottery, illness, divorce, the loss of a loved one or moving to another area or country.  Other transitions are predictable or ‘normative’ changes such as leaving home, becoming a parent or retirement.  Often many transitions are a combination of several changes both unexpected and normative in nature occurring simultaneously.  Thus, we often find ourselves caught up in coping with day-to-day difficulties and pressures without much respite as we are unable to address stress in terms of the broader perspective, allowing for clearer navigation of a transition from one life phase to another. So how can we make sense of our new situation and figure out what we can do to cope better?  

Tackling life transitions 

There are a number of strategies we can employ to help us reflect on our new situation in order to develop ideas of what action we can take to better cope with life transitions. A good place to start is to construct a timeline with both positive and negative times such as ‘when I graduated’ or ‘when my mother died’.  This exercise is a useful means of reflection on the processes in our lives and understandings that have emerged from them and what might be missing. It is important to then use these memories and reflections to think about the future and what we would ideally like to happen next. If you prefer to pursue a more narrative version of a timeline you can consider writing an autobiography or memoire. Not all of us have the time, patience and resources to do this, however, thinking about ‘key scenes’ in our lives and identifying different ‘chapters’ in one’s life and giving each one a title can be a great way to identify different transition shifts over the course of life. This process allows for plenty of opportunity for reflection on the meaning of past events.  

Another useful activity is to use a choice map.  This is a powerful way to assess the choices we have made at previous transition points in our lives. In the same way as using memories and reflections from a life timeline to think about the future, we can view our current choice point in the context of fulfilling or self-denying decisions that we may have made in the past. 

In addition, we must consider the cultural context of what a transition means to us. This can be very helpful to clarify what exactly we are facing. All cultures and sub-cultures are organised around beliefs and rituals to mark the significance of life-course transitions such as birth, marriage, death, leaving home, retirement etc.  The cultural meaning of transitions affects us in many ways.  For example, one may be troubled by the cultural meanings and messages of getting divorced or coming out as gay.  Similarly, it may be that you are troubled by a transition because you have missed out on a valued cultural ritual.  Throughout the recent pandemic several young adults missed out on formal graduations or being able to share these events with friends and family (‘I spent years working towards my degree and nobody seemed to care’).  Based on this cultural understanding, sometimes devising a personal or family ritual can serve to create a meaningful and memorable experience that embodies your individual core values and beliefs about the world. A party is a form of transition ritual that is widely used; for example, I had a number of leaving parties with different social circles when I migrated.  Rituals can also be far more idiosyncratic, such as burying running shoes when illness makes it impossible to continue to run marathons.

The good news…

Very often, being able to merely acknowledge that a transition is taking place is cathartic enough as the difficulties we are experiencing are firmly within a social-cultural perspective rather than a mental illness.  This acceptance of a transition also carries a message of hope: yes, we may be feeling deeply troubled and in pieces, but this is a necessary and inevitable step towards a different role or life stage and an opportunity to cultivate resilience.  All this self-reflection and meaning-making is hard work to do on your own, but help is always available. Seeking help from a trained practitioner can help ease the burden of negotiating life transitions and smoothen your life journey from one phase to another. 

Lara Melwani


If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Find out more about Lara here.

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