I recently wrote an article for the Shanghai Expat Association (SEA) Courier magazine on what a spouse needs to do to get her family ready to repatriate or move on to the next expat assignment. I spoke with a dozen women who live or recently lived here, which in and of itself was an awesome experience and a great way to connect with more people and make friends. The prevailing thought after all those chats was that there really isn’t anything major you have to do to prepare to leave. You should be honest with your family and explain what’s going on, especially to small children who might need time to fully understand the changes that will happen to their lives. And beyond all the practical things you did to prepare your life when you first arrived in shanghai (sell/rent your home, say your final goodbyes to friends and family, etc) the biggest takeaway I got from people is to just life your life here as best you can, take advantage of the benefits of the expat lifestyle, and try to check everything you can off your bucket list.
When I first set up these interviews, I thought that some larger idea would reveal itself to me through these conversations. I figured I just wasn’t focused on leaving yet so I didn’t realize all that it encompassed. But the truth of it is, you always need to be “seizing the day” when you’re in this life. You can’t take it for granted because it goes by fast. The last-minute trip to Thailand isn’t going to be an option for you when you’re back living in your home country (for most people, anyway). So continually review the bucket list you made when you agreed to this journey, and make sure you check the boxes as soon as you can.
Of course, this is just a life lesson we should be aware of regardless of whether we’re an expat or not. But at least in my case I know that it’s not top of mind when we’re living back in the US. We go about our lives and we don’t often have a bucket list for everyday life. Sure, my husband and I figure on a vacation or two each year, and we try to save money, but the urgency to act isn’t present. The deadline that you have with an expat contract forces your hand here, and I think that’s a good thing. I hope I take that urgency home with me whenever we do leave.
The need to seize the day has become a big topic in our house as of late. A very good friend of ours is battling cancer for the third time and has some tough choices to make about what medical care he should try. Nothing makes you realize how fragile life is like facing down mortality. So, without getting too morose, I’ll just leave it that this lifestyle is a good reminder that we all have an expiration date on life whether we think about it consciously or not. And to have the “repatriation date” looming somewhere in the future forces us to think about the here and now more so than ever before.
What will you try to accomplish before your time in Shanghai is up? What will you regret not doing if you had to leave tomorrow?