Photo: IOTA Ext
MY PARENTS RECENTLY VISITED ME in Hong Kong. It was their first trip back to their birthplace in nearly 20 years, as well as their first time visiting me in my new home.
As we traveled through the neighborhoods where they spent their youth struggling to build a life, I was given the rare chance to glimpse the city through their eyes.
Learning about my parents’ early lives, as well as exactly how deep my roots in Hong Kong are, were some of the major reasons for me to move here. It was life-changing experience on many levels. I constantly willed my brain to remember every detail, every smell, every sound. Not just because I got to experience some of “their Hong Kong,” but because I hadn’t seen my parents in nearly two years and I wasn’t sure when I’d see them again.
Such is the sacrifice one makes when one chooses to live abroad.
When I put my parents in a cab and watched them head off to the airport, my chest ached. I felt like a little girl again, reaching for my mom as she left me on my first day of school.
I missed, and continue to miss my parents, but it’s more than that. As they drove away, I couldn’t help but feel a quality of guilt I’ve never experienced before. While I believe that guilt is not always right or rational, there is often truth to it. In that moment, for maybe the first time ever, I felt guilty for choosing to live so far away from my parents, my loved ones, my home in the US.
Make no mistake, I love living in Hong Kong, and I’ve loved traveling the world. But as my family gets older — as we ALL get older — I can’t help but ruminate on the choice I’ve made to live so far away. What have I given up?
Many people talk about the joys of living abroad, seeing the world, experiencing something bigger than a life spent in the community you were born into. This is my life right now, and I don’t regret it. But as much as we talk about the merits of living abroad, we rarely talk about what we lose in exchange.
While I haven’t lived in the same city as my parents since I was 18, for much of my adult life they were never more than a few hours away. Calling was easy, I just had to add or subtract a couple hours, not entire days. We called each other for practical reasons, to share joys and sorrows, to argue. But there was an ease in connection that is now thwarted by multiple time zones and thousands of miles.
When my parents went through a difficult time and needed my help, I was able to hop in my car and drive all night to be with them the next day. When I got horribly sick, so sick I was unable to walk for several months, my parents and family were able to come to my aid quickly and without too much financial or physical hardship. As my parents age, I fear that one day a 15-hour flight might not be fast enough to reach them.
I see friends on social media talk about having lunch with their mom, or celebrating their dad’s birthday, and a part of me longs to take part in such “everyday milestones.” Communities and families are not built on huge extravaganzas or the occasional, remarkable occurrence; they are built on the intimacy of everyday. With my family and friends, I have not shared such an intimacy in years. Sometimes I feel like an outsider. In many ways I actually am an outsider.
You may say, “You’re crying over birthday parties and lunches while you are living a life that so many people dream of, but never get to live?”
But if you are posing that question, let me ask you this: If you really think about it, what would it cost you to leave those closest to you, be they friends or family, in order to live abroad?
Is not seeing them through thick and thin worth it in the name of living your dream?
There is no perfect answer, and no life choice is perfect. Sometimes I wonder if I really “looked before I leapt”? Would I change my life choices? Probably not. But do I wish that I had better understood the ramifications of my choices? I think so.
Along with missing my friends and family, I find that I am somewhat distant from the culture I grew up in. I am an American, I grew up in America, I was educated in an American system. There are certain behaviors and beliefs and I can’t shake as an American. However, I find that when confronted with American culture now, I am a bit out of touch. America is both familiar and foreign to me.
I no longer have the immediate touchstone of “life in America” that formerly so defined how I conducted myself. There is something to be gained by this, don’t get me wrong, as learning how any any individual or a culture fits into the larger world is something that I think benefits us all. But I admit, for me, my connection to the community that “built” me is becoming hazy.
While American politics and news still feel important and immediate to me, my understanding of the issues affecting my hometown or even home state are sometimes just that, an understanding. One could argue that on a global scale, such things are insignificant, but those things affect the people I care about. A part of me mourns having a real, visceral stake in the needs of my former community.
There are times I long for something smaller than the “global community”; something closer to my chest. I miss the intimacy of my home community.
Amidst all this wondering and soul searching, I keep asking myself if there can be a balance?
Is it possible for a person to live abroad but still hold onto the important parts of their life “back home”? Or is finding peace with what you gave up part of living abroad?
For my own sanity, I have to believe a balance exists. I’m trying to embrace the guilt, embrace the longing, embrace the fear that I may be missing out on my friends and family’s lives. Those feelings are what constantly compel me to connect with my home.
I think it comes down to what you are willing to hold onto, to fight for, as well as what you’re willing to gracefully accept.