Last week, Irene shared about her experiences repatriating to Greece after living in China for six years. If you missed that post, you can read it here.

I’m sure many can relate to the experience of repatriating… even a visit home can give us a taste of what moving back for good would look like. And we can all remember what it was like adjusting to Beijing when we first moved here.

So this week, I thought it would be interesting to hear from a local who lived away from China for a season and is now repatriating back to life in Beijing. Joining us today is Kelu!

So Kelu, where did you move? And what took you there?

I went to Orlando, Florida in the United States, in January last year. I went for school at Rosen College of the University of Central Florida and I also did an internship at Walt Disney World.

Awesome! When did you return to China? What do you do now?

I returned to China in August after graduation. Returning meant the end of my college life. I currently work at Peking Union Medical College Hospital.

Anyone who has left Beijing for a period of time notices differences when they return because this city changes so quickly! How has Beijing changed since you left? What have been the biggest surprises?

The biggest surprise must be the way to use the subway and the bus. We can now use a QR code on our phone or link our old card to our phone or iWatch. It so convenient. Believe it or not, I lost two cards in one week so the new way couldn’t be better for me. Also, the subway system in Beijing has expanded so quickly.

Another thing that has changed is that the bike rental company, OFO, is not doing well and is probably on its way to bankruptcy. When I left, it was so popular and most of us thought it would have a bright future. I am not sure when I will get my deposit back!

Well, I hope you do soon! The United States is very different from China and I’m sure it took some time adjusting to its culture. Sometimes culture shock has us feeling very uncomfortable in certain situations and confused in others. How did culture shock affect you?

I still remember the first thing that shocked me. When I was trying to cross the road, I was waiting for traffic to clear, when I noticed cars from every direction stop. I was very confused until one driver waved his hand at me telling me to cross. Then after I crossed the road, they all continued to drive. I was completely shocked! In China, drivers never wait for pedestrians. It was my first time having that kind of privilege.

It was weird for me that Americans liked to put ice in everything they drank. It was impossible to get them to drink hot water. I tried when one of my friends caught cold but I failed. I couldn’t understand why she still stuck to drinking cold water because it could make her sickness worse.

Besides, they also liked to set the air-conditioner at a very low temperature. I always had to bring my sweater with me even when it was very hot outside.

I always hear new foreigners marveling at the traffic and hot water in China. It’s funny to hear the opposite experience! Culture shock often takes the form of homesickness. Was this ever the case for you?

It was my first time in the States, and I was busy with exploring everything there like food, culture, and the lifestyle. I enjoyed it a lot and made some very good friends. I barely got homesick except for at Spring Festival time. Most of the time, when I FaceTimed with my family, I was excited to share what I saw and what I learnt.

That’s good to hear! Of course, in a new country we also see very weird things happening right in front of us. Did you ever have an experience like this?

The craziest experience I had in the States was my first time at a local club with my friends. I was in the bathroom when I heard people having sex in the next cubicle. It was so embarrassing! Later I asked my friends if all Americans are like this and they just laughed and said “no”.

Haha! Well, that’s one way to learn not to generalize all people from a country! Many repatriates desire to emulate parts of their life abroad when they return to their home country. For example, they wish to continue learning the language, eating the food, or developing a hobby they had while abroad. What parts of your life in the U.S. do you wish to continue now that you are home?

Kelu and Pluto at Disney World!

I like the expression, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”, because it is easier that way. Except for continuing to learn English, I don’t really have any specific habits to stick to. I would, however, like to keep the habit of using a dishwasher. In Chinese homes, dishwashers are not that common. Most of us figure it only takes a few minutes to do the dishes so my first thought about the dishwasher is that Americans must be lazy. But I was wrong because it is so convenient!

And I finally figured out that Americans like ice water because it truly tastes better. I tried to put ice in my water after I came back, but it is so hard to get ice in most restaurants in China. It didn’t take long before I gave up and returned to hot water.

I’m sure a lot of people drop the habits they learn abroad when they return home. Reverse culture-shock is said to be harder than the culture shock we feel when arriving in a foreign country. For example, one might feel confused about how things work or that they don’t belong in their home country anymore. What are some ways you have experienced reverse culture-shock?

Let me tell you, I was almost hit by a car when I crossed the road for the first time when I returned to China. It was a horrible experience. I then realized that I am in China, not the States. I felt like I was a foreigner.

It took me some time to get used to the weather. Truly, the air is better than when I left. But compared to Orlando, Beijing still has some work to do.

Getting used to the crowd is not easy, especially when everyone is hustling and bustling on the subway without saying “excuse me”. There was a time when I wanted to run away.

I hear you, it is definitely an adjustment no matter what country you return to. What do you miss about the United States?

I miss the space, the beautiful clear sky, the courtesy between people, and the good payment.

When I was studying in the States, I had a part-time job at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. I worked as a hostess in a restaurant. They paid me 10 dollars an hour and 15 dollars an hour for over-time. I was told that that wage was very low compared to average in the States. But I was okay with it because I could go to Disney World for free and my parents were still funding me.

After I returned to China, I started to look for a job. At first, I was so depressed and thought I would never find one. I turned to my friends who had already found work and I realized that low payment is very common.

Did you know the salary for someone in Beijing who has just graduated is 5000-6000 RMB a month? I was shocked! How could they survive? And most of them are still funded by their parents for the first few years after graduation. I was thinking of going back to the States to just be a restaurant hostess at Disney World, haha!

Thank God it didn’t take long for me to find my current job at the hospital. It is a good one as they provide housing and the salary is not that bad.

He always provides! What about your old friendships you had before leaving for the United States? Have those friendships stayed the same or changed?

For my best friends, it didn’t change, and we are still close. It doesn’t matter where we are.

For my college friends, we are now settled down in different cities in China. It is very hard for us to get together as most of us are working now and others went abroad for further study. I thought everyone was making new friendships and we were all moving on. I don’t want to say our friendship has changed because one day when we meet, we will still be very good friends. We just don’t talk that much anymore.

Yes, that’s hard but I’m glad you have faith that you’ll stay friends. Living overseas challenges us and we grow because of it. How did you grow as a person when you lived abroad?

Kelu and her friend at their farewell party

Two ways:

1)  I became more independent in every way. My first few weeks in the States were quite hard. I had to do grocery shopping, attend class, finish homework, prepare for quizzes, go to work, do the laundry, cook my meals and finish my graduation thesis all at the same time. It was difficult, especially before I got used to the new environment.

2) I started my relationship with God. There was one thing my friends had in common and that was that they were all Christian. This was when I decided I wanted to learn about Christianity and seek more.

Amen! I love how God uses our travels to bring us closer to Him. Many Chinese people will go abroad for work or school. What encouragement or advice can you offer them?

I like the line from the movie Cinderella, “Have courage and be kind”.

Have courage to explore the culture and make friends. Do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. There is so much to see. Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to speak English. Your English will improve very quickly when you keep using it.

Be kind to everyone you meet. Kindness helps work things out.

Last but not least, if you like things when you are shopping, don’t hesitate to buy them. You will find they are twice or triple the price when you return to China.

Haha! That’s right. Finally, many repatriates find a new appreciation for their home country when they live away. What things about China do you appreciate now that you have lived somewhere else?

Three things:

1) Food. Chinese food is just so good and was always what I missed most! American food is also good, but my favorite will always be Chinese food.

2) The convenience of life. I appreciate Taobao and grocery delivery services. It is so convenient to get everything done online within a limited time. I hated having to go grocery shopping every week in the States.

3) The public transportation. I could barely go anywhere without a car in Orlando. However, in almost all Chinese cities public transportation is very convenient.

Those are some of my favourite things about China too! Well, Kelu, thank you so much for sharing with us today! I’m sure your insights have been a blessing, not just to Chinese people preparing to move overseas, but those of us here in Beijing walking with them as they go through repatriating. 

Readers, let’s be in prayer for our brothers and sisters as they go through seasons of repatriation. Let’s pray for peace in the transition and for them to find community with other believers quickly.

If you have a question or comment, please write in the comments section below!

If you would like to hear more of the experiences of those who have repatriated, we have a podcast episode for you to listen to below:

Bonus: Going “Home ” – A conversation with Middle Kingdom expats who have repatriated