Usually the summer breaks give us a moment for a little perspective. I take the kids for 6 or 7 weeks and we leave China behind. We march ourselves to the airport and go to visit the grandparents in the United States. We check in on our old friends and overdose on all the American products we have been living without.
Me: “What do you guys want to eat while we are back in the United States?”
Our trip home last summer was stressful. There was too much living out of suitcases and the inevitable unmet expectations that come with a highly anticipated trip. It was our first summer home and no one was sure what to expect. Or rather, we all had expectations, and sometimes those turned out to be in conflict with some of the expectations of other people. It’s not that people weren’t being hospitable—quite the opposite. It’s that being a guest for weeks at a time is hard on everyone. It is tricky coming back to your home country, even if it is only for a short while. The kids are just beginning to realize this and it is bittersweet. They miss “home,” but they are having trouble defining what that means. When a friend asked Lucas where he felt most comfortable, in the United States or in China, he had difficulty answering. They are in limbo.
For our second summer, I tried to be a little more proactive. We are moving around lots, but with a nice break in the middle where we are by ourselves for a bit. I hadn’t intended for us to be alone just the 4 of us, but plans fell through and we are hanging out in Florida in a borrowed house. Which is turning out to be just what we needed. Because it turns out the second summer home is different from the first. The novelty has worn off and we are missing our routine. Except now we have no real “routine.” There is no summer camp or swim team, no garden in the backyard. There are no lazy summer days with nothing to do and we need those. We miss the way summers used to be.
Our routine now involves leaving daddy, the dog, and the new kitten and traveling all day. Our 14 hour flight now seems not only manageable, but normal. We call the flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore “the short flight” and we can travel without putting much thought into what to pack. This trip was uneventful. When we only got 3 upgrades to first class (ahem, perspective) on the short flight, I gave them to the kids so they could sleep better. I told the flight attendant where I would be in economy and left it at that. Our only tense moment came during our layover when Lucas decided to begin acting in the role of narrator for our conversations, intoning in a grave voice things like, “She said angrily,” every time I opened my mouth. My reaction was unpleasant, but we all survived the incident. When it comes time to leave, we will do it all over again, making the trip in reverse.
The first summer was all about novelty. It was about packing as much in as possible. The second summer has turned out to be a bit more introspective as we all realize some of the loss that comes with taking the opportunity to live in Shanghai. For the kids, the world has gotten big—but not so big that they can’t see the things we are missing out on. They want to go camping like they used to. They want to have their father share more of their summer adventures. They want a few lazy days in their underwear watching cartoons.
These crazy traveling summers prove that moving to China has some serious drawbacks. We miss clean air and drinking water, for example. Those are not small things. And life in Shanghai also has one element that we are really only experiencing for the first time this summer: everyone is constantly in transition. When we come back from our vacation, each of the kids will be missing at least one significant friend. Either they have returned home or their family has been sent on a new international assignment. In this expat community, no one sticks around for long. And this is now part of our routine. Every December and June means people leaving and every January and August means new kids at school and new families in our neighborhood. Eventually we will leave China for someplace new, which should really put things in perspective. Because even though it sometimes sounds like we will never escape China’s clutches, we won’t be living in Shanghai forever.