~ Known ~
“I will miss this next year,” I lamented, looking around at a group of mom friends. On a rare mom’s night, we sat talking about beach hotels we have all visited - sometimes at the same time, about the new international school, about our children’s Chinese language progress and willingness to interact with other Chinese kids, about what country we will be in at what time.
“When I am here, our life seems pretty normal, but when I am back in America I realize our lives are really weird! The simplest discussions – about backyards or buying cars or extracurricular activities – leave me feeling isolated.” Everyone nodded in understanding.
Because we do understand each other. We understand the stress of being the one fascinating foreigner at a Kindergarten meeting, trying to practice your language skills while chasing your toddler around and warding off picture takers when they get a little too enthusiastic. We understand the joy of hearing your children speak Chinese and interact with other Chinese kids – when a year ago they didn’t want to even try. We all understand the stress of 24+hour trips and jetlag and endless transitions.
Many of us in this expat community have “grown up together.” We have waded together through having babies that are never dressed in enough layers and toddlers who won’t sleep, preschoolers who don’t always want to go to Chinese kindergarten, and now grade school students with classroom drama. We talk about home school curriculum, 三轮车’s, and the new Burger King that just opened. We are from different states and different countries, but we seem to have more in common than not.
~ Stress-Induced Insanity ~
I wondered if spontaneous combustion really happens, because I could swear my head was going to explode. My heart beat strangely, my head pounded with too much blood, my nerves tingled. Everything sounded too loud and grating.
The girls were finally in bed, but I could still hear the lullaby shrilling from their China-gifted blinking, twirling star machine. It is supposed to be soothing, but it may cause seizures and certainly insanity. Kevin sat next to me, wondering at my blank silence. “Kevin, I need you to go out of here,” I said rather shortly. “I am too stressed to be with people right now.” I knew he didn’t quite understand. He feels stressed too, but it doesn’t seem to lead to stress-induced insanity, aka. extreme over-stimulation.
Fortunately as I have learned more about what it means to be highly sensitive, I can recognize what is happening. I am not going insane. But I might, unless I escape all the stimulation and be alone. So I sent Kevin away before I started yelling at him and told him for the love of all that is holy, turn off that horrible lullaby.
Sitting under a thick blanket on our bed in soft lamplight, with the door closed and ocean noise on, the pressure in my head began to release. It is worse with stress, I know. How do I balance the packing, the daily piles of laundry, handling the kids (better than I have been), the last minute obligations, this encroaching deadline, and my own need for sanity? Everywhere I look is a reminder of what needs to be done. The outside world of our home descends further into chaos, and the barrier between outer and inner world starts to disintegrate. How do I protect an inner peace?
~ Bittersweet ~
Juliana came home from her last day of international school with a personalized scrapbook. Each page holds notes from her teachers and pictures of her at school. In half of the pictures her hands are covered in paint and her face with a silly grin. There she is concentrating on the drums, acting in the Christmas pageant, studying Chinese. Her teachers write – in English and Chinese – about her sunny disposition, her silliness, her enthusiasm.
This was the school’s first semester, their “soft opening,” so all of the 30-some students are known well. The school has been flexible, allowing for part-time home school. They have made allowances for our kids’ strange, foreign ways. They have been understanding when we said, “Actually we need to go live in another country for a year, mid-school-year, so we’ll be back later.”
I think Juliana will enjoy public school in America next year, but there will be confusion. When she tries to add up American money she tries to remember which one is a kuai. She has now sorted out the American and Chinese flags, but she doesn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance or that most people in America, when asked where they are from, don’t say, “I’m from America,” or “I’m from China.” We are a little weird to Chinese and to Americans, but in this little in-between world of ours, we all make sense.
~ Stress Dreams ~
I have been having a lot of stress dreams. Lately I have varied from my ordinary stress dreams – realizing we are supposed to travel and I forgot to pack, or my recurring “out of control elevator” dream, where the elevator never goes where I want, but shoots up to the 157 floor, or down 47 floors below the ground, or leaves the building altogether and shoots across the street.
No, lately I have dreamed about a rapist serial killer and all the woman he molested, about Kevin rearranging all our cabinets in a way that made no sense, about going back to America and nobody having time to hang out with us, about Nadia running into the road and almost being run over by a car, and last night - about Steve Bannon getting into our house and snooping around, trying to extract information from us. So yes, stress nightmares. Thank God I don’t have prophetic dreams. I think I can understand why Adalyn keeps waking up screaming at night.
~ Heartbreak ~
Adalyn keeps waking up screaming at night. Sometimes it is night terrors. Sometimes she is awake but can’t seem to calm down. Everything seems out of control, especially inside of herself. She is excited about going back to America, but she is the most sensitive to upheaval. I try to figure out what is going on with her – is she reacting to our stress? Is it her own difficulty coping with transition? Is it something more?
I took her out one afternoon. We ate ice cream in our coats and played a game and worked a puzzle and did a little activity about stress. I wasn’t sure she would even understand stress, but her insights were surprisingly deep for a four year old. Too deep for a four year old. She used pictures and colors (my child for sure) to describe the fear and “break-fulness” she feels. I could understand how she felt, and it was heartbreaking. Surely a four year old should not feel this way. Is it the stress of transition? If it is, how will she ever survive this crazy life of ours? Is it something deeper? If so, how do we know what is going on and get her help?
~ Goodbyes ~
The milk tea lady gives me an extra kind smile whenever I see her. The shop workers exclaim when our girls wander through the store. Every time I drive up, our fruit lady gives the girls fruit and snacks, or asks about them when they aren't along. She gathers up a whole bag of “ugly” fruit and gives it to us for free. The neighbors smile with delight when they see us in a restaurant or at the kindergarten or on the road. “Look, there is 安安 and her sisters!” Everyone knows Juliana. The owners of our favorite restaurants will wonder, “What ever happened to those foreigners? We haven’t seen them in ages?” Because we can’t tell everyone we are leaving. But who should we be sure to tell goodbye?
~ Packing ~
The other day our friend watched the girls, and I had an hour to focus on packing. It is amazing how much can be accomplished without constant interruptions. I laid out all the dishes we didn’t absolutely need to use and wrapped them in layers of bedding. I was a little worried about them breaking, but then I realized these dishes have withstood years of hard use, so they have probably never been so safe in their lives. I felt pretty good after that hour. See all we accomplished? This is totally possible.
A few days and approximately zero packing later, I thought, “Surely I can get something done this morning.” Right after I put some laundry in to wash, and hang up that pile of clean clothes, and help Adalyn draw a Christmas tree and then draw one for Nadia too, and reheat my coffee, and clean up the contents of the previously packed bin which are now scattered on the floor, and oh, now it’s time to pick up Juliana from dance class. But I did pack a tiny ziplock for hair things, so that is progress, right? This is never going to work.
~ Messy ~
I have been reading a book called Looming Transitions, written by a past colleague Amy Young. In one chapter titled “Accept That It’s Going to Be Messy,” Amy says, “a sign of finishing well is the ability to embrace the chaos of life.” I want this ending – which is an ending, even if only for a time - to be neat and orderly. I want my responses to transition to make sense. But the truth is, it’s going to be messy.
We cannot pack up a house without piles of boxes, bags of trash and stacks of give away. Some things will be carefully wrapped up and others left behind; some things will inevitably be lost in the shuffle. I start by trying to divide everything into categories: books, toys, kitchen items. I end by throwing anything and everything into any box that will hold it. I think I have a box all packed and ready only to realize it has been upended, its contents scattered all over the floor by oh-so-helpful children.
We cannot transition without mess. I feel a grief at losing some of the things I value most. We look forward to returning to family and friends, but we leave behind friends who have become like family. Even if we return here, as we certainly plan, it will not be the same. Some people will be gone. China will be different, as it leaps decades – backwards or forwards – in a single bound. I feel relief at starting over, getting rid of some of the baggage we have carried from place to place, when we should have left it behind years ago. I hate the thought of starting over. I wish we could just keep doing the same thing, even if it is not working it is familiar.
"Embracing” the chaos seems a bit out of reach, but I take time away from the craze of packing to process and write. To stop and have coffee with friends. To draw a Christmas tree with my daughter. To make sure I am still breathing. And then I dive back into the mess of transition.