This is the first part in a series of blog posts covering our process of repatriation from Korea to Michigan. Starting with the introspective and then moving into the more practical, I will take you through my and my family’s experiences in this series, as well as hopefully share some relevant wisdom from friends and colleagues who have gone through similar processes.
Michal and I, along with our kids, have been living out of our suitcases for the past six months, as we just now have settled into our new home. (Long story, short: Home-buying process took longer than expected.)
Really, in some ways, it’s felt like Michal and I have been nomads for more than a decade as each city of residence in our relationship was temporary for different reasons – two and half years in Korea for work, two years in Virginia in grad student housing, five years in Chicagoland during the dating/engagement/early marriage stages, four years in East Lansing for undergrad/before we met.
With multiple major life changes occurring simultaneously (new baby born soon after the first, moving countries, buying our first home, leasing a car, starting a job), it felt like I was continually hitting the pause button on life while everyone else would jump in and hit play. Repatriation alone is jarring because the expectation is that returning to the familiar would be easy, but it was the opposite with reverse culture shock, aching wanderlust, and re-learning how to parent in the States vs. a developing Asian country.
After finally unpacking the last box of our old life in our new home, it seemed that it was time to give this blog a fitting ending. Returning to the inspiration of Steps in Seoul, I will share how our initial homecoming plans juxtaposed with the actual outcome – and how it all happened according to God’s timing.
But first, some disclosures –
To friends and family from my former life before becoming an expat parent:
It’s taken me a while to reconnect in social circles where my identity is now more “mom” than anything else you once knew me as – writer, teacher, editor, party hostess, bar hopper, DPA Communications Chair, Yelp Elite reviewer, the expat escaping reality.
In my life “before baby” (B.B.) you may have known me to stay up late on my own volition to scrapbook for hours on end, to attend a midnight showing of Harry Potter, or to request drunk food in the form of chili cheese fries from Coney Island, noodles in Chinatown or delivery Pokey Stix from Gumby’s in East Lansing. Maybe you used to only see me on holidays during a break from school or work, and now I’m learning to “do real life with you.”
I apologize for the MIAs at those high school and college reunions, the potluck dinner parties, and nights out in Royal Oak/Ferndale/Detroit. (My second baby refuses the bottle so timing is key with those drinks and commute time.) I apologize for not keeping up with those Google chats, Facebook group messages, GroupMe messages, WhatsApp messages, WeChat messages, iMessages, or any other form of social media, as I pretty much only used Kakao the entire time I was in Korea and now I’m re-downloading apps onto a new phone with a Detroit suburb area code. (Tell me honestly – Do I really need Snapchat?)
But most of all, I apologize if I seem a bit disinterested in conversation/less loyal than I once was, as it’s likely I’m stumbling through some sleep regression stage with the infant or counting down the minutes my temporary freedom ends when one of two children will wake up from a nap, or I’m simply anxious about looking uninformed or less “with it” after being abroad for a couple years. Know that I am trying to keep up, and one day, my head and my heart will return home just as my body has.
To new or potential friends I’ve met in moms’ groups, in the neighborhood, at church:
Please educate me without judgement as I’m fumbling my way through everything related to parenting and homemaking in the States. From ordering groceries online (Clicklist appeared in the time we were gone!) and meal prepping (so did Instant Pot), to napping on the go and car seat regulations (not owning a car for five months post-repatriation while living in Motor City did not help), every aspect of motherhood has been re-learned and re-tooled.
I became a parent in Seoul, 25.6 million people when including the metro area, and it was actually safe to walk around at night. Not to mention, Korea (and most of Asia) was incredibly family-friendly/accommodating to babies in every way from being allowed to jump airport lines to finding luxurious nursing rooms in malls, train stations and grocery stores. With government-subsidized daycare and quality nanny sharing for less an hour than what I pay to get yard work done here in Michigan, I never had to fret about leaving my kids with a stranger in Seoul.
What I’ve learned since returning to the States is that motherhood here is a lot more about managing the individual family than working together to raise the future of our society at large. But it is possible to “find your tribe” and get support in unexpected ways. For instance, I’ve never had so many people offer to take care of my children for free/last-minute, while also taking care of their own. I will never forget the moments that my friends, with their own needy toddlers and infants, willingly took mine alongside theirs, expecting nothing in return.
To any potential new friends out there, know that the parameters of a friendship have been redefined for me. I’ve grown used to thinking “How long will I be here? How long will you be here? Is this worth the investment of time?” Now that we’ve bought a home in place with good schools near family, we’re likely here for the long-term, and I’m just now letting my guard down and anticipating that each person I encounter could be the mother of my child’s best friend, or even one of my new bffs.
With the uncertain, comes the certainties
In an Alpha course I completed back in March, we shared our struggles ranging from physical ailments to emotional strife, praying for each person’s restoration. At the time, Michal was traveling for business and my in-laws were about to set off on a vacation. My then-almost -2-year-old Sophia seemed to be having sporadic night terrors, while then 6-month-old Ana continued to wake every couple hours to nurse.
I asked the group for prayers related to rest — to have the energy to be the mother my kids needed me to be. That night, Michal texted me saying he would have to travel an additional week on top of the two weeks he had already been gone. Not to mention, we had just figured out bedtime routines after readjusting two jet-lagged babies post-repatriation while he traveled for his prior job in the beginning of our time back in the States. I just didn’t think I had it in me anymore.
At first instinct, I reacted to this text with “God, did you hear me?” But now in a more clear state of mind, I recall that He did provide support, despite not having actual sleep. My cousin and sister-in-law each baby sat Sophia for a couple hours during that week. A mutual friend, who I was just getting reacquainted with, generously offered to baby sit Ana, while in between jobs that week and actually ended up getting hired by a new employer in the following week. Like the “lilies in the field,” there was no need to worry:
“Can any of you add a single hour to the length of your life by worrying?
And why do you worry about clothes? Consider the lilies in the field and how they grow. They don’t work or spin yarn, but I tell you that not even Solomon in all of his splendor was clothed like one of them.
Now, if that is the way God clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and thrown into an oven tomorrow, won’t he clothe you much better—you who have little faith?”
Sometimes the anxiety in anticipation of not getting sleep or of feeling alone during those seemingly endless stretches of night is what is worse/causes me more disturbed rest. In these moments, I try to keep in mind what a friend from Korea, who I knew from a childbirth class and who had led a Bible Study I was in, once told me. She posed a question something along the lines of the following:
“Do I put my trust in what sleep will provide me, or do I trust that what God has provided me is all the sleep I need?”
More to come in following blog posts related to repatriation and God’s plans vs. my own. If you’re a fellow recovering expat who would like to pass on wisdom, please feel free to complete this questionnaire and I’ll share results soon!