Expat Sat: Repatriation, Loss & What It All Might Mean or Not Mean

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writing. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing and publishing to expat writers around the globe.

When I moved back to the United States from China last October, I made a mind-boggling discovery. (Well, I made a number of mind-boggling discoveries, but for today, I’ll stick with just one.)

I can no longer park a car.

After nearly five years in Shanghai where to get from place to place I had walked, taken a taxi, or hitched a ride with our driver Mr. Chen, I can no longer park a car.

And I’m not just talking about parallel-parking—that especially challenging maneuver that eludes even some of the world’s finest parkers. Hell, lots of people who’ve never left their hometown can’t parallel-park. Nope…I’m talking about good old-fashioned parking-lot parking. I can’t do it. I cannot neatly and efficiently pull my not-so-very-big car into a designated spot (a generously wide designated spot, mind you, with bright white lines clearly demarcating where the heck I’m supposed to put my car).

Can’t do it.

Every time I try, I end up crooked (wildly crooked), in two spots, or hunched up so close to the car next to me that I could actually give the passenger a big, wet smooch if we both opened our windows at the same time. (Unlikely because the few times passengers have looked up and found me…and my car…nearly in their laps, they’ve start hollering or giving me the finger pretty quickly. So far, no smooches.)

Before China (or B.C., as I often call that time in my life), I could have parallel-parked a mack truck. An airplane. An f’ing tank if you’d asked me.

Thanks to the years I spent in Washington, D.C. driving a Mazda 323 that didn’t have power steering, I was arguably the reigning queen of parallel-parking. Sure, that Mazda had been small but I could wriggle her into spots no wider than a legal-sized envelope, pumping the steering wheel hand over hand, all the while chanting, “All I want is power steering. All I want is power steering.” That kind of training and discipline paid off. And B.C., I was sure it had paid off for a lifetime.

But then came China.

And then repatriation.

And now—A.C. (after China)—I’m unable to maneuver into the most generous parking spots at the grocery store, the bookstore, the airport, my daughter’s preschool. You name it, I can’t park there. After a few disastrous attempts at the mall, I began parking as far away as possible…you know, in those spots no one ever uses except at the holidays…because I don’t want to accidentally sideswipe a car or, truth be told, let anyone see how awful I’ve become at this simple task.

Here’s how an average parking attempt goes:

I arrive at a destination, pull my car into a spot, turn off the ignition, get out of my car, gauge my success or failure, shake my head at the fact that I am either straddling two spots or have six feet in front of me with my tail end poking out, climb back into the car, turn on the ignition, and try again.

And again.

It’s ridiculous.

And sometimes, I admit, I just give up and go home.

Though I’m humored by this strange, unexpected outcome of my time in China, I also recognize the symbolism in it. As much as I gained from my experience in Shanghai, I lost some significant things too.

Sure, I’ll probably get the hang of parking again…eventually…but it will never be the same. I’ve changed. Space has changed. And perhaps most importantly, how much I care about fitting neatly into a perfectly sized parking spot has changed.

I think I’m more interested in the smooch.





Q4U: Expats / Repats / Globetrotters: What have you lost as a result of your time out of your home country? What does that loss mean to you?



Lips: Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

11 Responses to Expat Sat: Repatriation, Loss & What It All Might Mean or Not Mean

  1. Killer entry! Love it! I do a lot of parallel parking in New Haven and I’m usually a one swoop in kinda gal. But, if I don’t parallel park for a couple weeks, I get all flummoxed, miss the 1st attempt and the kids tell me I’ve lost my mojo. I cannot even imagine “missing” a parking lot spot but I swear some parking lots have spots that are shrinking like airline seat allotments!

  2. Love this story, Kristin. My husband is currently taking lessons for his UK license and it’s amazing how difficult it is to learn how to park in a UK vehicle. Totally agree that there is deep symbolism in the smallest things about re-entry (or further patriation for that matter.). Good luck with it as you continue to negotiate those twists and turns!

    Delia lloyd

    • Thanks, Delia. I can’t even imagine trying to park a UK vehicle…though at this point I might find I’m better at it than a US vehicle. 🙂 Good luck to him! May the parking gods be generous and kind.

  3. I’d love to say the same thing happened to me. Sadly, I would be lying — I’ve *never* been able to parallel park, or even back into a parking space without shearing off the door handles of the car beside me. What I lost when I moved from Singapore were the cockroaches in the car — such a fun diversion when you’re barrelling down the expressway! Driving is much more boring these days.

  4. I’m a ‘glass-half-full’ type, so I’m much more likely to think about the things I’ve gained by leaving my home country. I think living in China has made me so much more patient, and more connected to other people.

    It definitely happened as an evolutionary response – if you can’t adjust to China, you’ll flame out and die. But now I’m always ready for things to take the time they take – and if it’s shorter than expected, well that’s cause for happiness.

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  6. Fun entry, Kristin. The driving – parking issue for expats is not to be underestimated 🙂 You don’t drive for a number of years, and well, obviously, you’re a little uncomfortable when you get behind the wheel again. But I especially like the symbolism of not fitting into a nice rectangle, between lines drawn for you. It says a lot.
    My own anecdotes have not to do with having forgotten to drive or park (to stay with cars) because after a year in India, I got sick and tired of drivers, and became the only expat in town driving her Scorpio. At first, I drove sitting on a very, very tight butt (my daughter still remembers these first two weeks) but soon, I became an expert and honked madly like the rest of them. Plus, I loved seeing the flabbergasted looks of Indian men at the traffic lights. A white woman driving a car !!! Imagine that.
    So, I did drive. Only thing is, they drive on the left side in India. Ha! Imagine me back in France for the summer, in a rented car, turning left as I come out of a parking, and finding myself in a one way street with another car coming on the other side, and the guy behind the wheel, in true, patient, courteous French fashion, yelling at me, and pointing at his temple, as if to say, “are you out of your frigging mind, lady ? Where the hell do you think you are?” Well… back in India ?

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