Expat Sat: Did It Really Happen?

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, publishing, and grabbing the story in life to expat writers around the globe.

We’ve been back in the States a little over seven months now and almost every day, I’m still experiencing what I call the “Did it really happen?” syndrome. Here’s how it works:

I’ll be at the grocery store, in the bathroom at Macy’s, on the threshold of my daughter’s preschool classroom, in the middle of the playground, hunched over my computer, driving to wherever, drooling over my iPhone, stirring chocolate into milk, breading chicken…anything…when I think of a particular moment in my nearly 5-year life in Shanghai and I freeze.

“Did it really happen?” I think.

But it’s more like this:








(insert any loud, annoying onomatopoetic sound!)

And honestly, in those moments, it feels as if China were a dream. And for the few moments following, I don’t really know.

To reassure myself that I’m not losing my mind and that, yes, indeed, I’ve recently returned from many years in Shanghai, I go to my photos.

This is me, I tell myself. Me and the surprisingly bristly panda in Chengdu who was clearly being plied with as much bamboo as necessary so that folks at the panda center could peel as many RMB notes as possible from the wallets of desperate I-want-to-touch-a-panda visitors like me AND so that the panda didn’t suddenly say “I’ve had enough” and then bite off my face.

Yes, I say as I study the photo, this is not photo-shopped. I was there.


Q4U: Am I the only person experiencing “Did it really happen?” syndrome (please say no)? Do you have this? Talk to me.


12 Responses to Expat Sat: Did It Really Happen?

  1. Oh, Kristin! I haven’t had to face repatriation, but I definitely believe “Did it really happen?” syndrome is real. Even *imagining* leaving Paris right now after five years makes me feel strange. (For the record, not thinking of going anywhere).

    Just as living in China gave you a whole new perspective, moving back to the States has opened even more interesting experiences. At least you will always have tons of material to mine! Must be a rollercoaster of emotions.

    As the French say, “bon courage.” (That basically means good luck, but I like how the word “courage” is connected to “luck.”)

    • LOL Should be, Jennifer. Just moments before the picture was snapped, the woman collecting the cash for this opportunity said to me something to the effect of, “When pandas get tired, they can attack.” I looked at the streams of people who’d just had their photos taken with the panda and knew this panda was tired. A good neck massage might have relaxed him.

  2. I never intended to spend so many years living in Japan. I wanted to go back to live in the States, actually. I used to be seized, on occasion, by this panicky thought “How did I wind up living forever in Japan????”

    After 23 years, however, I’m at peace with being a permanent expat. I think. At any rate, it’s given me something unusual to write about.

    • Truly, Suzanne, it has given you something unusual to write about…which, in my head, is always good. Curious how you got to the “at peace” place w/ being a forever expat. Time? Acceptance? Love of Japan? Some combo of those?

  3. I had the opposite reaction after returning from four years in Asia (Japan mostly). In the supermarket back in the U.S. I was amazed at the giant heads of broccoli, the hundreds of breakfast cereal choices, the cheese selection.

    On the city streets of San Francisco, I felt odd, as if everyone was staring at me, when actually they just made the normal (for the U.S.) amount of eye contact. Portions served at restaurants made me laugh out loud, and of course, I covered my mouth when I laughed. I apologized and bowed a lot. Now, 20 years later, and still in the U.S., I laugh to remember my reactions (and don’t cover my mouth).

  4. What I meant to say, and didn’t is that I felt when I returned as if I had never been American, not that Asia had never happened….It took about a year to feel at home again, and still I feel most comfortable in San Francisco in Asian neighborhoods.

  5. I’m about to experience this doubly: returning to the US after four years in Europe, one of which was spent on an insane but wonderful amount of travel. And, I’m not only returning to the US, but returning single, which makes me wonder did these years really happen? Did my marriage really happen? I keep joking that I have the opposite of the “Eat, Pray, Love” storyline. That’s the writer in me: even while going through the sh!tters, I wonder “how can I use this?”

    • Oh, Molly, both of those transitions are big, but it seems you’ve got the right focus: “How can I use this?” That’s what I return to again and again in life…and it seems to work out (or at least provide juicy writing material).

      I wish you luck and goodness in the coming months.

  6. Amazing photo!

    I’m not leaving France anytime soon, but I know that’s exactly how I would feel if I did. Not right away. But I imagine that bit by bit, I’d get reacquainted with American customs and rhythms and then the next thing you know I’d no longer think to serve cheese before dessert. Makes me sad to think that I’d lose the French habits and customs that I love.

    But on the bright side, as you, Nora Ephron and everyone else has said: Life is Copy. It’s all fodder for the muse….