t was March 2019 and I was in my boss’s office in New York City for our weekly maintenance meeting and he seemed a little tense. I worked my way through all the usual items, re-enrollment rates, summer programming schedules, dates for teacher evaluations and a short list of things that needed to be done at our sites to keep them clean and functioning. Then he hit me with the one and only item on his list.
“Remember the opportunity we had to help start a sister site in Beijing? They want you to go over to help with training and organizing the staff and advise on the opening.”
“Great, so I should block off a few weeks this summer!”
“No, you should block off three months two weeks from now.”
He thought I was going to be upset, but I was thrilled! OK, not about the timeline, a little more notice would have been nice. But I’m an expat kid. I grew up moving and traveling to remote places where we didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language. This was going to be another great adventure. I put anything I couldn’t fit into two suitcases into storage, got myself out of my lease and got on a plane. In typical expat fashion, three months turned into six months and that stretched into an indefinite assignment. The first 10 months were amazing. I watched the sun rise over the Great Wall, learned to make dumplings and traveled every chance I could, managing to collect passport stamps from Vietnam, Japan and Korea among others. I found an amazing group of international and local friends to explore the city with and was doing a job I truly believed in and felt passionately about. There were many nights I would sit on a rooftop, cocktail in hand looking over the glowing Beijing skyline and think “how did I get here?!”
Then the pandemic hit. Like most people I thought this would be a few weeks, then a few months and now years later closed boarders make international travel nearly impossible, and even domestic trips hold a risk of quarantine so exploring this amazing country has gotten more difficult. Rolling lockdowns and lack of some resources have become the norm. As the years dragged on we all missed major life events. Births, deaths, marriages, graduations, milestones of every imaginable type. Intense family pressure to return has only gotten worse as the calendar pages fell and most of us know there is a likelihood that family calls to home will end in tears. I have friends who have banned their parents and siblings from asking “so when are you coming home?”
At least half of my social circle has already left China permanently and approximately another 25 percent are planning on leaving when their current contracts are up. I miss my family terribly; I miss traveling and I miss the ease of movement within the city preCovid. But I stay, and here is why.
Over the past three years I have built a life here. My expat friends are adventurous, educated, interesting people who are kind and supportive and often challenge me to be the most innovative and resilient version of myself. My local Chinese friends are kind and generous about sharing their culture with me and eager to learn about my own. I’m part of a community here and right now that community has needs.
There is a sense of responsibility many of the remaining expats have. Responsibility to friends who have become like family in the Covid crucible. Responsibility to my coworkers and the communities I work with. When you are employed as an expat that means you generally have a skill set not found in the general population of the country you are living in. And right now, it is nearly impossible to get new employees a visa. If I leave, either other members of my current team, who are already overworked, have to take on my responsibilities, or the job just won’t get done. And in my profession that means a group of kids won’t get served. That feels unconscionable.
Yes, I miss my family, so badly it hurts. Along with everyone else I watch the news reports like a hawk for signs that restrictions might be lifted or at least loosened so travel home to meet my new nephew won’t require a longer quarantine then I have vacation time or cost so much I need to liquidate my retirement account. I wait for a declaration that if you are vaccinated it is safe to go adventuring again without endangering anyone.
Eventually it will all pass, and while things will never go back to what they were, they will move forward. So when people ask, why do you stay? The answer is simple. Because there is still more to do.