Through a Repat’s Lens: First World Problems in America

first world problem
First world problems…

Readers of AL.ME know that I recently repatriated from a long visit to China (8 years or so:). And coming back to your home country after being away for so long is a lot like getting over an ex. You were with that boyfriend or girlfriend for 5+ years, but now that it’s over you are dreading the recovery period… In my case, I’m getting over a country and a way of living. What is that unscientific equation? I think it’s…getting over him/her = total time together / 2. (So I’ve got another 4 years to go!)

But fresh off that separation anxiety you realize how much different your life becomes. Your eatin’, sleepin’, socializin’, shoppin’ are all very different but you just have to get used to it. This is the vaguely familiar, new normal for Repats. Now that you’re back you realize how food is more expensive but less healthy (unless you get the salad at a restaurant); everyday shopping is more expensive and there’s very little negotiating; socializing is a whole bunch of going Dutch events in which nobody owes anyone else anything; and health care feels like a scam every time you use it.

Now, to be fair, these frustrations are not as horrible as they first seem. Yes, American food is probably the result of immigrants neglecting their traditional food culture over generations, but there are still authentic restaurants I could go to. With a little strategic planning and flexible standards, shopping doesn’t have to be an exercise in getting screwed so often. Going out with friends, family, and coworkers could be a lot more enjoyable if I just concentrated on the now rather than the future. And going to a clinic or hospital… well, I don’t think I can rewire my brain to think that it’s acceptable the way it is…

What I’ve found is that my “problems” here not really problems – they’re first world problems. They are annoyances that, when combined with a lack of awareness, blow up into much bigger issues if I let them. And a big part of repatriating is finding a way to get through these sometimes difficult situations. Life still goes on. The sun still rises in the morning.

Chinese Twitter threads that I’ve seen discussing foreigners living in their country for extended periods ask: “Why do they [Westerners] stay here when they could live a developed country?” And the answer often looks like this: They are bored of Heaven and need a break from it!

Haha. Well, I wouldn’t call America heaven, but in the greater scheme of things life here is much better than it is for people in the developing world. And although I miss the good food, the warm friendships, the great markets, and the non-bankrupting health care options available there, I know coming back to the US was a great decision.

Keeping Costs Down as a Repat

rent is too high
Yes, it is.

Up-rooting everything and moving back to the US was almost as big a change as the initial move out to Asia. And when you make a big move (new job pending) it’s important to keep costs down and stretch your savings. That’s when the Repat has to tap their network, find deals, and hack the systems that drain your interim funds.

Even though the rent is too damn high (!) you have to find a way to ease into an affordable lease. When I just got back to the US I stayed with family in Boston and NH for a few months. Then I subletted a place and moved on to a lease, all of which were never more than 20% of my income. When your income is low (or non-existent) you have to create some rules for yourself and make responsible choices. It’s that simple. Tap your networks, be a guest, and allow yourself to owe friends and family. You’ll have plenty of chances to be generous to them later. Continue reading Keeping Costs Down as a Repat

My first trip to an American Clinic: So Un-American!

Where's the billing dept.?
Where’s the billing dept.?

Before coming back to the US I only had two worries: 1) where was I gonna get awesome, authentic Chinese food?? 2) what happens if I get sick?

Since student loans are my shackles for the next few years (as long as I repay them like a baller…), any medical incident has the potential to reinforce them in cement. Even with insurance, I felt this pit in my stomach coming back because I knew there would always be a heavy co-pay… after the $2000 deductible, of course. And the cost of getting treated is anyone’s guess…

Luckily when I got back to the US (uninsured here at the time) I had no health issues. It was when I started working at my current company that I had a reason to go to urgent care and then to a local hospital. It was an ear infection that caused some hearing loss for about 4 weeks. But that wasn’t the biggest surprise…

Continue reading My first trip to an American Clinic: So Un-American!

Repatriating from China – Ill Communication

Better than Nothing
Better than Nothing

It’s August and I’ve been living in Boston since I moved back from China at the end of 2013. A LOT has happened over the course of 9+ months back in America and I thought it was time to check in with AL.ME to recap what’s happened and the hidden challenges of my repat experience. Enjoy installment #4!


Speaking a foreign language everyday for 8 years is without a doubt a great way to build up that skill. You not only learn how to express yourself in a translated form, but you also experience social interactions in a whole new light. However, you will begin to find yourself behaving differently in your work and at home, with friends and your lover(s).

For years I’ve made specific comparisons between the way Chinese and Americans view and interact with the world around us. We have a lot more in common than we think, but the differences are noticeable. Here are a few changes that I’ve definitely noticed while I’ve been back in America the past year.

Continue reading Repatriating from China – Ill Communication

Repatriating from China – Food & Dining

It’s July and I’ve been living in Boston since I moved back from China at the end of 2013. A LOT has happened over the course of half a year back in America and I thought it was time to check in with AL.ME to recap what’s happened and the hidden challenges of my repat experience. Enjoy installment #3!


pizza at posto
A new regular – an old favorite

I’ve gained a noticeable amount of weight since I got back and from the expected causes – America’s bread and butter issue. My identity has returned to being American, rather than a pseudo-Chinese or something else, and therefore find myself uncontrollably attracted to coffee and sandwich culture. Most mornings I’m drinking coffee with a bagel. Lunches are often sandwich-based, like a subway or a wrap. My dinners are becoming simpler, although I do attempt to make Asian dishes on occasion (toufu, pan-fried cabbage, spicy shrimp salad, etc.). Work keeps my entire weekdays busy and I normally cook for one, which makes convenient meals and snacking much more common.

As for dining out, I find that every meal is either pizza, hamburgers, or a steak. Just the other day I had dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, and father. I happily pushed down a plate of mac and cheese with pulled pork drizzled on it. My only vegetable that night – a fried pickle with ranch dressing.

This is not meant to be an attack on American faire, or on the food choices of my loved ones. After all, no one forced me to order the mac ‘n cheese. It was my choice, I know. But now that I’ve been here for a solid half year and slid into new habits, I can’t help but observe these changes in the way I eat. I probably would ignore it a bit longer if my pants were buttoning up properly… Half of the pants I wore in China are too tight now. *ugh* Continue reading Repatriating from China – Food & Dining

Repatriating from China – Job Hunting in Boston

It’s July and I’ve been living in Boston since I moved back from China at the end of 2013. A LOT has happened over the course of half a year back home and I thought it was time to check in with AL.ME to recap what’s happened and the hidden challenges of my repat experience. Here’s installment #2.


job searching
Job Searching as a Repat

Another case in which America seems to be the place which takes forever to get anything done is securing a new job. Of course, I was told by family and friends that it would take time. I’m also not oblivious to the fact when a company hires the wrong person, the cost of rehiring and new training can make a serious impact on the company (bottom line, or otherwise). What did surprise me was just how long it takes, from application to offer, in the United States.

In my hasty ignorance as a repat from China, I thought a few weeks or a month would be all it took to prove my mettle to a company looking for an eLearning specialist or instructional designer for the purposes of online learning. I was sorely mistaken! A job search that started in September of 2013 just barely concluded before Christmas, which my family said was actually pretty quick. *yawn*

The first job I landed in the Boston area was actually in a Chinese-run, international education company that had wanted to develop an online learning service for its clients. From January to March 2014 I endured a probationary period which was not an uncommon thing among new salaried employees in China; however, I quickly realized that this company was not the right fit for me. I realized too late that I was grossly misled during interviews, which was much like my experiences working on various projects in China… Long story short, I expressed my disinterest in continuing after the 90-day trial period and left the company. That short stay was extremely valuable to my repatriation because it made me realize what I needed: to take a serious break from China, especially Chinese organizational management.

Late Winter was a turning point for me, career-wise, because I had interviewed for a position that suited me, but in an industry I had no experience with: the US healthcare industry.  Since my previous experience applying for a job, I had learned that responding to an ad that was only a few days old was not a good idea. For the next job, I made sure to apply to an ad that was 1-2 months old. That, along with my consistent communication with the new company, led to a wonderfully painless experience. In March 2014 I applied for a position at HighRoads and in April I accepted their offer! The compensation was more than fair, the organization was on a growth kick, and I was about to be assigned to a project the likes of which I had oodles of experience with: setting up an online training area and populating it with courses about their software!

Let’s get back to the repatriating experience… In China, I was more experienced with starting short-term, high value, consulting/training agreements with schools and companies. I would contact an organization, hold a meeting to discuss my offer, and if all went well we’d sign a contract the following week. When I was managing the English department at a Sino-German international program in China in 2006, I found out how quickly a hire could take place in a Chinese organization. Literally 1 meeting was enough to make a decision on crucial staffing matters. It was surprising at first, but I eventually got used to decisions being made either quickly, or not at all.

Counter intuitive, right? Shouldn’t it take forever to get things done in China??? Well, not always. It really depends on the nature of the deal and whether or not there’s a time crunch involved. There certainly is something here that both of our cultures share – the amazing leverage provided by a burning platform.

READ More about repatriating from China in articles about Renting & Moving and Food & Dining.

Repatriating from China – Half a Year on

It’s July and I’ve been living in Boston since I moved back from China at the end of 2013. A LOT has happened over the course of half a year [back home] and I thought it was time to check in with AL.ME to recap what’s happened and cite the many hidden challenges of this repat experience. Here’s the 1st installment about Renting and Moving as a repat!


Somerville houses in winter
Slums in disguise (Boston, MA)

When you live in another country for so many years (8 in China, 1 in Korea in my case) you eventually accept and internalize how the local culture does things. In the case of finding an apartment for rent, signing a contract, and moving in, there were some surprise differences for me here in Boston. For starters, the value proposition of rent in a city like Boston is a horrible deal.

As Winter 2013/2014 ticked by, the experience of subletting from a “slumlord” (in the local lexis) was more of an exercise in price-gouging than fair accommodation. At $950 a month from each of the 5 roommates, this rickety old house with warped floor boards, drafty windows, unreliable water pressure, and noisy street traffic was a tough pill to swallow when compared to my previous living situation in Zhuhai. Back in China I was in a modern, newly furnished, single apartment with reliable utilities and an ocean view off the balcony for $300 a month. I know… location, location, location. *barf*

Locating an apartment and securing a lease is also quite different than I was used to. In China, I was expected to wait until 1-2 weeks before my move-in date to actually look for the new apartment, otherwise it wouldn’t “be available” on the date I was looking to move. It was all very last minute, but you could always find a place in the end. In Boston, I’ve experienced weeks of searching and interviewing just to sign a lease that would begin nearly 3 months later. All very much in advance and reliable, however, requiring $3000 up front upon signing the lease. Putting that money in the hands of the landlord (a stranger) so early threw up a red flag for this repat, quite naturally, but I later realized that this is how apartment-hunting is done here. I needed to accept this or go back to wherever it was “I came from.” 🙂 Continue reading Repatriating from China – Half a Year on