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.

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