Six weeks from today I will arrive in Australia and my life will be over.
Okay, I know that sounds overly melodramatic, not to mention inaccurate, but there’s still something to it. The life I have had for the past 11 years WILL be over in six weeks’ time. That’s a very big deal, and something very hard for some people to fully understand.
This was driven home to me earlier this week when I posted my 就业证 (jiu ye zheng – Chinese work permit) back to my previous employer in Beijing. I shouldn’t have had it at all. Companies are supposed to hang on to work permits, not individuals, but I had been renewing my own visas (instead of the accounting firm doing it for me). It also should have gone back to them more than a year ago when my last visa with them ended, but none of us thought of it at the time. So I got an email asking if I had it, found it in my document file, and eventually managed to get it sent back.
It really didn’t seem like a big deal, other than the difficult logisitcs. I didn’t expect to feel anything at all. But when it was in my hands at the DHL office I felt a deep sense of sadness, the pain of loss.
I was holding a legal document that said I belonged in China. It didn’t matter that it expired a year ago. It still said that for years I had been a legal employee and resident. It symbolised the life I had lived in China; it was proof that that life really happened. I could see my Chinese name neatly typed beneath my English name. All my details were there in Chinese characters, characters I could read. Letting it go was one more concrete sign that the life I lived in China is no more.
I don’t have a life to go back to anywhere in the world, not even Australia. I think that’s difficult for a lot of my friends to really understand. Most of them lived and worked in their passport countries before moving overseas. The problem is that life in China is the only life I know. I was 21 when I moved to China. I had only ever lived in my parents’ home, had only ever been a full-time student.
China is the place where I lived my entire working life, my entire independent adult life. Life overseas is all I know. It’s my comfort zone. I know stuff. Languages, procedures, how to get things done, how to survive. I have skills – skills respected and admired by locals and expats alike. Most of those skills and most of that knowledge will soon be close to useless. I’ll be starting from the bottom, all but clueless – and in my own country. It’s terrifying.
I’ve felt that terror, in waves greater and smaller, ever since making the decision to move to Australia. There’s the horror of knowing that I will be ignorant and helpless – two of the feelings I hate most of all. I won’t know how things are done. It’s the main feeling I’ve had whenever I’ve thought about this life change. Handing over that jiuyezheng, though, I felt something else. Grief. I was mourning the things given up.
Terror of what’s ahead is the main thing I’ve felt, totally overshadowing sadness for what is behind. But there’s a LOT I’m leaving behind, not least of all my sense of self. So much of my identity has been wrapped up in being an expat, and in being a youth worker. Being neither is going to be a very strange thing. Not that this is bad – I think it will be very good for me, and almost necessary, to learn who I am without those things. Learning to exist in my passport country is also a really good thing. But it is still unknown and scary. It still comes at the expense of the life I have known and (mostly) loved for over a decade.
So, yes, that life is over. There is pain in the finality of that.
But I will start a new life – and intermingled with the terror is excitement, wondering at what that new life will become, and who I will become as I live it.
As I walked out of DHL that day feeling sad, three songs I really liked came up on my iPod and formed the soundtrack to my grief as I let the feelings come. Then they disappated, like the ebb of a wave, and the fourth song came on and encouraged me.