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  • Shanghai Expat Assoc

Metamorphosis and the Wings of a Butterfly

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

By Christina Martirosian

And just like that she spread her wings like a butterfly and took off. My baby has gone off to college. The hardest goodbye ever in Ann Arbor, Michigan… and the strangest, most unfamiliar morning waking up in Shanghai, China, less than 24 hours later, in a house without our Lily. I amtorn between my excitement for a new beginning in our daughter’s life, and the apprehension of dealing with a new family dynamic created by her absence.

I am not the only one who has to deal with this dilemma of having an empty nest while being an expat. Every summer before September arrives many Shanghai expats with soon-to-be-freshmen children prepare for that bittersweet, but most memorable summer with them, as they are about to embark on an adult life away from home. Some families attempt to freeze time with professional photos taken with the iconic Bund and Huangpu River as a backdrop; others hit the street food market tours as if to lock the last taste of Shanghai in the memory vault. Every family finds a unique way to make this adjustment as their child transitions to her/his adult life.

I think September is the saddest month of the year for the expat families who have sent their kids away to school. Why September, you may ask. As the new academic year starts you suddenly realize that you don’t have to get things ready for back to school anymore, sign up to be a parent volunteer, or mark the calendar with upcoming school events. I especially feel for the parents of an only child, who really feel the effects of an empty nest and go through this transition alone.

I may console myself with the two younger ones who are still at home. Even so, it is still such a rude awakening for parents of multiple kids as well, for it’s a reality check that puts all things in perspective and you realize how fleeting time is.

As this sudden reality unfolds, it impels you into a reflective mood: When did our first-born grow up? Seems like we just had her/him. Where did the years go? Did I get that old? Where do I go from here? How will I cope with the whirling mix of separation anxiety, sadness, the feelings of being abandoned, of not being needed anymore with no one to care for, of loneliness with one who had become your friend, of not spending enough quality time, of regret for not having being silly often enough, for not living more in the moment. The list of emotions piles fast leaving you in suspension.

As sad as this change is, we can’t turn back time. But we sure can find useful and effective ways to cope with our new reality. This is where being an expat has its benefits I think. We have a strong expat community and resources – each other! It seems to me that I led a more isolated life back home in Michigan, where I have lived most of my adult life, where each family was left to its own devices and where such a strong sense of community is lacking, considering how spread out all of us were in our lives. In Shanghai, in retrospect, the expat community, is much more connected, engaged, and understanding. Since my return to Shanghai after I left my child in college I have had many wonderful women reach out to me with their support and invited me to tea, lunch, and to listen to me express my thoughts and feelings. Some of my female friends had gone through the same emotions and many are first timers like me. Perhaps this sense of community is the result of our shared understanding of our conflicting emotions or of the difficulties we all have while living in a foreign land where we must hold unto each other to make the best of our situation. It is true that an expat’s life will remain an enigma to the folks back home who have not had that experience and cannot imagine what being an expat means.

I believe the answer is that becoming an expat means developing a survival mechanism of forming meaningful relationships full of empathy for like-minded souls, sharing the same city, and making the best of their lives.

And as our children trade their chrysalises for a new set of butterfly wings, one thing I am certain of is that all parents are immensely proud of their offspring’s accomplishments. Metamorphosis is a natural process of life, and, as hard as it is to accept it sometimes, we cannot help but look at it in wonder of what is to come next.

About the author:

Christina Martirosian has lived in Russia, Korea, and China as an expat. She serves as a Development Liaison between Sphinx Musical Diversity Foundation in the U.S. and Palaces of St. Petersburg Classical Music Foundation in Russia. Writing and journalism are her passions. She is on the SEA editorial team, and is a contributing writer.

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