​This Isn’t How I Planned To Leave!


by Carrie Jones, LCSW, Director of CCS Counseling


Dr. Sabine Menon, Founder of Happy Consults

Just over a month ago, CCS published an article entitled This Isn’t What I Signed Up For! (Click the title to read.) for those who were considering leaving Shanghai due to the Covid surge, resulting lockdowns, and associated struggles. Now, as the situation continues to drag on indefinitely, taking further toll on us all, increasingly more people are leaving each day or actively preparing to do so very soon. In addition to those spurred to leave due to the current chaos, there also are many who had already planned to leave this summer. Regardless of the impetus to move on, whether it was preplanned for months/years or is a very recent decision, it is safe to say this isn’t quite how anyone planned to leave.

Even in the best of times, goodbyes and transitions can be difficult.  Lockdown only adds to the challenges and complexities.  Farewell parties, final trips to favorite restaurants or sites in Shanghai, last gatherings with friends and hugs goodbye…all currently impossible. For those with children in the last year of high school, there will be no exams, no graduation ceremony, no closure for a crucial moment of transition in the life of our children. Furthermore, some who recently decided to leave quickly may experience a feeling of “failure” or “doing a runner” or may feel such judgements from others.  And then the logistics – how to manage your belongings on such short notice, how to get to the airport, how to get your pet(s) home – all are much more complicated than in normal times.  Given all these emotional and practical stressors, how can you leave on a healthy, positive note?

Tips for Coping Emotionally

Manage the Narrative

Words have power and they story you tell yourself matters.  If you frame your exit from China as a “failure” or as “doing a runner,” there naturally will be many negative feelings (guilt, shame, etc) attached to it.  We all have different personal circumstances and situations and what works for one person may not work for another.  We each have to decide for ourselves if it makes sense to stay and ride this out or if we need to move on. Regardless of what decision you come to, remember it is an informed decision to do what is best for you and/or your family, not a failure or simply bailing out.

Ignore the Gremlins

Once you have made your decision (whether it is to leave or stay), don’t allow people or Wechat comments to make you second guess yourself or taint your decision with a negative flavor. Your decision is yours and yours alone!

Don’t Let This Time Period Define Your Entire China Experience

Without a doubt, this is an incredibly overwhelming and difficult time period, full of worry, uncertainty, unpredictability, lack of control, and scarcity.  It is natural that we all experience a broad range of emotions regarding Shanghai/China.  With the exception of for the few families who have arrived over the last two years, remember that life here has not always been like this; this is a major exception to the norm.  As you leave, although it is vital to acknowledge how difficult this time is, the impact it has on us, and to grieve the losses we are experiencing, it is equally vital to remember the good times and the Shanghai we all know and most of us love.  This Spring is just one chapter in your China experience – don’t forget the many other better ones! 

Find Creative Ways to Say Farewell

As humans, we need closure. While the current conditions prevent traditional going away gatherings and closure rituals, you can still find meaningful ways to say farewell. Consider planning a virtual goodbye party or take this time of lockdown to look at photos of your favorite places, make a photo or video montage, write a letter to friends you will be leaving behind…or even to Shanghai/China itself!

Once you are resettled in your new home and things open up here, perhaps a friend can arrange a video call for you to virtually visit some of your favorite places one final time.  And who knows, you just might make it back at some point for a visit. Shanghai will always be here!

Kids and Teens

Just as adults do, children and teens also need to connect with their friends and say their goodbyes. The nature of the expat population is that individuals from our international community here will spread all over the world.  Still though, with special close friends, families might organize a summer get-together or plan for a visit – don’t promise this to kids though unless you are serious about making it happen. We know many success stories where friends of all ages remain close and find ways to meet up again even years after their expatriation.

Tips for Managing Logistically

Prioritize and Manage Expectations

In normal circumstances, people typically spend anywhere between 3 months to a year to anticipating and preparing for an international move.  If you decide to leave quickly and only have a matter of days or weeks to prepare, it is likely that you will have to rush some things, leave some things behind that you might otherwise have taken with you, spend a great deal more money on the move than you normally would, or just generally feel less organized and prepared.  Try to be gentle and realistic with yourself about what is possible to manage on such a short time frame.  Know that some sacrifices may be necessary, but hopefully the peace of mind leaving now brings will be well worth it.  

Let Go Of Control Issues – Ask for Help!

There likely will be certain aspects of moving on such short notice and/or under the current restrictions that you simply cannot manage on your own.  Don’t be afraid to ask friends or others in your support network to help.  For instance, you may need to rely on others to ship your belongings to you later or give them away once lockdown lifts.  It is understandable that you might not want to impose or feel like a burden to others, but it is important to reach out and there are many heartwarming stories out there of neighbors and community members very eager and willing to assist.

Join WeChat Groups 

There are many WeChat groups out there for people who are leaving and even groups specifically for those trying to get pets out too.  These groups offer information and lived experience on many of the current complexities.  You might also consider connecting personally with individuals who have recently completed the move themselves and see if they have any words of wisdom to share. We hear that some airlines are still allowing animals in the cabin.  And if you are traveling without a pet, consider becoming a flight volunteer to help with someone else’s.  This could serve to add extra meaning to your  your rushed trip back.

Carefully Arrange and Plan Your Departure 

Learn as much as you can about the policy for departures from your specific compound/residence.  Some neighborhood committees will let you leave without any issues, while others might request a letter from your consulate. Be sure to arrange transport to the airport well in advance.  It is not as simple or affordable as in normal times, but it is still feasible to find a driver or shuttle bus to transport you.  Check Wechat for specific contacts and information that is circulating. 

Begin your actual departure process at least 48 hours in advance in case you encounter any obstacles or need help from your consulate.  Don’t leave things to the last minute.  

At the Airport

With all the current requirements and complexities, the process at the airport may take significantly longer than usually.  Plan to arrive at the airport much further in advance of your flight than you normally would.  Take plenty of snacks as the airport is like a ghost town with no food available.  

It Is Not Over Until It Is Over

Suppose you have planned everything, you have your tickets, details are all confirmed, it is just about time to go…and your flight is canceled. Try to regulate your emotions and be present so you will still be able to focus, think clearly, and find an alternative.  Flights get rescheduled, friends can look after your pet(s), or you can place them in a safe boarding kennel.  None of this is ideal, but there are solutions.

If you feel overwhelmed by the stress of your move or need some extra support as you work through the process or even the decision whether or not to leave, know that support is available. In China, CCS counselors are available for online sessions. To schedule, email counseling@communitycenter.cn or WeChat: CCS-counseling. 

For support outside of China, Happy Consults is available: www.happyconsults.com or WeChat: HappyConsults

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