Resilience & Lemonade

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One of the main components of resilience is to make sure that you stay in control of what you can control and let go of anything else that you cannot control. I learned that when I kept putting on weight whenever we moved out of a host country and came back to the U.S. and moved again to another country. After 50, I decided that the only things I could control were my body and my mind, and that allowed me to lose 25 pounds.

This time, my move is quite different; it is not what we call, in our jargon, a PCS (permanent change of station). It is not permanent – at least I hope so. But I do have orders. Orders to leave my home, leave my husband without saying goodbye, leave for an undetermined number of months with a tiny carry-on. This time, I am an evacuee from China. I don’t know about your kids, but when I was a kid, never in my wildest dreams nor nightmares, I would have thought that one day, I would define myself as “I am an evacuee … from China.”

Like for other difficult situations, you always think that only others than you will get impacted. The tsunami is not for me, nor the earthquake, nor the C-section, nor the house on fire – this clearly only happens in the movies or in faraway countries. When I followed a seminar to be prepared for a medical evacuation, I didn’t think it was for me – my health is great. And then, one day, I had to be medically evacuated … because accidents happen. And when you give birth naturally to your first baby, you cannot imagine that you might ever require a C-section for the second baby. When the earthquake shakes your building and you are in the shower with shampoo in your eyes, it’s hard to remember the numerous training sessions: do I shelter in place or get out of my building as fast as possible? Those who were not naked in their shower ran outside … and I am still here to write this.

The sense of “it’s for the others” applies to countries, not only individuals. In Beijing, they thought “it’s only in Wuhan”; in the West, they thought “it’s only in China”; in the United States, they thought “it’s only in Italy”; in Wisconsin, they think “it’s only in New York”.

In Beijing, China, we felt safe. China is a very – very – safe place; maybe because the people are nice, maybe because of all the surveillance cameras, or both. I don’t want to know why; all I know is that as an individual I feel very safe in China, I feel safe to take the metro at any time, I feel safe to walk in the streets at night. I do not feel safe to do this in most large cities in the West.

Who could have predicted that a sudden virus would change all our lives? It used to be the lives of all people living in China, and many questions arising for expatriates like us who do have a choice to shelter somewhere else. But now, our plight is being shared by the entire planet in epic proportions. When you are young, you are taught that sharing is a good value … with many exceptions!

There’s a proverb in the United States that I like very much because it’s so positive: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Turn the negative in positive, in other words, find the silver lining(s).

So rather than dwelling on the separation from my husband, not being in my home – some 6,922 miles away, having to adapt to a new job, and finding that where I am now is not any sanitarily safer than where I was – get out of the rolling wave just to be smacked and engulfed again by another giant wave that takes you, breathless, in a spin, like being in a washing machine, I need to see that my situation is not as bad as many others and that it has silver linings.

Others don’t have a shelter, a job, food on the table, they have to cancel their wedding, can’t see their baby being born, can’t go to funerals, can’t visit their elderly relatives, others are bankrupt, endure domestic violence, don’t have internet to follow online classes, will fail their school year, and the list goes on.

My Lemonade

After all my pain was swallowed, I started to count my silver linings:

  • We are posted in China for the standard Foreign Service three-year tour so when we say goodbye, we say goodbye to family and friends for three years, even four years sometimes. This sudden move gives me the opportunity to see family and friends after only 18 months of separation. These strange times also allow me to see them more than once and see many more of them.
  • My mother-in-law had to move to assisted living the day Wuhan was locked down and my sudden move made me the first respondent when my husband could not be there. I helped her move and feel comfortable in her new home. I advocated for her to ensure she received proper care. I was able to thank in person the people that had helped her.
  • My employer found me a very interesting new position in Washington, D.C. I am now in a section where I learn and stretch every day, surrounded by smart people who are nice also.
  • I have been evacuated at a good time when Beijing is still extremely cold while Washington, D.C. has a milder climate this March and I was able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and the magnolias in bloom.
  • Besides making lemons out of lemonade, it is proven that you can build resilience by helping others that are less fortunate than you. I now have more time to dedicate to my volunteering activities.
  • I finally made time to take some online classes.
  • I am discovering the uplifting world of TED talks.
  • And the list goes on …

I would have added that Washington, D.C. is a great place because all the Smithsonian museums are free, but measures of social distancing were enforced before I could even visit one of them!

Yesterday is history,

Tomorrow is a mystery, but

Today is a gift.

That is why it is called the present.

Enjoy it!

Discovering life in the United States – First Month

If you have been American all your life, living in the United States, culture shock will come only when you move out. For me, it hit me when I moved in since I had lived in France all my life. I had traveled many times to the U.S. but there is a huge difference between the superficial view of the tourist or the business traveler and the view of the expat. So here we come Virginia, my number one ‘overseas’ post!

When I landed with the kids in May to join new diplomat hubby who had been in training for several months we went from 20 degrees Celsius (68F) in Paris to 33C (92F) in Arlington this day. Temperature shock!

Television boasted 600 channels! Even if you only kept the free ones you still got 300 – no wonder Americans invented the term ‘couch potatoes’. The kids only cared about number 44: the Disney Channel. I found eight Spanish networks, two Chinese, two Russian, and zero French!

We were in temporary housing; I discovered the common laundry room. The machine was massive, almost twice as large as a European machine. It did not spin much and pretended to be finished in 30 minutes. Where I come from it takes over an hour to wash a load.

Kids are encouraged to work early in the U.S. As soon as I printed business cards for my 12-year-old daughter, she found a pet sitter’s job! She needed to feed cats Mishu and Pasha for three days.

We toured DC to show the kids the principal sights. Our nine-year-old son found the White House too small. He liked the Capitol better.

I had an Arizona driver’s license. For $9 I received my Virginian version of it. I had broken my back just before we moved (indeed joining the Foreign Service was too simple, I had to spice it up!), so I flew in a cast that I needed to keep for several months so we also got a handicapped person placard – this felt weird!

We went to register the kids to school for the one month remaining of class. Despite being in North Arlington, we were in a very Hispanic neighborhood. When we entered the primary school with our white-blond-haired son, a kid exclaimed: ‘Oh! A white kid!’ I had never felt like a minority before. France is a true melting pot, marriages between people of different colors are common, much more so than in the U.S. so I had never heard anything like this nor its opposite. Also in France Hispanics are considered white, I discovered that it is a brand new ‘color’ here. In our son’s school there were about 70% Hispanics and at least 15% Blacks, Chinese, Nepalese, Indians, etc. In middle school, our daughter was assigned a Swedish school sponsor. Actually the Arlington school system caters to about 128 nationalities. A good start for the Foreign Service!

I was surprised to see so many bilingual English-Spanish signs everywhere: schools, supermarkets, bus, metro, department stores. I had not noticed this in Arizona which is much closer to Mexico.

Since the family was reunited again we needed much more furniture than when my husband was a ‘bachelor’ so I discovered Craigslist and FreeCycle. We did not want to buy anything new since our furniture was on a boat on its way. The beauty of Craigslist is that anything we bought there we sold for the same price or more three months later!

When you join the Foreign Service there is two important numbers to remember: 18,000 and 7,200. 18,000 pounds is the maximum belongings the Department of State will take care of for you for free whether in your house overseas or in storage and 7,200 pounds is the maximum you are allowed to ship overseas for free.