Just Be empathizing

Updated: Aug 17

Surfing the Covid Waves: Life of Expats Now


A good friend moved from Jakarta to New Delhi with her husband in late 2019 because of her husband’s new position there. Within a few months, they had to evacuate back to the United States as new Covid-19 cases started to double every day, and with flights out of New Delhi becoming infrequent and the border closing. They eventually left New Delhi and spent six months in the US in Airbnbs, visiting with their college-age children and aging mother, riding the waves of lockdowns across the different states in the US.


And then it was time to return to post in New Delhi in early January 2021 when cases in India continued to rise and most organizations remained under remote work modality. A few months later, still in New Delhi, my friend’s Mom in the US was to have her ninetieth birthday alone. My friend organized a zoom celebration for her Mom with friends and family members calling in via zoom. I joined the virtual celebration. Seeing my friend’s Mom at ninety brought into focus my own Mom at eighty-five.


My friend recently, after weathering through the worst Covid waves in New Delhi, probably the worst in the world, ventured back to the US, where new variant cases are surging, to have her cataract surgery. I don’t think my friend was surfing the Covid waves intentionally. It is just life of an expat nowadays.


Unlearn Adulting


Ever since my Dad passed away suddenly about seven years ago, I looked into how best to reorganize my life to spend some time with my Mom. It was not without trepidation. I had not lived with my parents since I went to England for my A-levels and home then was Hong Kong. More than four decades and three countries later, I somehow did not think relocating to Taiwan, my Dad’s birthplace and my Mom’s retirement destination, would be much of an undertaking. It turned out to be quite an undertaking, starting with paperwork to leave Jakarta and paperwork to enter Taiwan for myself, my Scottish Terrier, and my Domestic Short Hair, something that most expats are familiar with having to have to move from countries to countries every three to five years. I had visited Taiwan many times and I considered myself fluent in Mandarin. But Taiwan nonetheless was a foreign country to me. I am an expat in my parents’ country.


It was with excitement and adventure when I moved into this townhouse about two kilometers from my Mom’s apartment in the autumn of 2019. One week later my 40-foot container of household goods arrived from Jakarta and my Mom moved in with me for a couple of weeks because the lift in her apartment building was undergoing extended maintenance servicing. Tension slowly built over nothing and everything, from how to cook an egg to which TV show to watch to how to decorate. My stomach knotted tight, eyes welled up every time I watched her climb the stairs up to her room after each of those silent snaps, and I promised myself I would be more patient, try to step in her shoes. I reminded myself my coach training and that I am a certified professional coach.


My Mom took in more than I realized during the couple of weeks she stayed with me. In a number of occasions, she would tell visiting friends and family how she teared up every night I would gather trash in the house and take it outside to the complex dumpster. People usually laughed, indulgently, mostly bemused. I was embarrassed, ignoring the tenderness of being touched by my Mom’s attention. Having spent more than two decades in Indonesia serviced by a team of domestic help, I had not done much housekeeping, cooking, or driving.


We cruised along tending to our own day-to-day. I tried to adjust to my new environment, and I could see how independent and capable my Mom was. Then we were engulfed by Covid with new realities and vulnerabilities. I am now living in what The Economist calls “The most dangerous place on Earth.” I started to believe that if Mom was not in Taiwan I would have been somewhere else and life would have been better and easier. I somehow decided that I would not stay in Taiwan for long. Just one more year. Just to ride through Covid.


And then there was another shift. As I started to accept that I am an expat living in Taiwan, even though it is my parents’ home, I was able to ease into a flow of shopping with my Mom, going out to dinners with family when possible, receiving calls from her checking if I felt the vibrations of distant earthquakes, and gluing to our respective TV sets chasing the gold medals alongside the Olympic athletes, all in the midst of Covid. We laughed more now. And I cannot see how I could leave my Mom by herself next year.


Being an adult does not simply mean being capable of making a living, flying around the world, and living independent of one’s parents. I arrived in Taiwan with a full armor of adulting, and almost overshot and would have missed empathizing with my Mom, with myself.


Embrace Empathizing


Shirzad Chamine’s Positive Intelligence framework identifies empathize as one of the cornerstones to maintain mental fitness, not unlike exercising for one’s physical fitness. Chamine describes empathizing as “about feeling and showing appreciation, compassion, and forgiveness.” Empathizing is about love for yourself and others. I had been very busy adulting, and had forgotten what it is to be empathizing.


Part of being an expat is to make an impact in a country other than your own. I came here initially to support my Mom. I allowed adulting to veil the true essence of my Mom. I narrowly missed my own self. I am beginning to feel that I am able to hug myself for finding a relationship that I have been missing all my life with the person I did not really know.


How empathizing has worked for you?


In your personal or professional lives,

  • Where are you holding back in your relationships?

  • Where is it not too late to make amends for distance created years ago over fights that you can’t remember?

  • What are you avoiding?

Do share your thoughts in the comments below.


Welcome to Just Be for Expats


As expats, we are spread out all over the globe with many having parents in one country, children in another, our workplace in a third, and family members holding different national passports. In the era of Covid-19, the majority of us have been sheltering in place at home under lockdowns, continuing working as professionals via Zoom or some other video platforms, and acting as caregivers and teachers. Separation from loved ones and inability to travel add to the worry, stress, isolation, anxiety, and a strange sense of homelessness.


Do follow Just Be, my monthly blog, to explore how being, rather than doing, can better support us through uncertainty. Or connect with me to dive deeper.



This post appeared first on LinkedIn on August 10, 2021.



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