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Is the best thing about dropping everything coming back home?

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Ever fancied quitting your job and hauling ass to another country? Writer Amy Swales did – abandoning London for 13 months in Beijing – discovering both unexpected benefits and underestimated downsides

Before my relocation from London to China last year, amid the organising and leaving parties, I privately acknowledged a few doubts about packing up and shipping off. Notable freak-outs included, but were not restricted to: potentially negatively affecting my career; boxing up the flat; Mandarin: massive, debilitating FOMO, and the nagging thought that all my friends would forget who I was.

Lying in bed in my new Beijing flat a couple of weeks later, the stress of moving over, I tried again to find the elation I had at this adventure’s conception. This was exciting, remember? Instead, I tried to breathe calmly through a cold and panicky dread that I’d just made a terrible mistake.

The idea of a major life change - moving countries, finding a new career, even simply a sabbatical - is a rose-tinted one, a fantasy of sweeping your desk of its contents, shouting ‘Goodbye suckers!’ as you saunter toward the door, toward a new start, probably wearing sunglasses.

But, at 31, I didn’t hate my job and wasn’t stuck in a rut. In fact, I’d just been promoted again at the magazine I’d been with for four years and my China move was something a few people - including myself at times - just couldn’t understand. Trust me, if I’d disliked my life, it would have been easier to leave it behind.

Exploring my new home

There are obvious benefits to moving country. Possibly learning another language, expanding your knowledge of a culture not your own, new friends. A useful physical and mental distance from the biggest things in your life, giving you the ability to assess it more objectively, your goals, ambitions, priorities, compromises.

I gained all these things and more, and truly, the overall experience was wonderful.

However, it was also bloody challenging. Here’s the thing about self-imposed change: it’s your fault. Because of that, you’re going to feel unsteady at times, and I wasn’t prepared for it. Here’s the other somewhat underrated consequence: coming back felt fantastic.

I’d never had the backpacking urge, but I wanted the experience of living and working somewhere completely new. It wasn’t a sabbatical and I specifically didn’t want a hole in my CV where I’d be explaining to future employers that I’d found myself through yoga – it was a deliberate move toward taking my career in a slightly different direction. Given that I had no job lined up, that direction could easily have been down. I gambled.

Keeping the smog at bay in a fetching mask

It’s scary, no doubt about it. Given women are still faring worse in the workplace than male counterparts, even less likely to leave the desk for five minutes, it’s understandable that you might be wary of change, struggle to remember why you’d make a life for yourself just to tip it upside down. I can only tell you that of those worries I had, all of which boiled down to taking a sledgehammer to my life, not one was ultimately an issue. The worst almost never happens.

What does happen is clarification. I pinned down a few things about myself. For instance, I know I’m at my best when I’m busy and challenged. I know what I will and won’t compromise on when it comes to my next career move. I know it’s time to do some volunteer work because not everyone is lucky enough to have choices.

I also know I’m not ready to leave London yet. I knew there’d be things I’d miss, aside from friends and family, such things as the ready availability of what Westerners would recognise as milk and being able to simply ask for directions.

But I underestimated how I would revel in returning to the routines and landscapes that had become mundane. For instance, my new appreciation of home extends to what was formerly the worst part of my day: I smile on the tube. I didn’t tut at the guy who bumped me or roll my eyes at those so impatient they trod on my heel. This new, benign commuter in me may not last I know, but right now I can’t get enough of this city.

In answer to my own question: no. Coming home was not the best thing about my 13 months in the Middle Kingdom, though an unexpected upside and not to be dismissed. I strongly recommend anyone considering a break, a change, a move, to cut loose and do it. I met wonderful people, ate glorious food and learnt a lot about an incredibly interesting country. I can tell you it made my path clearer, my person more rounded. I can’t tell you it’s easy.

While some will have a 100% fantastic experience, for most there will likely be times of confusion, times you want to slap yourself or cry a little in worry and frustration and occasionally fear, but you won’t regret it.

Not all the time, anyway.

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