Leaving Isn’t Such a Trivial Act, After All

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Canada-themed mural, Chinatown, Ottawa

“Do you remember your last night in Paris?” my dad asked casually.

I looked up from my plate, puzzled. The question came out of the blue. “Which one?”

“When you got your visa for Canada.”

“Huh… which visa? I had several over the years…

“The last one, I guess. It was different. Something was changing… or had changed. You were starting a new chapter in your life.”

I put my fork down and paused. I wasn’t sure what night he was referring to. Back then, my dad was working in Paris Monday through Friday. I usually crashed on the floor of his shoebox apartment when I had an early flight from CDG airport, which happened often between 2001 and 2005.

“One of these nights when I was sleeping under the desk?”

By “shoebox apartment,” I mean that there was barely enough room for a desk, a bed and a bookshelf. My spot was under the desk, my backpack as a pillow.

“Yep.”

“But I don’t feel there was ever a last night,” I stressed.

Looking back, I never realized I was leaving until I was gone. But apparently, people around me did notice—and it never occurred to me they would.

I was 16 when my parents gave me the green light to go to Beijing alone for the summer—looking back, maybe the light was more orange than green, but I sounded so confident I fooled everybody including myself. A year later, I travelled to China again, like a junkie taking another hit. A couple of weeks after graduating from high school, I left for Hong Kong with a one-way ticket and a job offer. In the midst of the international turmoil following 9/11, I decided I didn’t like Hong Kong so much after all and I met up with Feng in Mexico, a puzzling move for my parents who had no idea who Feng was and why I was suddenly trading Asia for Latin America.

I’m a bit of an oddity in my family. We never took exotic holidays when I was a kid. My parents don’t have valid passports. My brother and sister have no interest in exploring the world. We don’t have relatives abroad. Basically, the travel bug bit only one person—me.

While they didn’t try to discourage me, my parents were still understandably not so comfortable with the thought of their young daughter backpacking solo. But I was always coming back alive and happy from my adventures—I did “edit” a few chapters, if needed…—so they got used to it. Sure, I was exploring countries that weren’t on most people’s “top holiday spots,” but hey, at least I was always coming home.

Until I didn’t.

In 2004, after yet another backpacking trip, Feng and I flew back to Canada together. This time, I stayed on this side of the pond instead of booking a flight to Paris. I even applied for a tourist visa extension. My mom was strangely quiet over the phone when I announced proudly I would spend the next six months in Ottawa.

I did come back to France in the fall, but I only stayed long enough to pick up a one-year Working Holiday Visa. I remember that day. I had taken the 6 a.m. Nantes-Paris TGV train to be at the Canadian Embassy at 9 a.m. on Avenue Montaigne. I got off at Franklin D. Roosevelt, on Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It was a quiet and chilly morning and the only people in the street were posh old ladies walking their dogs. I remember thinking they must be living nearby, and I found the idea crazy considering the price of real estate in the arrondissement.

Back then, Canada wasn’t so popular and getting a Working Holiday Visa was easy: you dropped off your application and your passport at the embassy and you could pick it up a few hours later. This is exactly what I did, before hopping on a train to Nantes in the evening.

When I proudly showed my passport with the Canadian visa to my mom that night, she did a good job of pretending to keep on ironing clothes until I heard a sob.

“Why are you crying?” I asked, confused.

“Because you’re leaving,” she replied simply.

“But… but I’m always leaving! I’ve been coming and going for the past three years!”

She knew. She knew I’ll be away longer. She knew I was unofficially moving out, but I didn’t.

Back then, there were no teary goodbyes. I was too busy focusing on packing, checking my flight schedule, looking forward to seeing Feng. Besides, in a way, I thought I was supposed to leave. I was old enough but my brother was just a kid and my sister a teen. My parents were struggling financially and the five of us were a bit squeezed in the two-bedroom apartment. I was giving them room and peace of mind—one less child to worry about.

I was so oblivious to my parents’ feelings that a year later, when I was granted permanent residence status, I FedExed my passport to my mom who picked up the visa for me in Paris before sending the document back. I feel awful about it now—she must have been conflicted and sad, as if she was handing me the key to a new world she wasn’t part of.

All these years, I never thought the fact I chose to leave France affected my relatives. Of course, we miss each other—but we would too if I lived in another French city, right? But it’s not that simple. I know my mom heard from distant relatives that she must have done something wrong for me to live so far away. And more than once, I had to specify I didn’t hate France and I didn’t run from an abusive household—I just love travelling.

Feng never asked me to live in Canada with him. My parents never begged me to stay.

Leaving, travelling, immigrating to Canada—these were all my choices. Choices I’m proud of because they were mine but also choices that affected those around me, and I have to live with this.

How about you? How did your family react when you moved abroad or travelled for extended periods of time?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

30 Comments

  1. I almost cried!
    How on earth do you dare post this out of the blue and move me to tears??
    For me, although my family situation is much more different (yes I wanted to live far far away from my family), the whole moving permanently to Canada was also unexpected.
    Actually, few years before I had met this brazilian woman, stating she could read our future, I do believe in this things but at some point she told me I was not supposed to live in France, that I would leave and settle in a big country, very green. I laughed. I thought she was crazy or too drunk but she insisted.
    And here I am. I find it funny.
    I only got my visa out of boredom with my, at this time, new boyfriend. We wanted to go to Australia for a while, but filled up the application for Canada, just for fun.
    I remember how I promised to everyone I knew that it was just for one year, that we will be back soon and everything. Seven years later, they don’t even ask me if I think about coming back to France.
    Some very very close friends were hurt in the process, some left as soon as I had the visa and I feel weird when I see my family, I feel my home is here now and sometimes it breaks my heart to know that yes, this choice has been hard to some people and I did not realise it a the time….
    Or maybe it’s harder now with the kids asking to see their granparents more often.
    *sobbing*

    • I’m sorry I almost made you cry, but your comment gave me goose bumps. I can relate to so many aspects of your move… Not the Brazilian fortune-teller, mind you (that’s unique!), but to relatives who stop asking when you’re coming back for good to hurting friends in the process. Don’t you feel like sometimes, you made your life more complicated for no reason? I do. There are days when I think it would have been so, so much easier to just… not travel, not immigrate!

      Do you ever wish you were in Australia instead? I briefly considered it too, but 1) it’s really really far 2) I’m not a huge fan of the culture.

      • Yes I do feel we complicated things by leaving with absolutely no reason!
        And I see the few old friends that I still have leaving in the same town we grew up, still close to the people we grew up with, living close to their parents… I don’t want that but I get that they feel secure, that they are not alone and don’t have to figure everything alone, like for maternity. I mean having a kid is difficult, in a new country, I found it really hard.

        Some days when it’s really really cold yes I wish we went to Australia but like you, I think it’s really far and yes the culture troubles me a bit. Plus, the insects and other beasts (because yes I did not want to stay in big cities, crazy me!)… no, I am glad I am in Canada and I kind of think it was really ment to be that way because even if I was not looking, I found a lot of answers about my own culture, my parents culture, some things I felt weird about while being in France. It’s hard to explain exactly what but I really feel I found some missing pieces here too, and that is conforting.

        Thank you for allowing us to discuss this kind of things because really when you talk to people in France you are not really allowed to say “it’s hard” because people just look at you like “don’t complain, you chose to leave” but it’s not that simple and I rarely stop to even think about how huge all the process was
        🙂

          • I can 100% to what you are both saying about the difficulties, and I can only imagine how much harder it becomes with a kid asking about grandparents etc, and not having a support network for that. When I left I knew it would be forever! I didn’t know if I would be in Scotland for the rest of my life, but I knew from age 12 that I wanted to leave France! And us too thought about going to Australia but my Scotsman was a ski instructor, and well, there isn’t so much skiing there 😉
            And living abroad has helped me “find myself” in a way that I never could have in France.

          • It’s funny that you say that when you left, you knew it was for good. I feel the opposite–I had no idea I was actually leaving!

        • I also found motherhood VERY hard here. I wasn’t expecting it to be so hard, actually, and I suspect I would have dealt with it much differently in France. Not only you’re alone as parents, without relatives for support, but you also have to deal with a major culture shock because no matter how familiar you are with the culture of your new country, parenthood is very instinctive and you tend to rely on your own experience, in a land far far away.

          Or at least, that’s how I felt 🙂

          I also heard the “hé, tu l’as choisi!”, “C’est toi qui t’es compliqué la vie, hein!”. They’re right. But I feel I’m still allowed to…. I don’t know, have feelings??

          Over the years, I completely lost touch with most of my childhood friends. I left at 18, so it’s been a while and many resented me for not being here at major milestones, like weddings or kids. It’s tough :-/

  2. Your post made me cry especially the part about your mother crying.
    I applied for an internship in the USA and I thought I would be back 18 months later.
    I never thought I would ended up in France, it was never a country of my choice.
    I remember vividly the day I was packing my suitcase, leaving home and taking plane for the first time in my life.
    My mother told me that she was not happy. I didn’t really give it a thought why.
    But now I know, she had foreseen it, that I would leave home for good.

    • I’m so sorry! Please accept this virtual hug.

      I never thought I would move to Canada either. Neither did my family, I think… they would have pictured me in China, at least for a little while, then back in France. Life is so weird.

      I can only imagine how hard it is for you… your home is further than mine.

  3. Oof, this post packs a punch! My favorite kind of post.

    I think parents hide how they feel when kids leave, at least if they don’t want to make them feel guilty. It’s later, when we grow up or older, that they might tell us or we realize the impact of our leaving. My leaving for college was a big deal for my family because we have a small family and didn’t have relatives nearby and spent time together every weekend before then—I wasn’t the high school kid who spent every weekend with her friends. I was excited and happy to be at college so didn’t realize what it was like to be on the other side until later—and you know, I still didn’t live it.

    • The “leaving for college” event is so North American to me! I completely understand why it’s such a big event though… you can find yourself thousands of kilometres from home, whereas France (and most Europeans countries) are much smaller and going back home is easier. Where did your parents live back then and where did you go to school? Did you, if ever, feel homesick at one point, after all the excitement of the college experience?

  4. My eyes are wet while reading this. I imagine 5 years from now, my daughter asked my permission to travel other side of the world.
    Most of Indonesia think that having a daughter is an “asset” because daughter will take care of her parents when they’re old and I hate this idea.
    I always encourage my children to see the world, through scholarship if possible (because I’m not rich;) )

    once again, beautiful story!

    • You’re a good mom 🙂

      If it can give you perspective, I do have a great relationship with my parents. In a way, living far gave me some perspective.

  5. Lovely sotry, I guess when we’re young and livingthe nest it’s not the time to be thinking about how our parents are feeling. It should be all about us and embarking upon a new adventure!
    I was sooooo worried about telling my mum I was going to Scotland for a year. When I moved from Metz to Nancy she threatened to kill herself and said she and my borthers would end up living “sous les ponts”. I was only moving 45min away to be a student and she emotionnaly blackmailed me. I don’t know where I found the strength but I did it regardless. She of course freaked out, but at that point I think she knew she couldn’t hold me back any longer. Funny enough when I left for Canada a few years later she barely acknowledged the fact.
    I remember my dad being fairly supportive, he even drove me to the airport (5 hours away), post 9/11 as well, when they told us to be there 4 hours before our flight… I think he and my stepmom were surprised about my move to Canada, more so worried that “I was following a boy”. But as much as it was going with my Scotsman, it was also something I wanted to do for myself and I was ready to keep going on my own if needed.

    • Wow, I’m sorry to say that from my perspective, your mother seems… ahem, dysfunctional. Like, a lot. Well, is she glad that your new nest isn’t quite “sous les ponts” these days? I mean, you did just fine! Funny that she, as you put it, barely acknowledged your move to Canada later. If I may say, it’s probably super healthy that you put some distance between you and her. Is the relationship any easier now?

      Your dad sounds much more steady and straightforward!

      • No offense taken, she has some major psychiatric issues and wasn’t getting any treatment at the time.
        It didn’t make it easier knowing it was “abnormal” when going through it but that’s just part of (my) life and how things were at the time.
        And yes I did leave to put distance between myself and a bunch of things, including her. She’s a complicated person and I don’t think we will ever have an “easy” relationship 🙂
        It’s funny because I was thinking recently how I’m always the one with the weird anecdote lol I was going to do a post about it, how for instance when answering to a post on Facebook about foods you were told to eat as a kid and never would eat again I answered “boiled salad” people question it. Or when they talk about camps and summer holiday I have a story about seaweed camp lol
        Hey at least I can say I had an unusual experience?

        • Okay, I *need* to know about seaweed camp. You may want to stress on SEAweed, though, otherwise people may think you’re referring to something else way more fun than… well, seaweed 😆

          You did have a very unique upbringing and you are a unique person too! I don’t know that many French completely fluent in English, living with a Scottish guy in BC etc. and all the details that make your story stand out.

          I love your anecdotes because you share them without drama. Basically, you tell the story but you’re not begging for sympathy or anything, which show that not only you’re a balanced adult, but also a smart woman 😉

          • Haha had it been held here in BC I would totally think of a different kind of weed :p in Brittany not so much haha
            And I don’t know any other Chinese French couple either
            As for the stories they are part of my life, like anybody else’s childhood stories. I do sometimes get emotional thinking back on some of the abuse we went through but it didn’t stop me from finding my happiness

          • Yes, that’s the “dark” part of the anecdotes. Some of them make me smile because of the way you’re telling them now, but then I think of you as a kid and I’m like “shit, that’s so not okay”… :-/

          • Yes, that’s the “dark” part of the anecdotes. Some of them make me smile because of the way you’re telling them now, but then I think of you as a kid and I’m like “shit, that’s so not okay”… :-/

  6. C’était fort comme article! De mon côté, il n’y a eu aucun doute, tout le monde n’a pu que réaliser : nous avions fait une demande de résidence permanente, nous avons mis deux ans à l’avoir, deux ans durant lesquels nous ne nous sommes investis dans des projets (enfant, reprise des études) qu’en gardant en tête ce qui s’en venait. Quelques semaines avant notre départ, nous avons passé une semaine de vacances avec la belle famille. Nous nous sommes quittes sur un stationnement, tout le monde pleurait et notre nièce criait littéralement. C’était affreux. Ensuite nous sommes rentrés déménager la maison que nous louions, juste tous les deux. Mon chum a refait une tournée d’adieux dans sa famille pour ramener des affaires qu’ils nous avaient rachetés. Puis il est parti le premier. Une semaine plus tard je le rejoignais. Avec 50 kilos de bagages, mon enfant et mon chien. Mes parents nous ont déposés à l’aéroport de Toulouse. C’était dur mais pas insupportable. Je sais cependant qu’ils ont pas mal accusé le coup. C’est toujours dur quand tu es celui qui reste. Tu continues à passer par les mêmes endroits, ta vie continue mais les gens que tu aimais n’y sont plus. Il y a des étrangers dans la maison qu’ils habitaient, et tu sais qu’ils ne sortiront plus jamais de l’immeuble de leur entreprise au pied duquel tu les attendais parfois. J’ai été aux deux places et pour celui qui reste le départ de l’autre est comme une petite mort. Cependant il y a un prequel à notre histoire. Nous devions partir en 2009. À l’automne, en PVT. Ma belle famille avait mal accueilli l’idée, nous accusant de littéralement les abandonner. Mon conjoint a vraiment dû se battre contre eux, alors qu’ils étaient très proches. On a libéré notre appartement et nous nous sommes installés chez mes parents dans l’attente de l’ouverture des PVT. à quelques jours de la date, il est tombé gravement malade. Une déferlante sur notre radeau fragile. On a dû repousser notre projet, relouer un appartement, reprendre un semblant de vie. Il a eu un long traitement, sa vie était menacée. Face à la peur de le perdre, la culpabilité d’avoir pu contribuer de quelque manière que ce soit au problème, sa famille n’a plus vu notre volonté de partir de la même façon.

    • Wow, quel récit aussi!

      Je suis complètement d’accord avec toi : c’est beaucoup plus facile d’être la personne qui part que celle qui reste. Ce qui m’a quelque part facilité la tâche aussi (et éviter de culpabiliser), c’est que je suis l’aînée. Mes parents ne sont ni âgés ni seuls. Je vois la différence avec Feng, enfant unique… le sens de responsabilité n’est pas le même.

      Par contre, je reste pantoise devant l’attente du visa. Je crois que je serais devenue folle. Construire ici en attendant de partir là-bas… quel jeu d’équilibre! Mon immigration a été finalement tellement rapide que j’ai presque été mise devant le fait accompli–quatre mois, bam, Et j’étais déjà au Canada.

        • Oui on en avait pas assez lol 😉 Mais c’est surtout que ça nous a comme poussé encore plus vers l’urgence de vivre nos rêves.

          Juliette, en fait ça tombait à pic car je commençais un contrat de perfectionnement de deux ans à ce moment là 🙂

  7. I am reading this at 6 am and now I am having all the feels ! I can’t cry right now…too early in morning…but Omg I love this post !!

    My mom and sister and I love travelling. We get the travel bug from my mom, but we never envisioned that we would live in different countries. I have been an expat twice now and it hurts but I did it for myself. It is very tough on our family especially around the holidays where we want to be together but we can’t due to different schedules and high flights prices. Although talking on Skype or What’s App almost every day (except for my sister whom lives in Hawaii so time difference ), it is still tough. My mom feels bad that she is not here most of the time and it gets me sad.

    • You have such a unique family! Where do you think your mum got the travel bug? And how does your mum feel about both daughters living abroad? You do look very close, I remember the pictures of your trip there 🙂

  8. Je pense que c’est là qu’on peut dire que les parents connaissent bien leurs enfants…

    Moi je leur renvoie la balle à chaque fois : ils m’ont présenté un cursus universitaire dans leur ville pour que je revienne terminer mes études chez eux (j’étais alors étudiant à 300 km). Ce cursus prévoyait un semestre à l’étranger mais eux me voyaient à la maison pour les autres années du cursus.
    Ce semestre à l’étranger a mis le feu aux poudres pour mon désir d’expatriation. Je suis parti un peu à reculons pour ce premier semestre (ma copine, mes amis, ma vie ne partaient pas avec moi).

    Je suis renté pour terminer mon diplome (6 mois) pour repartir 1 an, puis rentrer puis repartir 3 ans, puis rentrer (cette fois pas chez eux), pour repartir (pour de bon?). A chaque fois un pays différent mais cette fois je crois que c’est le bon.

    Je me demande souvent ce que serait ma vie si je n’avais pas du faire ce semestre à l’étranger. Comme je leur dis souvent : ils ont ouvert la porte en me présentant ce cursus dont je n’avais jamais entendu parler donc c’est un peu grace à eux (ou leur faute, en fonction de comment on le voit) si je suis là aujourd’hui.

    • C’est drôle, la vie. 🙂 Effectivement, ce sont souvent ces petites improbabilités qui sont déterminantes. Combien d’étudiants se contentent de leur trimestre à l’étranger et reviennent avec une belle expérience, sans pour autant avoir été piqués par le virus du voyage? Est-ce que tu t’expliques cette recherche d’un pays dans lequel vivre? Et comment tes parents ont réagi quand ils ont vu que tu repartais encore et encore?

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