“I would hope it’s not a permanent goodbye.”
CLARISSA DOURMASHKIN-CAGOL is a recent “repat” back to the U.S. from Shanghai. She first fell in love with the city during a college summer abroad – and now, seven years later, she’s ready to return home. Sort of.
Originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Clarissa studied Chinese at Georgetown University, then launched her PR career in Shanghai, working with lifestyle and luxury brands entering the Chinese market. She recently moved to New York with her Malaysian boyfriend – who also happens to be my cousin! Just before their relocation, the pair stopped by our family reunion in Malaysia, where she was kind enough to indulge one particularly inquisitive cousin. 💁🏻
In our #ChrysalisConvo, Clarissa reflects on transience and transition in the expat life as she prepares to put down roots once again.
Where is home?
When I say “home,” I still think of my parents’ house. But once I left that comfort zone to make my way in the world, Shanghai has been the place I've called “home” for the longest – pretty much all of my working adult life. Somewhere I had to discover on my own and find my own way.
But Shanghai is no longer my home because I’ve left. So right now, I don’t really know where I would call home. For the past six months I’ve been living in Singapore, but it’s really my boyfriend’s home. My parents’ home is no longer really my home. I don’t have a life there that I would go back to. So I guess it’s a question of making a longer-term home.
How do you feel returning to the U.S.? Do you plan to “cut the cord” or stay connected to China?
It’s a big transition for me. It feels like graduating again. Besides college, I haven’t worked at all in America as a “real adult.” But I don’t see China as a small blip, then back to “real life.” I’ve heard people describe their time abroad as “just an interesting break from reality.” I don’t see it like that. My ideal job would be connected to Asia, to China, and involve traveling back once a year. I would hope it’s not a permanent goodbye.
What drew you to study Chinese and choose Shanghai in the first place?
I had to learn Latin in high school, so when I had the opportunity in college, I was really excited to learn Chinese. It's a living language and super useful in the world. From the start, my teacher said, “It’s going to take you ten years to become anywhere near proficient.” The longer I learn Chinese, the more I realize she was so right. When I first started, everything sounded like noise. But it’s so rewarding when you begin to pick out individual words. Now it’s an endless stream of new ways to say things.
I spent three months in Beijing as part of my degree program in 2009, just after Beijing hosted the Olympics. So the city had changed a lot, more than I knew, but it was still so different from America, where everything is very contained. People sitting on the street eating, hanging things up, their whole lives spread out in hole-in-the-wall places, chatting across to each other. Even though it was quite messy, you just saw so much life. I loved that excitement and sense of discovery.
The next summer I studied in Shanghai for six weeks during the World Expo, which was a transformative moment for the city. They were ready to welcome the world. Something about Shanghai really stuck with me, and I just knew that I wanted to live there someday. After I graduated, I decided it was now or never. If I don’t go now, I’ll probably get stuck in life in America and never take the chance to move to China. So I did!
Knowing a place is like being in a relationship with a person: both of us are constantly changing. I may walk with you for a time, perhaps be “in a scene of your movie” before going our separate ways. How have you seen Shanghai change over the past seven years? Can you paint us a picture of the Shanghai you know?
I really love that Shanghai has always had a history of being a liminal city, like Istanbul or even Hawaii. Places that are in-between, where people from all over the world can come and mix. Shanghai is a Chinese city, but it’s not entirely China. It has its eyes open to the world. When I was first there, Shanghai felt off-the-grid. Since then, it’s become more and more connected. It went from being a small dot on the map to being much more well-known around the world. Less hidden; more polished. In just two or three years, they've finished construction of the Shanghai Tower. Over 100 stories tall, it’s now the tallest building across the Pudong river. So Shanghai is just really changing at breakneck speed. Even if I go back within a year, I probably won’t recognize it as it is now.
Speaking of change, how have you preserved relationships – and your own morale – as friends come and go over the years?
It’s easy to make friends, and hard to say goodbye. People go in and out. The ground shifts a lot. Living there for so long, three to four major groups of my friends have changed. It can be difficult always being an outsider, seeing people leave, and not being part of the mainstream culture. But you have to know that you want to be there, and have faith in what you’re doing and learning.
It’s definitely easier to stay in touch now with messaging apps. Until WeChat, it was difficult to have calls with people. You just sent long emails back and forth. There used to be more periods of silence. But, even though everybody eventually goes home, your horizon expands. You now have reasons to visit countries you might never have thought to visit before!
How has living in China challenged you to grow outside your comfort zone?
I always joke, “China makes you really pushy.” In America you ask nicely, but in China, sometimes that doesn’t work. Once I moved into an apartment with faulty wiring. There was electricity running through the shower, so it was a very dangerous situation. Turns out the grounding wire of the building was off because the unit upstairs had been doing construction. We had to call the landlord many times. It finally got to a point where I was crying and screaming, all in Chinese, “Do you want me to die? Do you want me to be electrocuted to death? That’s what’s going to happen!” Finally they said, “Okay, okay! We’ll fix it!” So I’ve had to learn to stand up for myself more than if I hadn’t left home in the States.
What will you treasure most from your time in China?
My favorite memories are of how welcoming people are. One time, I was browsing a tiny hole-in-the-wall shoe shop. It was during the lantern festival after Chinese New Year, when families come together to share special meals. The owner’s husband was setting up a table on the sidewalk outside their store. I was their last customer of the day, so they insisted, “Come, you must join us! You must!” They wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So I sat down, and they fed me everything they had home-cooked, giving me wine, explaining that the festival is about being with family. They were a bit drunk, but super generous and encouraging: “You are young and out in the world. Enjoy your job, make friends, follow your dream!”
I was also really struck by the openness of Chinese people in our generation. Many of my colleagues had studied abroad in the US or UK then come back to China, so they have a very different perspective from their parents. They very easily admitted that the way I saw something could be very different from the way they saw something. If they didn’t understand what I was doing, they’d say, “Okay, that’s your American-ness. That’s fine. Just do that.” But they would also take the time to explain their approach, whereas in America, I feel like we expect everyone to see the world the same way that we do.
What has kept you in Shanghai for so long? Why have you decided to finally leave?
It comes back to that sense of discovery and adventure. The energy of the city, where you feel like things are happening. It’s like an open slate, where “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but there’s something new around the corner.” You’re always meeting new people with new ideas. But I always knew that one day I would wake up like, “Okay, it’s time.” Ready to go. Ready to see something different. In my job, there was always a next step that I wanted to reach. By the time I left, I felt like I had reached the point where I had done what I wanted to do there.
Who or what are you returning to?
Family! My sister lives in Brooklyn, and my parents are still in Boston. I’ve only seen them once or twice a year in recent years. So I’ll be seeing how my sister is making her own way, and figuring out how to relate to my parents as an adult. My parents are both kind of counter-culture, former hippies, non-religious. My father’s side of the family came to America maybe three generations ago from Eastern Europe. My mom is German. She moved to America to marry my dad. She approaches America with a bit of a critical eye, and her family is all still in Germany. Growing up, we would usually go back for Christmas, and our relatives would come to America during the summer. So we are American, but our family has a foot outside America. Which is not an unusual American story.
Besides family, I’m not totally sure what I’m going back to. I guess there’s always that sense of place. The way the seasons change, the quality of the light, the air, the feeling of fall on the East Coast. The way the cities are built. Deeper-level things that contribute to a sense of home. Just visiting New York last fall, I was like, “Wow, I feel home.” I hadn’t felt that in a really long time.
Any closing thoughts as you transition from “hosting” visiting friends to “making your way” again?
When you live somewhere for awhile, everything starts to seem normal. You take a lot of things for granted. If somebody’s arriving for the first time, remember to put yourself back in those shoes. You have to reopen your eyes, help explain, and be very patient. You have to remind yourself how unfamiliar it can be.