Should I move my happy family from America to Asia?

Everything is peachy here, but I'm an entrepreneur and my wife is Asian, and it's the chance of a lifetime.


Cary Tennis
August 31, 2005 11:13PM (UTC)

Hello, Cary:

I am in my mid-30s, married, with a daughter about to start her final year of junior high school here in the United States. My wife and I met nearly 20 years ago, and we have been happily together ever since. She is from a relatively stable, happy and prosperous country in Asia. She is the only one from her large, happy family here in the United States -- the rest of her family is perfectly content to remain in their country. We are emotionally very close to them and make every effort to visit them at least once a year. We even maintain a second home there.

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We are close with my family, too -- both geographically and emotionally. After several years of college and the start of my career on one coast, my wife, daughter and I returned to the other coast 10 years ago and bought a house 10 minutes from my folks' house -- the house of my youth. My only sibling, a sister, lives in the immediate area as well with her husband and two young daughters. Our three families -- my parents, my sister's family and my family -- get along fabulously and interact every day. We are very much a part of each other's daily lives. This is a good thing. My parents' greatest pleasure in life comes from their easy access to my sister and me, our spouses and our children (their grandchildren). We all get a great deal of pleasure out of having such a close, loving family.

I was a fairly successful Internet/software entrepreneur who rode the Internet boom through some exciting and financially comfortable years. Through a combination of innovation and luck, I was able to keep the tech-boom party going for me through to this spring. However, the party is over, for me at least. So now I am at a crossroads faced with having to decide what to do next. I have to start something new and I have to do it within a year or so.

My wife, daughter and I love it here, but we love it in my wife's country, too. We have always talked about how eventually my wife and I would end up there -- possibly as soon as our daughter finishes high school or college. We have been open about this with our family and friends.

Since I am at the aforementioned crossroads, it has occurred to my wife, daughter and me that we could "start over" in my wife's country. Financially this makes a great deal of sense given our strong ties there and various opportunities at hand.

The problem is that I am terrified of bringing the issue of our relocating overseas up for honest discussion with my folks, as I know that the idea will be devastating to them. I have casually raised the specter of a possible overseas move with my sister and the idea made her physically ill. She also worries about being the only family member around if or when my folks eventually need additional TLC (they are in their early 60s and quite active now).

My wife, daughter and I realize that it could end up being a mistake. The worst possible case is that we try it for a while, abandon the idea, and return to our lives here. It is, however, an adventure that we are eager to embark upon.

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I would like nothing more than to begin today preparing to relocate overseas next summer after my daughter finishes junior high school -- if it weren't going to crush my folks. Liquidating the crap that we have accumulated over the past 20 years and selling our home would be a full-time job between now and then. I need to shit or get off the pot, but I am stuck at the fear of dropping this in my folks' laps. If it were as simple as "moving would destroy my folks," then I wouldn't do it. It just isn't that simple.

How do I balance my wants with the needs of the rest of the family? How should I be looking at and discussing this issue? What next, Mr. Tennis?

Ready to Get off the Pot

Dear Ready,

At first I thought, What possible rational argument could there be against this plan? It sounds so exciting. But then I remembered the Law of Conservation of Goodness and Happiness, which supposes that goodness and happiness such as you describe are rare and fragile, and when they are found all care must be taken to protect and conserve them. In one sense this law is a pessimistic view, as it recognizes that there are real limits to our good fortune; it sets a possible future against a known present and asks, Is it worth destroying what we have to risk gaining some unknown and possibly greater good? It does not take the view that we cannot achieve happiness; it only says that, like certain species of plants and animals, happiness, once discovered, ought to be carefully preserved.

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A happy family is the rarest and most beautiful of all forms of happiness. If you are fortunate enough to have that, what would possess you to destroy it? Love of adventure? Entrepreneurial spirit? Can the same principles that apply to business be made to apply to a family? Is it possible that such happiness can be re-created in another country with another language, another set of laws and educational traditions and business rules?

Perhaps I sound overly cautious. So I will admit to you outright my biases: I neither come from a happy and well-adjusted family, nor did I adjust well to the many moves my family made when I was young. So it is true that I react with spontaneous fear to thoughts of disruption. Frankly, also, I'm a little jealous of your happiness. I cannot bear to see what might happen to it. And I identify with your daughter in junior high school: How intricate are the issues of diplomacy she must unravel daily in her classrooms! How delicate is the balance of power in the eighth-grade world!

So I have my biases. But the risks are real. Here are some questions to ponder: Is your good fortune portable? What components of it are portable? Surely your love for your wife and daughter will go with you wherever you go. But what about the support of community and other family? What role do they play in your happiness? What about your love of the soil and the names of trees? The reassurance of memory and history? Status? Social mastery? Belonging? How important are these things to you and to your family?

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Imagine a day without your favorite idiom -- that one little nugget of language you depend on to always bring understanding and a cheerful effect. Imagine one day without driving your well-loved car down a shortcut known only to you, whose mailboxes denote a happy childhood -- There, 189 Hilltop: The first girl I kissed! That childhood, though happy, was perhaps still not as happy as your current life, that life which your restlessness may have caused you to momentarily, in the service of an imagined future, devalue or disregard.

On the one hand you risk the accidental breakage of fragile bonds that cannot be repaired. For what is the glue of which these bonds are made? It's not love in the abstract but your presence itself that's holding your family together. A happy family does not live in a vacuum. It might not simply re-create itself on foreign soil. It derives its sustenance from the community, from its surroundings.

On the other hand there is the possibility of great profit, fabulous adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for your daughter, and possibly greater happiness for your wife.

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As I said, on first hearing of your happy dilemma it seemed no power on earth or wise principle of man could keep you out of Asia. But then the doubts arose. While at first your sunny, adventurous scheme seems nearly irresistible, the consideration of what you have to lose gives pause. So the best I can tell you is what you already know: It's a really, really, really tough call.

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