I exhale, then pinch myself. The chilly Michigan lakefront property I presently call home seems surreal. Shouldn't I be perusing housewares and scarves at the outdoor Fontainebleau market, hunting for Crocs and Slurpees in Holland Village, or packing for our post-graduation move? It's hard to believe our family of five completed its international MBA stint this summer and has already launched full-speed into convenient, American routines.
In July, my husband, Mark, graduated from INSEAD (INSEAD Full-Time MBA Profile). Mission accomplished. We survived the flight from Singapore to Los Angeles and the cross-country road trip from SoCal to the Midwest. (Hooray for McDonald's chicken nuggets and Jimmy Neutron DVDs in the minivan.) After a month of temporary housing and 10 days of squatting in our new place, our furniture finally arrived, and we unearthed all of our worldly possessions from storage.
Unpacked, pictures hung, and managing an easy, familiar lifestyle, we find ourselves spending more time with our children, each other, and catching up on the 500-plus e-mails we neglected during our year at business school. Mark described the intense INSEAD experience so aptly in his graduation speech: "INSEAD makes investment bankers cry. It turns boys into men and girls into high-powered executives. Indeed, INSEAD exceeded my expectations."
River Boat Tours
Yes, our year abroad etched in our minds impressions of constant study, socializing, and exhausting shopping trips. (Imagine stuffing dozens of foreign food products into a small cart or stroller with three children and attempting small talk in French with the cashier during checkout.) The past 18 months of flux also imprinted memories of deep friendships, bridged cultural gaps, and doors flinging open to new and encouraging ideas and opportunities.
The 10-month program flew by. The trips to Phuket in Thailand, Prague, and the Mediterranean Sea and visions of children laughing and bawling, late-night strolls through Chinatown and bateau mouche (river boat) tours on the Seine fuse together to create one giant, hazy, and happy recollection of our time as INSEADers on both campuses.
The last month before commencement, however, presented few carefree moments. Instead of delighting in the whirlwind of exhilaration surrounding us, we bit our nails, waiting anxiously for news from the companies with whom Mark interviewed. With only weeks until graduation and the heavy knowledge that when the student loan funds dissipated, we would have three very small mouths to feed, Mark received the calls we so patiently anticipated.
After careful consideration of each job option— from New York to Texas to England—Mark accepted Whirlpool's offer to work at their world headquarters in Benton Harbor, Mich. As part of its rotational Brand Portfolio Leadership Development Program, Mark's current position intimately exposes him to several aspects of general management in a Fortune 200 company, affords a competitive salary, and grants healthy life balance. Now, instead of tip-toeing to bed at midnight after a 12-hour to 16-hour work day, our children provide Mark a fanfared welcome on his daily 6 p.m. arrival. While many of Mark's fellow classmates landed stellar banking and consulting gigs in glamorous locations around the globe, our nightly dinner and bedtime story ritual reminds us of the appropriateness of the decision we made for our current family situation.
Missing the Elephants
Since our return to the U.S., I still undergo reverse culture shock. I often ponder the behemoth portions I receive at neighborhood restaurants, or reflect on the sea of smiles that greet me at the pervasive American discount stores, or wonder, "How does the U.S. manufacture such cheap diapers?" I miss touring castles and riding elephants on the weekend. I long for the exotic adventures that made my bones ache and lit my mind ablaze with compassion and understanding for the ways other people live. And I wonder if I will ever find another coterie of friends with whom I get along so easily and share so many interests.
Yet Mark and I happily slowed our pace to that of American suburbia. We will attempt only one out-of-the-country vacation this year (Canada or bust), and I will dust off my Super Mom cape and endeavor to wear it again. Our four-year-old periodically asks, "When are we going on the airplane to move to another planet?" and I chuckle and inform him that we are living in our American house with the playground for a long time.
In the meantime, our two- and four-year-olds proudly don their hot pink and blue INSEAD backpacks at their Montessori class, and Mark and I contemplate the concept of hobbies. While Mark thoroughly enjoys his new job, and I savor my golden mommy time and build local circles of solid friends, we occasionally discuss potential futures. Some scenarios reveal images of a settled and retired Bonni and Mark, enjoying Lake Michigan sunsets and county fairs. Other daydreams involve several business-related international moves as an expat family, hopping from Brazil to China to Italy, and back to the U.S.
As we grow and become more acquainted with life's unpredictable nature, we tuck our INSEAD memories, our "wish-we-would-haves," our 700 new Facebook alumni friends, my recently acquired Julia Child cookbook, and Mark's hard-earned diploma under our metaphoric belt and forge ahead to tomorrow's promises together.