From Malaysia to the UK: Family Repatriation in Pictures

Family Transition  Blog

As an art psychotherapist and school counsellor, I had experienced supporting students and their families who were leaving the school along with the issues that frequently arise during  major transitions . I thus decided to document my family’s process of departure from  Malaysia along with our re-patriating to the UK by asking each member of my family to draw their feelings on a single page at certain points in our  journey.


19.04.17: Image 1 (Malaysia)

First Image Leaving KL

The first drawing was met with enthusiasm. We had known we were leaving for some time as I had handed in my notice in December 2016. School was ending in June and we would return to the UK in July.

I drew a massive question mark with a union jack ‘dot’. I had so many questions that couldn’t be answered that I honestly didn’t know where to start. The sea at the bottom was calm and empty and I had no idea what was going to happen next.

My husband wrote the word Malaysia which he described as being “full of ups and downs” . My son drew a plane which was leaving and “flying back” (but not home) and my daughter wrote positive thoughts and a smiley face, heart and bank note (we had tried to explain the currency difference as she was used to Ringgit and not pounds). When we had finished my son said he had wanted to add a scuba diver but didn’t have the room. Both children said they wanted to do another drawing soon.


24.04.17: Image 2 (“Don’t Let Fear Stop You”)

Family image 2

My husband drew a book which appeared to be a diary. He wrote 2016 and 2017 on each page of the cover and then told our children that life and its stories are “like a book” and that we didn’t know what is coming next. He added a funnel cloud in the bottom right hand corner because so much change and movement (without control) was imminent.

I  added  a large arrow with a ‘calm’ cloud with its eyes closed above a slightly choppy sea. It was wobbling but the globe at the top hadn’t fallen off. The tiny boat below the cloud had 3 figures in it and the base of the arrow was strong and steady.

My son scribbled a world with a line going to the moon. He worked very quickly and said that he didn’t want to add anything else. My daughter added clouds and wrote ‘Don’t let fear stop you’ before adding yellow lines (like lightening). She was positive and seemed excited whilst doing this.

Clearly, we all knew that movement and leaving was getting closer. Things were starting to ‘wobble’ and the funnel cloud to the bottom right of the image illustrated the disconcerting changes that we knew were going to be coming next.


26.04.17: Image 3 (Back Out?)

My daughter drew a kissing emoji face with a ‘BS-rule’  book. She said that she didn’t want to talk about the reasons behind it  because she had had an argument with a friend at school. My son added some rectangles which he drew very quickly and said he didn’t want to continue. It wasn’t finished but he didn’t say what he wanted to draw in the first place.

My husband added a 3-D cuboid image where you could see the inside and the outside at the same time. He said that he felt exposed and scribbled a very light shadow in pencil. It wasn’t solid but it looked like windows in a room but with no door. Looking outwards and inwards at the same time-a lot of that was going on at the time.

I drew another question mark with a larger globe at the bottom. There were ongoing job possibilities and I didn’t know if any employment door was open or closed at this point in time. It was frustrating because I wanted the doors in the house “closed shut” so I could move onto the next stage in my transition process.


02.05.17: Image 4 (Painful Hands)

I had been under a lot of stress and my hands started to hurt. The pain was something that I had experienced in the past, particularly when physically and mentally run down. My hand image had hearts on each hand and the fact that they hurt made me reflect on how growth is usually painful (whether psychological and/or physical).

My daughter added a ‘Good and Bad’ world at the top and added more bad circles at the bottom. The top half (north) she described as being “good” but she didn’t say why.  The quote she wrote said “no cars infect the environment” which was her school project that term. My son then added his school first prize swimming gala ribbon saying that he was very happy about winning. I found my hands an uncomfortable image to acknowledge but my children were clearly feeling more positive at this time.


10.05.17: Image 5 (45 days left)

A large rainbow coloured mushroom with a calendar on the top was my starting part of our image this time. We had been talking about “dangerous animals” in the UK and I said that the most poisonous things were mushrooms rather than animals. This stuck in my mind. Mushrooms can be safe but some are deadly and sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference. Was our move home going to be safe or was it going to end badly-this is what I was thinking almost all the time. The rainbow colours and large holes were an afterthought because I felt the image needed some cheering up.

My daughter added a blue heart next to the calendar and said she felt sad but didn’t want to say why. We had bought the Malaysian monopoly game so, as a family, we took out the cards and some of the pieces to add to our picture. It was interesting that ‘chance’ and ‘get out of jail free’ cards were added. The treasure chest and airport the children both said were about our recently booked holiday and they said that they enjoyed adding other objects to the picture. A fun approach to a light-hearted point in our transition process.


15.05.17: Image 6 (40 days left)

My children had been singing the ‘sing a happy song’ song from the Smurfs film which had driven me crazy that week. They had loved me asking them to stop it but my daughter said that she felt happier singing it. So, she wrote it in the top left corner. I then drew a very large ’40’ cloud which was raining onto a green umbrella. I was feeling the pressure at work with high expectations towards the end of the academic year which was always challenging when energy levels were decreasing.

My son drew a red heart and added another heart next to it with the word ‘head’ written in it. He later said he had meant to write heart. Head and heart-both have hearts and our collective heads and hearts were under a lot of strain. He then added ‘days left’ in the cloud. My husband drew a plant with two round sections. One had a pound sign in and the other part looked like a sun. The roots of the plant were deep and he described the plant as being balanced. The different amount of space taken up by each family member really stood out in this image and the numbers of days left (in my head)  clearly took up a lot of room (both figuratively and literally) at this point in time.


21.05.17: Image 7 (35 days left)

A whole family image. I spent a lot of time drawing a very detailed section of a roller coaster with questions marks on the cars placed at various stages on the ride. Up and down expressed how I felt. There was relief and excitement but also fear and feeling stuck. Work expectations continued to increase and I was witnessing a lot of ‘up and down’ within  myself. The bars and clouds at the bottom illustrate this disparity. I felt extremely tired at this point but I knew there was so much left to still do before the end of the academic year.

My husband drew a swirly shape at the bottom left of the page and said he felt that he was waiting for the ride to really start. My son drew an ‘English flag’ and said that he didn’t know where the pole at the bottom should go so he left it blank. My daughter started to write the word roller coaster and ended up drawing a circular ride without any cars on it. She wanted to put something in the middle but left it blank when she couldn’t make up her mind. We all knew that our time left was literally flying by which was scary.


27.05.17: Image 8 (29 days left)

My son drew the 29 more days square in the centre and talked about the end of school getting closer and that he was anxious about it. Whilst he was talking, my daughter was listening to him and wrote ‘rich ness can not change the world’ in the top left hand corner. She drew a house shape  before adding  ‘Be Happy’ with a candy cane before telling her brother that it would all be OK.

My husband drew a house which he described as ‘shimmering’ due to the way he coloured it in. It was our next house and he said that he really wants to have a garden and to live in a house and not a condominium when we return to the UK. The children became really excited at the prospect of having a garden and they asked if they could have bikes and go to the local park alone (we were returning to our previous town and this was what they really wanted to do).

Whilst they were talking I drew an ear and wrote ‘listen’ because my husband and I were having to repeat a lot of information to our children and to each other. I then drew an Inter-movers Malaysia box because they were all over our house waiting to be collected. They were everywhere and were a sign that our shipping date was getting ever closer.


04.06.17: Image 9 (21 days left)

I felt calm when creating this image. My daughter asked if she would be able to study the subjects she enjoyed at school in Malaysia when back in the UK. I asked her to write them down for me so she drew a bar chart (which she had been doing in school that week). She said that she wanted to draw the things she was best at which she listed as: 1st Art, 2nd Swimming, 3rd Moving. When I asked about moving as a subject, she brought up the fact that we had moved three times in the previous four years whilst in Malaysia and that she was “good at moving” as a result. She then wrote “don’t be afraid” and told me that everything was going to be fine.

I added a large sun (it had been an extremely hot day at work) and drew the numbers 21 as two strong and balanced legs. This figure was standing on top of steps (which also looked like the top of a podium) and had arrows pointing upwards indicating movement but not instability. Afterwards, the sun looked like a hot air balloon (to me) which was about to pull the numbers off the podium before flying away. Up up and away!


07.06.17: Image 10 (17 days left)

My children talked more about the UK flight and going to the airport whilst drawing their images. My son drew a globe and the plane with the flight path illustrated. He then wrote ’17 more days!’ next to this. He added a rectangle but said he wasn’t sure exactly why before colouring it in .

My daughter added ‘Fly like you mean it’ and ‘its ok’ next to this part of the image. She didn’t add more because she said she didn’t feel like it. I ‘d had a long week  and drew a castle with the port-cullis partly raised (or was it closing?). The word weak was added because I questioned how “weak” I felt physically. I felt  emotionally worn out too and had reached a point where I wanted the ending (leaving process and saying goodbye) simply to be over. The pressure was building and we were all feeling it.


12.06.17: Image 11 (13 days left)

I drew this during a box packing frenzy which made me realise I needed to rest. We had been told by the packing company that we had 10 metres cubed for all of our boxes and belongings. When the representative showed us how much space that was involved, it looked tiny and I wondered if it would all fit into the space inside the container. So much was going on beneath the surface and I felt extremely isolated hence the lack of background. Is 13 an unlucky number and what was the stones rolling into? That felt like part of my subconscious process;  (“a rolling stone gathers no moss”) and with less than two weeks to go, the pressure was on.


18.06.17: Image 12 (7 days left)

I read an online article this morning which was about integration and the surrendering of advantage. The quote resonated with me so I wrote this attached to the flagpole with the Union Jack flag at the top. I was panicking and kept thinking that I was making a mistake. Removing my children from their ex-pat (privileged) status made my fears stronger.

“True integration, true equality requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural.”

(Nikole Hannah Jones-New York Times).

The 84 boxes had been packed and then taken away by the shipping agent this morning and suddenly having an almost empty apartment was a shock. We were prepared but it was still unnerving. The tension was almost unbearable.

My son asked to draw and scribbled a blue shape on the left-hand side of the page. When I asked him about it, he told me it was a tsunami “because that’s how I am feeling at the moment”. He was clearly worried about leaving but said that he didn’t want to talk about it in any further. His  image really did say it all at that point.


24.06.17: Image 13 (1 day left)

Coming home last night from my final day at work to be greeted by my sobbing daughter begging to stay and asking me to get my job back was almost too much. I had earlier said goodbye to colleagues and our evening was spent going out for a meal at one of our favourite restaurants.

We were flying to Perth for a short holiday before returning to the UK which my son wrote on the paper. He then drew an image of the Petronas Towers with ‘1 day left’ written on one tower and a face with its mouth open on the other. We realised that the Royal Palace annual open day was the following day which we were going to miss. My daughter (surprisingly) didn’t want to draw anything. She was very upset at saying goodbye to her friends earlier that day and simply asked for a hug.


25:06.17: Image 14 (Acorn Image)

On this page my son drew a tiny falling acorn. When I asked him why, he said that he was “going back to little acorns” which was what his class was called at his previous school in the UK. Nothing else was added and he said he wanted to leave it that way.


25.06.17: Image 15 (Our Final Day in Malaysia)

Our last day. We planned to go into Kuala Lumpur in the evening to see the Petronas Towers and to say goodbye to the city which had played such a major part of our lives for the past four years. The day was chaos. All the packing was finished and the remaining possessions were collected by friends. We then did our final family drawing before the sketchbook was packed away.

My daughter drew a city and a ‘villij’ because we were returning to a small town in the UK (which would now feel like a village after living in a capital city). My husband drew a suitcase and my son wrote ‘5 hours left nooooo!’ in a wonky house with rain above. I wrote END followed by an S and more question marks because we had no idea what was going to happen next. Our four years in Malaysia had finally come to an end and we were going back to England where our journey had started.

Our four years in Kuala Lumpur were amazing and we had been extremely fortunate as a family to have lived in such an exciting environment. The international school experience was new to us as a family and it was one that we would never forget. We were all sad to leave but it was time to us to move on.


UK Images

No images were created during the following month because we went on a fantastic holiday to Perth  before returning to the UK.  This was followed by the (exhausting and expensive) experience of trying to rent a house, buy a car and basically slot back into the UK system which is not straightforward when you have (unofficially, of course!) slipped through the cracks.


28.07.17: Image 16 (24 Days Back) (1)

The following two images were drawn on exercise paper because we were staying at various friends houses  and I couldn’t find our sketchbook.

Well, RAGE was the image here. Moving back, trying to sort out a house and then the following nightmare trying to get my daughter into the same school as my son had made me want to scream and not stop. The possible offer of a  job in Asia was also totally unexpected. We had bought a car, put a deposit on a rental property and my children wanted to remain in the UK.

The centre had four star shapes which were an expletive. The scribbles showed the spinning, out of control sensation I was experiencing and then the five stages of loss were listed at the bottom. Anger was replaced by rage because I was so frustrated. I knew that returning was going to be difficult and the possibility of  returning to Asia was unexpected and frustrating. It felt like hell but I knew it would pass. Still, it was horrible and I was simply worn out and angry.


Image 17: 24 Days Back (2)

Jigsaw pieces illustrated the number of individual problems I felt we were facing as a family and the ladders showed how tiring the ‘climb’ to resettle was feeling over time. We were struggling whilst our rental home date was pushed further back and this was wearing for the entire family. Worrying about money, work and the return of our MacBook which had been accidentally left in an airport taxi in Perth all combined to make an unstable image which interestingly was only in one colour. Everything did seem black and white and devoid of other colours at this point. Cold, hard, facts which seemed impossible to overcome were central in my image.


07.08.17: Image 18 (35 days back)

Raining money and panic. We were due to move into our rented home the next day and due to there being such a limited choice of properties at the time, we were paying more than anticipated. Money raining down explains everything and the ticks in the boxes show what was (and wasn’t) going on for us/coming in financially.

The MacBook had been located and was being sent back to the UK, my husband had bought a bread maker and we had a car. Jobs were needed and fast. It all seemed very black and white-the tiny figure on the first step was me. It showed how far we had to go and how insignificant I felt in the face of everything. I felt better after completing this image but I was still feeling very anxious about the uncertainty of our financial situation and that our money was ‘raining down’ and not in a good way. No other family members were involved in creating this image as they were out at the park as it was a beautiful day.


29.08.17: Image 19 (56 days back)

An angry image. I scribbled ‘Hell’in the centre of the page and my son added stick figures with toy guns and the words ‘war’ and ‘frustrated’ on the top of the page. He had been fighting a lot with his sister and had found a plastic gun in a charity shop which he had bought which had then caused lots of arguments.

The 40/80 boxes related to the fact that I had only managed to sort through and unpack half of the boxes that had recently been delivered by the shipping company. These boxes drove me to distraction because they took up half of our living room. The spinning sensation was continuing and nothing felt clear or settled as a result.


07.09.17: Image 20 (65 days back)

There was more rain in this image. The ‘Y’ meant ‘Why’ and this didn’t have a question mark. It was now a statement rather than a question because I didn’t want to really think about any plausible ‘answer’. My daughter drew her Malaysian bedroom with the big bed and green rug whilst I drew my Malaysian bedroom and bathroom.My figure was positioned at the door and the bath had question marks coming out of its ‘mouth’ for some reason. I also wrote down what I missed which were my big bedroom, bathroom, friends, Satay and Nasi Lemak (my favourite Malaysian foods) along with the need for some stability. Drawing this together with my daughter helped us both to  acknowledge that we both felt loss and missed similar things.


25.09.17: Image 21 (83 days back)

Our situation had still not really stabilised and there was more rain in this image. A silver lining was what I was searching for. There had been numerous problems with miscommunication (particularly in relation to my daughter’s school situation) and I was tired of ‘hearing crap’ and not being listened to at the same time. The face in the right had closed eyes and was ‘cross’ (hence the symbol to the left).

The sun was more positive and was peering over the sign saying ‘Everything Finds its Place’ and there were two tiny figures on ladders holding the sign up. The ladders are not stable or appear to have strong footholds and it felt as if the situation was improving but it was unclear how. My husband had started short-term night shift work (sleeping face perhaps?) and I felt isolated and frustrated because I was home-schooling our daughter whilst we waited for the appeal to take place. There was hope in this image but adjusting to the UK system was extremely difficult. Everything does find its place but we hadn’t found our place back as a family in the UK just yet.


03.10.17: Image 22 (90 days back)

I was worn out when I drew this image. My husband was at work at both children were back at school so family (joint) images weren’t happening as often. I was home, keeping the practical things going whilst still trying to find work and it was tough.

Our lives at that point were feeling a bit like a game (hence the ‘noughts and crosses set up). My daughters school appeal had been unsuccessful and she had just started at her new school.  She came home upset that day and said she had been teased for “sounding like Donald Trump” (she had a mid-Atlantic accent at this point in time) and was also told she wasn’t welcome.

My son got very angry about the situation and said he had told a group of boys at his school to **** off (he didn’t say which word he used) after they had teased him for his (more Malaysian) accent. My daughter said our family had been “disrespected”  and I felt at that point as if we had returned to a foreign country. Both of my children felt different and had been teased as a result. Not a good week by any measure.


16.10.17: Image 23 (103 days back)

Taking my daughter to her school had felt eerie  because the sky was a strange orange colour. The news said that it was dust from the Sahara and the Ophelia hurricane high in the atmosphere and by lunchtime it had all gone and things were back to normal.

More questions were raised in the form of traffic light colours. Why is 1 yellow, 0 red and 3 green? It was all (literally) off the top of my head (in the bottom of the image). This had been a calmer period during which home was fine and the school situation (although my children were at separate primary schools) was clearer. The dust in the atmosphere (literally) clearing, illustrated this.

Why does the s*** float to the top? My husband said this and didn’t go into much depth apart from to say that he was sure that things were going to get better soon and that he was feeling more positive overall.


24.11.17: Image 24 (says 102 days back but is actually 142 days back)

I initially drew the middle number as a number four, but when I changed it into a  pizza shape it looked like a zero instead. Deep and crisp and even was the punchline to a joke my son read to me earlier in the day from a joke book he was looking through whilst we were waiting to see his teacher about how his first term back at school had gone.

When my son read out “How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?” he clearly didn’t understand the joke. I had to explain who the king was, the carol AND sing the carol to him. He didn’t seem to get it then either. It made me realise that there are so many things that he  has  yet to understand culturally.  The pizza was also wearing a crown and it made me laugh when I completed it.

I felt very tired at this point in time. I had scratched my car earlier in the week and had had a stranger tell me off about it (which didn’t help). My husband had a new job he enjoyed and the children were enjoying school more. I feel increasingly isolated whilst waiting to start a job I had recently applied for.

The choppy waters and rain along the bottom of the image illustrated how insecure I was feeling but the question mark in this image was smaller than the larger ones in earlier images. Some questions were being answered (jobs, schools and so on) so there was more stability in sight.


18.01.18: Image 25 (200 days back)

Another individual image due to my being alone at home. My lack of identity was illustrated in this image. My figure has no head. The question mark is obvious, ‘who am I now?’ (which it states on the t-shirt). I didn’t know at that point to be honest. Who next? Where next? What next? My feelings about being at home were illustrated by the house with the cross through it and the depression stage was ticked due to my ongoing job search and still not having a work identity (or earning) as a result.

“The black hole of Somerset” relates to a conversation I had earlier that day about a possible job opportunity which I was told would  need to be given the HR go-ahead. The surrender flag was being held up because waiting to start work had taken so long. Surrendering was the best I could do at this point but this doesn’t mean giving up. This depicted another  personal low point.Everyone else has a life that is moving forward. I know that mine has a direction but at this point it felt as if it had stalled.


Image 26: (204 days)

My daughter returned from school today in an excited mood and told me about  “white beads falling from the sky” and that she didn’t know what they ‘meant’. When I explained that this was called hail, she laughed and said that she had asked her friends who had given the same answer. It had been a very cold day and my daughter was hopeful that it would snow.

I had had a strange dream about an invitation with an eclipse ‘puzzle’ drawn on it. The dream had made sense and was a play on words but also found its way into my image. The frame indicated containment but the beads also looked slightly like tears. Today had been a better day but still challenging and tiring. We will be moving again in a couple of weeks which is going to be difficult but necessary. Three moves  in seven months is too much but hopefully this next house will mean longer-term stability for us as a family.


Image 26: (206 days)

A truly awful day. So many things went wrong that my true ‘bottom out’ point was reached. I was told I needed expensive dental surgery; was told off by an unpleasant  bus driver and then found, to my horror that I had  lost out (and therefore come second) in an extremely important decision. I felt as if I was never going to be “first” and felt I’d failed (hence the large number two in the centre of the image). The “icy cold teeth” around part of the number two was the sensation I felt in my stomach all day. I was glad when the day came to an end. Yes, I will laugh about this day at some point, but not right now. Things have to turn around soon.


27.02.18: (238 Days Back)

This was a far more positive image and there had been a number of changes so I was feeling more in control. A number of work offers had been made and I was about to start some private therapy work. My son was enjoying school and was doing well. My daughter had made friends at her new school and my husband was settled in his job and was no longer working night shifts. I had felt something needed to change for me so I drew this large key. I then wondered  what lock (interestingly, I felt no need to draw a door or anything else) this key was about to open. There was a lot of space on the paper  left for ideas and possibilities to spread out. Things have definitely improved which can only be described as a massive relief.

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