The other side of an expat life

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Four years ago I wrote below piece on my personal blog. It caused some controversy with some people but still today I stand to those points, today perhaps even more so then ever. I therefore decided to dig the piece out, adjust it here and there and to publish again. It is a longer post but there is a lot to say on this subject.

This post is meant to be

  • for struggling expats to hopefully help and let them see that they are not alone
  • for expats to hopefully be judged less
  • to hopefully make family and friends understand “the other side of being an expat”

I do refer to `expat`, whereas anybody moving around a lot even if “just” within the same country most likely faces similar issues. Please note that the thoughts below are not just my own but are based on discussions, my assumptions and interpretations.

So here we go,
Four years ago and even still today I keep on having open and sometimes emotional discussions about our lives with some lovely friends. During those discussions I realise in how many different ways an expat might struggle to find his/her place in this way of life.

Throughout time I assume most expats have had their fair share of comments on how great the expat life is, such as: living abroad, new cultures, great holiday locations, big salary packages, safe lots of money, exciting life style, maids, great apartments/houses, private school for kids, always meeting new people, not having to bother with close family, regular moves to new exciting places, never boring, etc. The list of how great the expat life is sometimes seen can go on and on and barely leaves room for any complaints unless you want to appear as an ungrateful snob.

And whereas there is no doubt that some of those assumptions are true for some people,  for certain countries and for certain jobs, I dare to say that comments like such are just superficial and leave out the other side of being an expat – the normal day-to-day life, the different kind of challenges expats do face when moving around.

Yes expats do have certain “benefits” I won’t argue that but often they do come for a price, a price we often knowing- and willing do pay as we embrace this way of living, yet it doesn`t make it easier.

Let’s just tackle a few main points I found important based on the discussions I had such as friendships, feeling at home, children and family.

Friendships
No doubt, it sounds great to make friendships with different kind of people, nationalities, cultures, background, and experiences – and to most of us expats this is one part that drives us.

But ever thought about that we might not always be “in” for going out there and regularly make the effort to make new friends, esp. in the beginning when all seems too overwhelming. And then you make good friends and either they or you leave and you start at square one again!

With every move one tends to hope to meet great, like minded people and that you click to feel at home, but it is not always the case. Sometimes it takes a while, sometimes it may not happen at all and you have acquaintances rather then close friends around you.

And then, even if you meet “the one” one of you may move sooner then you may have thought and you are back at square one again, staying behind but feeling uprooted. At times it may feel like a constant and never-ending-search-find- and-lose of friends.

Yet, you go for it as people around you make the place you live in home. No matter how tired, exhausted you are you go out and reach out. You are thankful for every helping hand from any “oldies”  and one day you will be the “oldie” reaching out and helping the newcomers.

Friendships within the expat life often tend to go deeper and closer in a very short time. It seems that every body knows we are on a time limit and we make the best out of it. And despite all the “hard work” going into this, it is worthwhile and friendships can blossom all around the globe.

But it is not only about making new friends, let`s not forget friends left behind, either in countries you lived before or dear old friends who you grew up with, went to school with. (Long term) expat live does take its toll, slowly but surely over the time. It’s just so much in between where both sides are not part of, and sometimes it’s just simply the time difference that makes it so difficult to really stay in touch. Some things are just easier discussed over a glass of wine (or tea / coffee). Sometimes contact needs to be made when needed and not 10hrs later when the worst is passed.

So, over time expats do their fair deal of saying good-bye. Saying good bye to old and new friends. Friends who became dear to one, no matter for how long one met. Friends are not a stable part around you, wherever  you live.

Where is home?

It’s often said – Home is where your heart is, but….

Yet another dragging house hunting, another huge pile of boxes to unpack,  another time and place to make your new home a real home. You put all your effort into making it as comfortable as you can knowing that as well this home might be rather short lived. But having your four walls where you feel you belong and can relax is important, no matter where and for how long.

Settling in may be easier if you have the benefit of moving around with your belongings, and the joy when the container arrives – it may feel like Christmas! But often expats do have to make their new home out of rented or pre-furnished places.  And that can turn out into a real challenge. Some might head out there; get bits and pieces to create a real new home with limited possibilities. Yet again others struggle to make it home, feel overwhelmed and just do not get their heart into it (‘what’s the point, it’s only temporary anyway’).

Making a home with a place you would normally not have chosen can be tough. And it may end into feeling steadily unsettled, hence it causes another struggle.

It might sound profound and simple for outsiders but it can cause a real challenge for the person in it. How can you relax and ‘just be’ if you feel unsettled within your own four walls?!

Then there are the other ‘home’-feelings…

A home you may have back in your home country. A new place that has just been renovated or the dream house has been bought to live in and then bang, the posting comes along. It did cost so much energy and love to create that special home and despite putting effort into the new location, the heart is torn on where and how to feel home again.

And let’s of course not forget the ‘official’ home, the home shown in the passport. Most often the place one was born and grew up in. Some expat might not feel strongly connected to their roots. Or it might turn out that one lives longer overseas then in the ‘home country’.  Expats might get to the point where they have a nationality of country XYZ but do not have any emotional connection to that country at all anymore. But there is no other country they would consider home either. Where is home, where will one settle down? Some might not bother about it and just enjoy the ride, others may feel unsettled, uprooted, lost and torn.

It’s easy to say we are “world citizens” but at the end of the day everybody needs the feeling of belonging somewhere. That somewhere is a home. It may not always be geographically or defined by the passport, especially if you move around a lot, you may have to learn to carry it with you, in your heart!

Children

Moving around with kids for me has it pros and cons. It’s definitely makes it easier to meet people due to schools, playgroups etc. And you can’t really allow yourself to be in the ‘blues’ as you simply have to get going, to settle and connect. If not for you then for the sake of the children (nothing worse than having unsettling kids. I guess we can all agree, no matter in what situation you are in!).

And while this may help in the beginning it is as well another person (or more) to take care of. To make sure they are settled, like their new school, and make friends again and again. You may have to put your own interest second just to make them feel home first.

Moving with babies and little ones makes it easier as they don’t have real bonds yet but once they start to make friendship every move might leave them unsettled and heartbroken again, too. Same like for the parents. So it can be extra stressful having to cope with the emotions of all family members at the same time.

I recently came across a great blog post going deeper on settling into a new place with kids. It is always good to realise you are not alone, so have a look here, too. http://www.lifewithbabykicks.com/2016/08/the-loneliness-of-putting-yourself-out-there-as-a-mum.html

Friends and family may as well judge and comment about (expansive) international schools and you may have the feeling of having to justify.  But often they just overlook that that is the only way the kids can stay in the same school systems when the next move comes along, it won`t interrupt their education too much!

Of course, those international schools make it easier for kids to feel settled, too. They are no outsiders, most of the kids are expats, and face the same situation. But at the same time it means as well a constant change of classmates and friends as turnover in these schools is rather high…

And ever thought about that kids (and parents alike) are regularly faced by finding new caretakers, maids or babysitters. In my opinion we are sometimes asking a lot of children (and parents) to yet again ‘easily’ put trust into strangers to look after the children. There are no close family or long term friends close by to jump in and help out when needed, even if just for a night out to make sure the connection with the partner stays alive, or to attend business events.

And of course you have to make sure that the kids somehow get a connection to the country of their passport(s), to their “native” culture. Often kids never even lived in the country shown on the passport! Surely, exposing them to a lot of different cultures does have big benefits. But how will they perceive it when they get older? Will they be ok to be “children of the world” the so called Third Culture Kids or will they struggle by not really belonging anywhere? Where are they really from, what will their culture be?

How well will we as parents do to make them feel home in the world? Or will they resent us one day for having chosen such a life style?

Last but not least the

Family.

Let’s start with a look into the own ‘expat’ family, first.

As exciting as every move might sound and partners tend to support one another, it does take strength and effort – and at times lots of discussions!

Often it is one partner’s job making the decision where and when to move. So, no matter how you may put it it is a one sided decision (no matter how often ones says it was a combined one). At the end of the day the move has to be made to where the job is. Today more so then ever. That means the other partner may feel the he/she is tagging along and is left to put the pieces together, liking it or not. It means as well that own plans, ideas, developments can become second in line. A fresh start will have to be made in the new location.

Some can deal and handle this and some really do struggle, they feel uprooted, lost and confused on what they should do, how to spend their time, let alone struggle not to have  an own income anymore.

Of course such a situation can as well turn out to be positive!  It might lead to new, unseen possibilities, creativities and opportunities. But to reach that stage it can take a lot of nerves, strength and time!

And what about expats where both are working? Who takes the lead, who makes the final decision and based on what? And what if the interests in countries are totally diverse, who makes the call? It can give a lot of tension to the relationship.

And of course not to forget the family back ‘home’, the family one was raised in. Some might see living overseas as a natural step as their own family members are spread all over the world, others might be sort of grateful to live further away, others might tell themselves that is doesn’t affect them only to be able to cope, and others might really struggle to live away from the own family.

Feelings often depend as well on how far the new home really is, how many flight hours are in between?!

Expats might struggle of coming to terms of not being close when needed, missing lots of years of bonding with parents and other family members, worrying as parents get older with the ‘what if something happens now’ question.

Then again it might as well be that the pressure, doubts, worries and concerns are coming from the parents or other family members who feel that they are ‘left behind’. They might not want their child or grandchildren to be living overseas. They feel lonely, lost, worried, rejected and project such feelings onto the expat.

Such a situation ends in a constant feeling of being torn. Torn between settling in where one is now versus feeling bad of not being there for the loved ones at home. How can one feel happy and relaxed if the other part of the family seems to suffer?

And then as well the struggle of balancing the new live and all its excitement versus the feel of family obligations. For some this is easy done and solved, yet others feel ‘forced’ to have to spend their vacations ‘back home’.

And when (grand)children come into play the whole dynamic changes again. Of course you want that the children to get a bond to their grandparents, uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews. But at the same time this might cause additional tension as neither side really gets to know one another the way they would like to. Expectations are just getting the better out of it on both sides.

Having said all this, some expats (and friends) might read this and wonder if I totally lost my mind to publish all this and that all those points are lots of bollocks! But I personally do think that a larger majority does struggle and feels misunderstood at one point or the other.

And especially in such situations I think it would just be helpful to know that one is understood, supported and taken serious. Instead of being judged, pressured, criticised or seen as just an expat snob with no reason to complain.

Closing on a more personal note I may say for myself – yes it’s nice to be an expat with my family. I enjoy it with all its ups and downs for more then 12 years now! It isn`t always easy but I like the challenge. But as much as I do embrace this way of life and usually take a positive attitude to most situations, I do feel overwhelmed at times, too.

I just hope that others do see and acknowledge that the pictures and stories that are often told by us expats do not represent the average days, there is more to it! The grass is not always greener on the other side. Being an expats is just another way of life, it does not make us better or worse. And as anybody else out there we face day to day difficulties and struggles and live a normal life, just in different countries.

And I hope that expats who struggle and read this will know that they are not alone!

Lots of love to all expats, non-expats and families and friends out there – and remember

“Live is a field of possibilities, what you make out of it is your life”

AK

(*) A person taking up residency in another country.

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