The Circle of (Expat) Life

mash4077tv.comLife is rarely a straight line. Despite my own neurotic push for things to be linear and collated, tidy and neat, most of the time the path we take resembles more of an arc than a line. Life may indeed be a highway, but getting from point A to point B is rarely straightforward. There are on- ramps and exits, turnoffs and shortcuts. Sometimes you find yourself out of gas in a small town in the middle of nowhere, sometimes in the middle of the jungle with unlikely friends. Sometimes you realize that you’ve followed the curve all the way around and you are right back at the beginning.

Life as an expat is no different. Most of us follow a curve–if not a full circle–of adjustment, acceptance, settling in, disillusionment and withdrawal. Some of us transverse the circuit once, others go around so many times it’s dizzying. Though everyone experiences expat life differently, there are some standout phases of the circle of expat life I think a lot of us recognize. Hakuna Matata not included.

Phase One: Panic on the Streets of London 

The movers have been, the plane tickets purchased. The stuff you’re not taking is in storage, goodbyes have been said. Often that’s when the real panic sets in; the questions you can’t answer, the ones that keep you up at night. Will the kids be okay, will they make friends or is this going to screw them up even more than they are already screwed up? Will you make friends, will the school playground be full of cliques? Will you learn the unspoken rules of a new culture? What if you  offend someone unintentionally? What if you forget when and where to take your shoes off ? Will you be able to find your favorite cleaning products or foods (Americans are big on Lemon Pledge, the Brits can’t find a decent sausage outside of the UK).  Shit, you have to drive on the other side of the road?! Have you and your spouse just made the worst decision of your lives?

Phase Two: The Glass is Half Full 

Did you hear? They just got in a shipment of Lemon Pledge...
Did you hear? They just got in a shipment of Lemon Pledge…

It can take a few months to even begin to settle into a new home, let alone a new country and a new culture. Usually after the repeated questioning of your sanity fades, the initial apprehension and second guessing give way to acceptance. In my experience, acceptance can go one of two ways: blind optimism or acute homesickness.

Blind optimism leads you down the garden path in rose-tinted glasses. Everything is awesome. You cling to those silver linings as if your life depended on it.  The ground beef tastes funny?  No biggie, the pork is great! And cheap! Six months of winter? It makes you appreciate the sunny days all that much more! Thermometer regularly climbing above 115 degrees?  Think of all that beach time!

The path of acute homesickness is defined by what is missing. The food is different, the people are different, the weather is different. Unlike the blind optimist, the expat suffering from acute homesickness sees only the negative. Things are not like they are at home; things at home are so much better. Life is not the same without Lemon Pledge or English sausages.

Neither path is maintainable long term. By seeing only the good, you risk your whole existence falling apart the first time the internet goes down and you have to machete your way through foreign red tape. Tryk to for at få hjælp isn’t much help if you don’t speak the language. Πατήστε δύο για την εξυπηρέτηση πελατών doesn’t mean much in a land that doesn’t have a real grasp of customer service. Conversely, by seeing only the negative, you are missing out on a lot of great stuff. Surely Lemon Pledge is bad for the environment anyway. And sausages.

Phase Three: Warrior Pose 

They say it takes at least a year to settle in anywhere new. Usually by the end of the first year in a new place, the twain has met and some semblance of balance is achieved. This far in, you’ve likely learned your way around and gained confidence. You may have picked up a little of the lingo, or be well on your way to fluency. You know the route to and from the local Ikea. The head-scratching local customs don’t throw you as much. You know, for instance, that you will get a tut and glare if you don’t put the little spacer bar between your items and the next person’s on the checkout belt or if you don’t park with two wheels on the sidewalk so that other cars can pass. You’re on the upswing now!

Now, if only I knew what cut of meat this was...
Now, if only I knew what cut of meat this was…

Phase Four: You Reap What You Sow 

You’ve found acceptable substitutes. You’ve made friends. Your kids are thriving. You can see clearly now the rain has gone. This is the time when you get to reap what you’ve sown. This is the phase when you realize you need to start taking advantage. Maybe you’re an accompanying spouse and you’ve been able to stop working and spend time with the kids. Maybe you are able to focus your energy on getting fit or doing something creative, learning a new language or skill, writing a novel. Maybe you’re the working partner and taking that leap of faith is finally staring to pay off. Maybe you get to live in a house, live near the beach, live near the mountains. Maybe your kids get to go to a private school, or you get to ski every weekend, or—and this is the one that usually gets you in the end—maybe you get to travel to places you never would have dreamed of going had you been at home.  Oh, the places you’ll go!

Phase 5: The Silver Lining Starts to Tarnish

You’ve established yourself in a community, you feel pretty comfortable navigating the supermarket or dealing with another country’s propensity for rules–or lack thereof. You may even be able to offer advice to newbies. You have nice friends, a nice social circle, a nice life.  This is usually when the silver linings start to tarnish a bit.  Maybe it’s financial, maybe it’s cultural. Maybe it’s just general weariness that your kid is always doing something that is mortally offensive to your host culture. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this stage usually coincides with the expat exodus that happens around the two-year mark. Contracts often run on two to three years cycles and once you hit that mark, the departures start to hit closer to home. All of a sudden you start to remember the things you didn’t like in the beginning. You start to find new faults, start to distance yourself just a little bit. Maybe you accidentally forget to put the little spacer down on the grocery conveyor belt, just because you can.

Phase Six: Life is Like a Mixed Tape theweeklymeat.com

Eventually, it’s your turn to move. The contract gets signed, the movers come in.  Suddenly you remember all the things you said you wanted to do in your host country and didn’t get the chance to do. You remember all the things you wanted to buy, all the restaurants you wanted to eat at, the museums you wanted to tour, the trips you wanted to take. Often there’s a feeding frenzy of activity, cramming in as much as you can. For some there is the joy of going home, for others the excitement of starting a new adventure, but always tinged with the sadness of saying goodbye to a special kind of friend–one that knows what the circle of expat life is really like. This phase involves a lot of alcohol, a lot of tears and the somewhat humbling realization that you’ll soon be starting all over again.

Phase Seven: The Grass is Always Greener

There have only been a handful of expats I’ve spoken to that didn’t have at least a few good things to say about places they had been posted, even if they needed time and distance between them to see it. Whether it was the travel or the perks or the people they met, whether it was the chance for their children to attend a better school, grow up in a safer climate or simply affordable household help, most of us look back with some fondness on the places we’ve called home, albeit temporarily. These bouts of nostalgia undoubtedly hit when you find yourself navigating the too narrow aisles of a new supermarket or you are begging your friends from the US to send you cans of Goya black beans, when you can’t find decent ground beef or you’re watching the thermometer plummet. While you wonder if you’ve made the right decision, if the kids are going to adjust, if you’re ever going to find something which will leave your wood furniture citrus fresh and shiny, you find yourself back at the beginning.

It’s the circle of expat life. If you listen closely, sometimes you can hear the strains of a muzak version of Hakuna Matata along the way.

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28 thoughts on “The Circle of (Expat) Life

  1. Elyse March 16, 2014 / 7:57 pm

    Dina, this is a great description. I went through all of these phases. I think the biggest challenge I faced during the first year, though, is when I couldn’t communicate a simple need and have it met. I once forgot to bring my French dictionary with me and had a complete mental breakdown in the hardware store because I couldn’t ask for “nails.”

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    • dhonour March 18, 2014 / 12:16 pm

      I thank the powers that be that both our temporary host countries have populations that are fluent in English. I would have curled up and died, I think, if forced to communicate in Greek or Danish while navigating everything else. I have been know to resort to international hand signs for certain things when the Danes look at you askance. There is very little tolerance in Denmark for non Danes attempting to speak Danish and not even the slightest attempt at trying to understand, even if the word or pronunciation is just very slightly off. (Disillusionment phase? Me? ;-). ) I hope you got your nails in the end. Surely there is an international sign for hammer :-).

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      • Elyse March 18, 2014 / 2:07 pm

        I think the international sign for hammer is when you start banging your own head into the wall!

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  2. doublewhirler March 17, 2014 / 1:07 am

    So true! Thanks for reminding me of the reality of the cycle as I have finished my re-adjustment period to home (aka Phase Eight: Everybody Knows Your Name (and no one cares)) and am ready (after this relentless winter) for Phase Nine: Let’s Make Like A Shepherd And Get The Flock Outta Here (Again). Yes, I will light your way to the next phases…which aren’t in the cards, are they??

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    • dhonour March 18, 2014 / 12:18 pm

      Are they in the cards for you, DW? Are you and your flock departing for greener/dustier climes? You never know, nothing in the top part of the deck as of yet, but the bottom half is shuffling.

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      • doublewhirler March 18, 2014 / 3:14 pm

        Hah! Nothing green or dusty, possibly something more “seasonal” (more Ugg boot than sandal) and with mostly reliable electricity…but as you say only in the “bottom half” of the deck.

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    • dhonour March 18, 2014 / 12:22 pm

      Thank you, I’m glad that it seems so relatable to people. Also, it makes you feel a little less alone when you realize that you want to take that little grocery belt separator and shove it somewhere….

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  3. gallivance.net March 17, 2014 / 11:25 pm

    Oh Dina, your words are so, so true! You’ve captured the cycle so completely. I was chanting been-there-done-that all the way through. But only you could do it with such panache. 🙂 ~Terri

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    • dhonour March 18, 2014 / 12:20 pm

      Thanks, Terri! The beauty of the human condition–there’s usually some relevance in there for all of us! This post seemed a kinder one than the one I really wanted to do, which was all the things I am ranting about in my head during my own disillusionment phase–or could be that I am getting ready to say goodbye to half of my own circle in a few months as they head off to their next adventure.

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  4. Lana Wimmer March 19, 2014 / 5:56 pm

    Yes, yes and yes. I bought Lemon Pledge on a recent trip home and packed it all the way back to Sweden. Love that smell!! Thanks!

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    • dhonour March 19, 2014 / 6:08 pm

      I have been known to pack a can or two of Goya black beans ;-).

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  5. kdwyer27 March 19, 2014 / 11:19 pm

    I was devastated when my treasured, 24-ounce bag of Nestle Chocolate Chips melted and reformed into a solid mass on a trip back to my current home in the mountains of Peru. Yes, I have smashed it with a rolling pin and chopped the remaining chunks, but it just isn’t the same. The worst part? There is a Nestle plant down the road but no chocolate chips to be found in this country!

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    • dhonour March 20, 2014 / 8:58 pm

      NO! Not the chocolate chips! (I had my mom bring some over last time. They have them here, but they are inferior and they cost about $10 a bag). It’s funny. AFter being gone for nearly 6 years, I’ve learned to live w/o a lot of my favorites, but some stuff you just can’t substitute.

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      • tulipano. April 5, 2014 / 9:32 am

        You’re welcome. 🙂

        Like

  6. Nadia March 27, 2014 / 2:42 pm

    The expat journey is indeed a rollercoaster ride. I’m in the tarnished silver linings stage. There is much I can find fault with where I am and I am starting to miss the beauty and vibrance of home. Yet I don’t think I will return. This feels like a new home.

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    • dhonour October 10, 2014 / 9:42 pm

      So, Nadia…six months later….how do you feel? Still in the tarnished silver linings stage? Have you stayed? Returned?

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      • Nadia November 24, 2014 / 11:40 am

        Dina! Thank you for checking in! I am doing so much better, and have been working on my recovery. I am planning a slow return to WordPress, starting today. Will stop by your posse as I catch up on blog reading, rehydrating with a fabulous glass of Pinot Grisio. x

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  7. LaVagabonde May 18, 2014 / 4:51 pm

    I know all too well about these phases, but for some there’s a final stage that comes after many, many moves and you unexpectedly find a place that feels comfy enough to be home.

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    • dhonour October 10, 2014 / 9:41 pm

      That is when you feel most blessed of all, I would think!

      Like

  8. littlecity October 11, 2014 / 7:06 pm

    Just found your blog via this post; love, love, love it.

    It is, thus far (*two year claxon*) spookily accurate. And in the phrase “acceptable substitutes” you have, I think, distilled the entire expat experience into two words, which is quite some achievement.

    And even here in the desert, it’s the chance to travel that gets you. How right you are…

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    • dhonour October 11, 2014 / 7:28 pm

      Thank you! I am blushingly grateful for the compliment. I cannot express to you how much I miss Goya black beans, though I have come to not only gratefully accept my ‘acceptable substitutes’, but develop a bizarre sort of reverse fondness for them….literally and metaphorically. I hope you find some more to relate to and look forward to spending some time discovering the desert through your eyes. Thank you again. D

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  9. Meg October 22, 2014 / 10:48 pm

    And how about repatriation. I have done in twice. After eleven years in Germany (meant to be three), I went back to my home country of the USA only to find that I wasn’t at home. People were fearful or jealous; I was asked to not mention my experiences lest it exacerbate the situation. And I didn’t fit back in the culture. I hadn’t seen any of Seinfeld or other cultural TV references, couldn’t relate to the current music trend and had to ask colleagues to translate business jargon. What is a “stake in the ground” and do we want one of those? If we “float the idea”, have we just gotten rid of it? In addition, my definition of fast which made me a queen in Germany was so slow in the USA that colleagues questioned my work. Then after six years in the USA, I moved back to Germany and had to repatriate all over again.

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    • dhonour October 25, 2014 / 11:38 am

      You know, we haven’t repatriated (re-patted?) yet so my observations on it are nil–but I have a feeling it’s even harder than moving abroad. At least when you move abroad there is an expectation of initial difficulty and people try to help. I imagine when you go back home, your considered to be home, so why would you need help. No one thinks about the things you observed: the missing out on cultural trends or trade lingo, the way that your time away has not only affected you but those you left behind as well. Because as you’ve moved on, so have they–probably not at the same pace as one another either. I have a few friends who have moved ‘back home’ and found it very difficult, especially after the camaraderie that a lot of international schools offer, to then return to a ‘normal’ school setting is difficult. It sounds like you had a really rough time of it, and I’m sorry about that. To be honest, there are times when I miss home desperately and there are other times when the idea of moving back terrifies me–for many reasons.

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