Life 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
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!
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.
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.