Last week I had lunch with some friends. We moaned about Copenhagen prices, discussed the pros and cons of a liquid lunch and made plans to do drinks soon so that we could get more in the er…spirit of things without having to worry about picking up the kids from school. Inevitably the conversation turned, as it almost always does among a group of expats, to that old chestnut of a question:
“So…..how much longer are you going to be here?”
Sometimes when you’re an expat, especially one who has been stationary for a few years, life starts to resemble a Clash song. And while London Calling surely fits someone’s future plans, in many cases, it’s more Should I Stay or Should I Go?
There are certain expat postings which have an expiration date built in. Before you put your tray tables away and your seat in an upright position you know when you’ll be leaving. In a way, I think they’re lucky.
There are other expats who are beholden to the whims of the economy, to tax issues or visas limitations. Some get pushed out by nothing more exciting than good old-fashioned cost of living. Some worry about aging family members back home or the right time to move the kids. Whatever the reasons, many of us find ourselves caught in what I call Expat Limbo.
Expat Limbo is that special place just above hell when you’re forced to start seriously contemplating the next few years. Expat Limbo is when you could stay, but then again… you could go. You could move on, move home. You could take another posting. Or you could just stay put. The result is often a never-ending loop of what ifs.
What if we left now, took the first job that came up that gets us home…or what if we stay?
What if we stay another year and then move home…or what if we stay another year and go somewhere else?
What if we take another assignment for two years and then go home…or what if we take another assignment and the kids are the wrong age to move schools?
What if we take another assignment for two years, squeeze one more two-year jaunt in there after that, and then go home…or what if we just stay here?
What if we just bury our heads in the sand because it’s too complicated to figure out?
It’s enough to make your head spin. You get all Excel about the whole thing, making lists, creating spread sheets that factor in the considerations: job security, pensions, leaving behind what has become familiar, saying goodbye to friends, the thought of leaving behind a life you’ve invested in to start somewhere fresh, even if that somewhere is home.
School is a huge factor for many of us. For some there are exams to sit to insure places even if you don’t know where you’re going to be or when. There is the agonizing ‘is it going to be easier to move your kid at the beginning of a ‘big’ year, say the start of middle school or high school, or does it not make a whit of difference’ question. There are private vs. public, IB vs. Non-IB, international vs. local issues to contend with. There’s the time of year, school years and cut offs dates that change depending on what hemisphere you’re going to. And that’s taking one child into consideration and assuming there are no special considerations to consider.
The truth is, there’s no easy way to do it unless your kids are young enough not to have started school, old enough to have finished, or you are on the list for Hogwarts.
When you’re in Expat Limbo you can’t make any concrete plans until the contract is signed. What seems like a sure thing often has more holes than a sieve. At the same time, you need to be prepared, so you do your due diligence, rate your research, start making enquiries. You get excited…then a deal falls through. You have a prospect you know would be a brilliant career but well….Bulgaria? You never really fancied Bulgaria, though you’ve heard it’s lovely in the spring. Maybe you’re not so secretly happy when it doesn’t happen even if it would have meant a promotion and the acquisition of a household staff.
Adding a little salt to the by-now festering wound of indecision? Most of the time you can’t even talk openly about it. The one time you really need to spit it all out and see if it makes more sense than it does in the jumble sale of your head and it’s all hush hush/keep a secret. Current employers don’t know, you’re locked into a confidentiality agreement, your spouse has threatened you with divorce sans alimony if you breathe a word to anyone. And yet it someone is always asking:
“So….how much longer are you going to be here?”
You play your hand close to your chest. I’ve met some people who were so good at holding an ace up their sleeve that I didn’t even know they were leaving until they didn’t show up for school the following term. Ninja expats, stealthily slipping from one post to the next.
Expat life has heavenly perks and hellish downsides. Yet it’s that middle ground, the Expat Limbo, that purgatory of what ifs, which can be the hardest time you spend abroad. What you really want more than anything, even more than your favorite food products from home, is for someone to come along and answer the question for you.
Should I stay or should I go?