Recently a friend confided to me, with a mixture of both surprise and exasperation, how difficult she’s found managing her time. A new job, two young(ish) kids, a house, a husband, a life, the whites, the darks, the ironing and all the rest.
It’s a lot to fit into the confines of the day, I assured her.
“But I didn’t have this much trouble back home,” she confessed, “and I worked more hours!”
Working less, kids getting older, life getting marginally easier. It stands to reason it would be a cake and Chardonnay walk in the park, right?
To quote my kids: “But why?”
Here’s why: As an expat, you expend slightly more energy than normal. Not necessarily on the big stuff, the stuff you’d expect, but on all the little things you go about in your daily life. Each interaction and action and corresponding reaction requires just a pinch more thought, a dash more understanding, a soupçon more interpretation.
Even though the individual amounts may be small, all the extra effort drains your battery faster than you’d expect. Just like the programs open and running on your laptop, the ones you don’t see or hear or use but are essential for running the programs you do use.
Life outside your home zone requires a little bit more. You have to run a lot of extras in the background to make sure the Expat version you’re currently using is the most up to date and compatible with the rest of your life. All those extras are a drain.
When you’re living outside your own end-zone, you exist in a semi-perpetual state of hyper awareness with regard to the small, the every-day. The little differences, the not-quite-the-same norms, and the kind-of different rules that are innate to the culture you’re guesting in. You are more aware of stepping on someone’s foot when they don’t move out of your way on the sidewalk (have I mentioned the Danes seem to be constantly engaged in a country-wide game of chicken?).
There is the concentration required when you are driving on the wrong side of the road, whether it’s the right or not. There is the focus it takes to make yourself understood in another language, especially when you land in the emergency room or if you have a child with a fever. If you’re American, there’s the added burden of constantly converting temperatures and weight into metric so the rest of the world understands what you’re talking about. There is making sense of the strange-sensical. There’s often a open app for homesickness and an always-running niggle about ‘what next?” All of these things are things you normally don’t spend energy on when you’re inside your own culture, among your own tribe, when you’re ‘home’.
Thinking about all of that, even unconsciously, takes up a lot of valuable space and energy.
I think perhaps it’s why so many expats look forward to going home for big chunks of time. Not only to see family and friends and eat gut-busting amounts of their favorite foods, but just to let those busted guts hang out; to take a few weeks to shut down and reboot.
Being ‘home’ allows you to recharge your battery by only running the basics. There’s nothing major lurking in the background sucking your brain dry. Home is usually, blissfully, nothing more than Shopping V. 3.4, Eating V. 6.0, and Slothing V. 10.
Just like you often don’t realize how much power your computer is actually using until you start getting the black screen of death or the spinning wheel of despair, you probably don’t realize how much energy you’re expending on a daily basis when you’re living somewhere other than home. Is it any wonder then that sometimes the everyday seems a lot more exhausting than you would expect?
So what do you do? Most of us switch out the battery for a new one every few years. You reboot as needed. Sometimes you need to run Disk Warrior in the form of a vacation. Sometimes it helps if you close out a few dead-weight programs you forgot you had running, things like PTA Bake Sale V. 1.4 and Converting Currency V. 4.2.
Usually then you can free up some space for the latest version of Expat Life V 7.2.8: Survival Mode (tennis, massage and bonbon pack optional). And it’s always a good idea to shut down every now and again. I recommend doing it with a glass of wine. Perhaps a bag of Cheese Doodles. And if you need something to read, there’s a really great blog I know….