I’ve used plenty of phrases to describe living abroad: crazy, upside down, terrifying, exhilarating, tearful, broadening–but after a conversation with a good friend recently, I need to add another.
For some expats, whirling from one post and dervishing to the next, it’s easy to lose yourself in the tornado of “the move”. At times, nothing sounds better than chucking it all in and booking a one way ticket back to wherever it is you come from. That’s what this particular friend did. A few countries and schools in the same amount of years, the feeling of relief they felt when they made the decision to go back home was legitimate. And why wouldn’t it be? No more decisions, no more packers, no more international shipments or worries about switching schools and making friends. They are happy, content, thriving.
So color me shocked when she confided she missed her old life. Even the packing. Even the unpacking. Even the hair pulling and school searching and friend making and friend leaving emotional hurricane of it. Sure, she appreciates all the perks of being back in her own country, but she also admitted they weren’t 100% committed to staying put, still open to the idea of upheaving their lives and doing it all again.
The thing is, she’s far from the first repatriated expat I know to tell me that.
Why would anyone be willing to dig up everything they’ve worked so hard to plant and move their shrubs again? It’s a big risk, isn’t it?
It is. But I get it.
Many long-term expats consistently wrestle with the pros and cons of repatriation. Speaking from my own experience, a decade of life abroad has changed me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and what used to be a column overflowing with “pros” now has some hard-hitting entries in the “cons” column. I’d be lying to you and myself if I didn’t recognize that an expatriated life isn’t, in many ways, addictive.
So what is it that makes this life so hard to give up?
Is it the travel?
Ok, I lied. It is the travel. But not necessarily in the way you think. My own family doesn’t lounge around on the beaches of Phuket or snorkel off the Maldives. We don’t ski in the Alps or tan in Tenerife. We absolutely would. But we can’t afford it, so it’s a non-starter for us. But when we do take a trip, whether it’s a road trip or a cheap Easy Jet flight, we get to expose ourselves and our kids to a life, a history, and a culture they might not otherwise get to see. Those opportunities are afforded to us by virtue of where we happen to live. And so yes, taking advantage of them is right up there. It would definitely be a hard thing to give up.
Is it the lifestyle?
Yes…but again, not in the way most people may think. No maids or nannies or au pairs here. No household help or live-in luxuries. Do some expats have those? Sure. But the vast majority I’ve met don’t, and no more so than the folks I know back home who have a cleaner or a dog-walker or get their groceries delivered. Schlepping and struggling and missing your friends, feeling left out and unsure of your place in someone else’s country isn’t the most glamorous lifestyle either. So what is it when you talk about lifestyle?
My friend summed it up: it’s the people you meet. Meeting and befriending folks from different countries and cultures, who have had different experiences is a huge life gift. Yes, you can do that at “home”, especially if you live in a large city. But you have to seek it out. As an expat, you have no choice, you’re all chucked in there together. You learn a lot about human nature, about relationships, about life through conversation and friendship. And the more diverse the ingredients you’re exposed to? Well, the more rich and flavored your own personal stew is going to be.
Is it the excitement?
I’m not going to lie. There is something exciting about living abroad. Certainly not all the time or even most of the time, but yes, there’s a thrill that comes from not knowing exactly what’s around the corner, of what’s behind door number one, two, or three. Of what life might just hold in store. There is, as well, something mouth-wateringly appealing about a blank slate. When you move, you leave all the bad stuff behind. You get to start fresh, reinvent yourself. You can be anything. Heady stuff.
For me, there’s also a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing I can pack up on a dime and move across the world and make it work. The ability to make a home anyplace you land? It’s a neat little life skill. Maybe it won’t help if there’s an alien invasion. But who knows? I mean, trying to understand spoken Danish can’t be that much different than understanding an alien tongue, right?
So I get where my friend was coming from. Long term expat-ing is a little bit addictive–not in a twelve-step I’ve got to give it up for the good of my health kind of way, but in a sour cream and onion ridged potato chip kind of way. And you know that thing about potato chips…it’s hard to eat just one. The expat lifestyle is similar. Once you’ve had one shot, it’s hard not to plunge your hand in the bag and grab a fist full. Go on any expat chat group and you see folks that have been doing this a long time with no intention of stopping, folks who will continually uproot and move just to keep it going. One more move. Just one more. We can stop anytime we want to, right?
I don’t know what the future holds for my own family, let alone my friend’s. But maybe we need a group to sort through it all, especially with others who have BTDT, who understand.
Expats Anonymous anyone?
For more stories about life abroad check out my book, There’s Some Place Like Home, available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Like what you read there? Please think about leaving a review. Thanks for you support!
6 Comments Add yours
this is the best explanation of this lifestyle that i’ve ever read
Ha, I think you’re on to something there; ‘Expats Anonymous’, where do we sign up please?
Oh you hit the nail on the head! Two years into being home and we are missing our old expat life! The people, the adventure, the experiences for our kids. My house is nearly organised so it must be time to move again!! Conversations of doing it again are daily and it’s changed from if we move again to when. Home will always be here 🙂
Color me ‘understood’. Two years into being home and we’re ready to pack up and go someplace new! I think we’re addicted. In the good way.
So much ah ah, I recognize that! Great post Dina!
I am anxious and excited going home for good … that is if I stay put as I don’t know what to expect now.