Unless you’re living under a rock (superb social distancing points), navigating this virus is affecting most aspects of our lives. It’s upended economies. It’s uprooted nations, plans, and traditions.
The damn virus is upskirting us all–exposing fault lines within countries, within governments, institutions, and families.
I feel a bit like a menopausal monkey, swinging wildly between the mood vines. One day it’s “I can do this! I’ve got it covered!” as I briskly march through the Charlottenlund woods with my trusty sidekick. The next day it’s a double vanilla swirl of anxiety while I nervously fret about school fees and the great unknown future, throwing drinking on a Wednesday caution to the wind.
Most of that is universal–we’re all feeling it.
Until now though, I haven’t even begun to tackle Corona as an expat.
Is there a difference? I can’t answer that meaningfully–I don’t have a living-during-a-plague-in-my-home country experience to use as a control.
Aside from a brief but real panic during the Great Swine Flu Era, (how quaint that seems), this is my first global pandemic. I’d venture most of what expats are worrying about are the same thing non-pats are worrying about. It’s just that sometimes those worries are intensified, like boosting the color on a photograph to make it more vivid.
Expating in the time of Corona is that: living with the color set to neon most of the time.
Most of the emotions and concerns are the same, just with that nice extra added twist of the knife.
What happens if I lose my job becomes what happens if I lose my job and therefore my job dependent residency status? Which in turn becomes where, exactly, will we go? Which in turn prompts frantic internet research about border closings and who is and more importantly, isn’t allowed in.
In our family, the grown-ups carry different passports. The kids have one of each. At this point, it’s unclear who would be allowed in which country if we needed to get somewhere– meaning if something happened, there’s a chance we’d have to split up, for an indefinite amount of time.
And while the expat summer vacation sounds like a first world problem (and for the most part, is), for a lot of us, it’s the only time we see family, reconnect, or do all those fiddly, yet important things like renew our expiring driver’s licenses. For some, including us, things like college tours were on the cards. You get once a year to do this stuff and now there might not be time to do them. Some can get kicked down the pike. Many cannot.
After eleven years in this gig, I’ve accepted not seeing family as often as I’d like to. However, infrequent yet scheduled is a far cry from I have no idea when we are next going to see you in person not crackling and lagging on a Zoom call. For me, the psychological claustrophobia of being, for all intents and purposes, stuck someplace that is home but not home is also very real. Yes, we *can* leave, but it’s not as easy as it seems and it be even harder to get back in.
In private conversations, out of the public view of social media groups, there’s somber talk of aging family members, of the devastating uncertainty of not knowing when we will be free to travel to see them, or to hug them. No doubt there will be funerals that will remain unattended. There will be grandparents who cannot travel to see new grandchildren. There will be goodbyes unsaid.
It is a time of uncertainty for everyone, yes. I don’t think the times are any more or less uncertain for expats, but there is often another layer of complication in what is sometimes an already complicated life.
Even things like renewing your residency becomes complex. Residency status relies on your passport, which is fine…until you realize you can’t renew your passport as planned because the embassies are closed.
There are expats who were recalled, without pomp, without circumstance, and without goodbyes, to their home countries. There are others who left on vacation and got stuck, unable to return to the place where their lives are based.
Some are navigating a repatriation. Others another move, some to places that have been devastated by this virus. These things are difficult and fraught with emotion under the best of circumstances. Now? Fuggedaboutit.
Some expats landed somewhere new right before this hit. They hadn’t even fully unpacked before this new reality set in. These are people who don’t know anyone, who don’t have a close-enough friend to use as an emergency contact, who are now contemplating a truncated school year and most likely a very long summer in a place where they don’t even know their way around the supermarket yet.
None of us like to think about it, but almost all of us have had that jolting, middle of the night panic trying to figure out who will take the kids if, God forbid, something happens to you. Doing that in another country? That is turn the anxiety dial up to eleven material.
If you hail from a hard-hit country, it’s difficult, heart-breaking, and in some cases, infuriating, to watch happenings from afar, knowing there’s little you can do. I’ve got one friend who is bristling with frustration that she’s not back in the UK volunteering with the NHS. Instead, she’s stuck in the middle of Europe, in a brand new country, making sure she’s got enough masks. There are clusters of Americans in Europe who can’t turn away. We find each other online and watch the Corona train hurtle down the US track, waiting to see if anyone is going to pull the brakes or if it’s just going to careen off the cliff, crashing onto the rocks below. Many of us vacillate between guilt at being away and, depending on where we are, relief at the same.
How do I make sure my kids are taken care of? Will we be ok? Where will we go if something happens? These are questions we’d still be asking ourselves if we were “home”.
But the answers would likely be a lot less complicated.
It’s a funny, old time for sure, this expat-ing in the time of Corona.