When you choose to pick your family up and move them across oceans, change is something you have to get used to. Change is fairly baked into expat DNA. It’s written into your contract, part and parcel of what brings you to whatever time zone you’ve landed in. You live–even if it’s for a decade–with one foot in one place, and if not the other foot, than at least a toe, in another. Sometimes your heart gets pulled in two opposite directions at once.
I once described expat jet lag that way, the time it takes for your heart to catch up to where you are, when you’ve traveled home after being HOME.
It sounds like an oxymoron, but change is the one constant in an expatriated life. I’ve met some that love it. Others loathe it. Most of us fall somewhere in between, craving it at times and resentful at others. You struggle to find a footing, finally find it, and then the packers come and off you go somewhere new to do it all over again.
Yet there’s something addictive about that as well.
Change here is a given, always on the horizon. Sometimes it comes closer, sometimes further away, like a wave lapping the shoreline.
My preferred method of dealing with change, especially potentially BIG change, is to bury my head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist, until I’m forced to admit that not only does it not exist, but it’s sitting on my chest like an elephant. Like, for instance, the whole my oldest son is graduating high school in a year and apparently there’s this college shit I need to sort out. But I don’t want to talk about that. (See? Head firmly in the sand.)
Of course college and kids finishing (or starting) school is not unique to the expat experience. Neither is the worry of aging parents, or job security, or relationships, or even moving. I’d argue that yes, those things get a little bit more prickly when you’re living abroad–when you have to decide what country your kid is going to go to college in rather than which college, or when your residency is tied to your job and you could get booted from the country on a dime, but still.
Life as an expat, as I’ve said many times, is the same as life as a non-pat–just with the volume turned up. The edges are sharper. The colors are brighter. In some instances the stakes are a little bit higher. As an expat, I face the same concerns as everyone else, but with extra layer of complication in what is sometimes already a complicated life.
Hacking through those complications, untangling them, even ignoring the stuff that can be ignored–it’s part of a skill set I’ve developed. It’s part of my tool kit.
There’s no doubt the last year and a half has unleashed a storm of uncertainty upon the world. A roiling sea churning with change as far as the eye can see.
You know who is really good at dealing with change?
Expats are masters at adaptation, the Houdinis of acclimation, virtuosos of resilience. For all the benefits–and there are plenty–this whole being away from family and friends and support and constancy and comfort? It ain’t for the faint of heart.
My first year living abroad was hellish. I don’t mean that I had my head stuck in the gas oven (though I think my husband was worried about that) or that there was nothing good about it. I just mean it was hellishly hard. I kept going, and over time, made the proverbial lemonade out of the bowl of bitter lemons I was given.
Of course now I’m addicted to the lemonade.
I know I’m not the only one.
As much as I like to bury my head or stick my fingers in my ears, when I’m forced to unbury it and do the things that need doing, I’m pretty good at it. Mostly because I don’t have a choice. I have to navigate the multitude of things that make me uncomfortable because…well, because we wouldn’t eat otherwise. Or go to the doctor. Or have any kind of meaningful life.
On the whole, expats tend to be good at change–they have to be. That’s not the same as liking change or embracing it, but having the skill set to navigate change?
New country, new city, new currency, new climate? Check, check, check, check. New friends, new mode of transportation, new supermarket aisles? Check all the boxes. Doing all that sometimes with little to no support? Check again.
A serial expat knows what it’s like to be the new mom out at the playground every two years, or the feeling of being on the back foot, just on the outside of the group, of figuring out confusing things on the fly. If I thought I could do it in less than a thousand words, I would try to explain to you the ridiculous levels of hoops and hoopla I had to figure out in order to get the ID code card you need here to do just about everything–at one point, I think I might have cried. At that same point, the rule-following to a tee Dane I was dealing with was kind…but still didn’t give me the damn ID code.
So where am I going with all this?
The whole world changed last year. Lockdowns and quarantines, uncertainty. The feeling of being on the back foot. Of having one foot someplace–normalcy–and if not the other foot, at least a toe–somewhere else. In this case, a shared global reality.
Far enough removed from the shock of those first few weeks, I have wondered if the changes we were all forced to take part in as a global community weren’t as much of a shock to the system to those who live outside the system they’re most comfortable in. Even those who have repatriated, who are now at home–the skill set you develop when you live outside your comfort zone and your culture zone? It serves you well.
Did we reach into that expat tool kit? And if we did, did we find something that helped?
I’m not saying it hasn’t been shit. Or hard. Or confusing. I’m just wondering if the pivot, the changes, weren’t as jarring.
Living in a constant state of flux is difficult, as the last year has proven to the whole world. But many of you already live in a constant state of flux. A revolving door of hellos and goodbyes, of packing crates and airport codes.
As I watched friends in the US or the UK lament about not being able to see family, I was able to empathize with them–because I know exactly what they’re talking about. That missing, and the accompanying feeling of missing out, on dinners and birthdays and special events–that’s my life. Many of us only get to go “home” once a year, and some not even that. And when you can’t even do that, it stings. We get that. I get that.
It sucks ass when circumstances prevent you from seeing your loved ones, from hugging a grandparent or meeting a niece or nephew.
Does it really matter if that circumstance is a global pandemic or an opportunity that took you to a foreign land?
My life has been set up to be remote for the last thirteen years. The changes in that sense, were minimal. For many of us, for many things, there was no pivot.
Expats are used the sucky feeling of not being “there” for all the things.
It can be difficult to describe this life to those that have never lived it. I am overly conscious about coming across as sounding like a whining bitch because of course, we are beyond privileged. But that doesn’t mean it’s all wine and roses. Sometimes there’s trash and thorns. Sometimes there are tears. LOTS of time, there is uncertainty. There are many, many good things. But there are also downsides. There are hard decisions. There are sacrifices. Most of that gets lost in translation.
Perhaps the last year and a half will make the expat experience a little bit easier to understand?
If people ask “what’s it like to be an expat?” I can point to lockdowns and restrictions and say, “hey, remember how crappy you felt when you couldn’t all celebrate Granny’s 80th birthday together? Yeah. Sometimes it feels like that.”
Not all the time. But some.
I think I’lll start to pay more attention to the skills I’ve learned in this pas de deux, the tools that help accept of the inevitability of change and of living in a state of flux.
I’m never quite balanced no matter how settled I feel. Maybe it served me well this time.
Even if my head has been in the sand for a big part of it.