Without any authority other than that which I just conferred upon myself, I hereby declare the next few weeks to be “Be kind to Your Expat Friends Month”.
If expat life is a series of comings and goings, sometimes rivaling a slapstick comedy, May through June is usually the culmination, the final, tragicomic scene. The revolving door spins and spins, spitting people out onto the sidewalk. Someone slips on an administrative banana peel, some metaphorical anvil falls, the movers drop your piano out of the window.
People are going! People are staying! People think they might be going, but also maybe they’re staying! People have no clue what they’re doing! Half of someone’s family is going and the other half is staying. People who don’t want to move are moving and people who want to move aren’t. Or maybe they are. Or aren’t.
It’s the annual summertime dance around the expat maypole— if the maypole was made up of travel documents, shipping instructions, and school applications with ribbons of packing tape flying in the breeze.
June is tough for northern hemisphere expats even under normal circumstances. Kids graduating, friends moving, contracts ending. Pandemic expat June is…well, it’s shit.
Normally I head up a year-end event at school. I used to do a big musical number (not even kidding, there’s video proof), but that was a special time and place with special people who have almost all gone. But aside from indulging my singing-dancing ego, it was a good way to see who was sticking around and who was leaving on a jet plane, to let everyone say goodbye, have some pastries, and put a few stitches in the closure bit of being an expat.
Covid brought all of that to a screeching halt.
I still haven’t caught up with who left at the end of the 2020 school year, let alone who’s leaving now.
Saying goodbye to friends is an expat rite of passage, as well as a form of exquisite torture. Sometimes you know it’s coming, but even then, the emotional force packs a wallop. Sometimes you’re blindsided and have to process everything quickly. Sometimes the things you think will give you all the feels don’t, and some random thing sends you over the edge. And while it is true that over time you develop a bit of a teflon skin, it’s still hard, even if the difficulty comes from watching others struggle with their own goodbyes.
If expat friendships are a poker game, most of us tend to go all in more than we probably should. But really, what’s the alternative? You jump off the friendship pier into the deep end but that means you’ve got someone to help keep you afloat. When those friends move on, or you do, is it any surprise that it may feel as if you’re sinking?
Expat emotions often run a bit more intense; those little extra bits of fun that keep you up at night, you know? This never-ending plague just makes everything more complex, more confusing, more crap. Moving is stressful, even when it’s just down the block, let alone down a few degrees of latitude. Switching schools is harrowing, even when it’s just the jump from primary to middle, let alone a jump to a different system in a different country with a different language. Long-haul travel is nightmarish, even when things go smoothly, let alone trying to navigate the current cesspool of restrictions, Covid testing, and quarantine rules that vary from region to region, country to country.
Those in planning purgatory have to answer 64,830 questions which all start with “Are you leaving?” I apologize for the people I asked that to the other day…you think I’d know better after over a decade in this gig. Clearly, I don’t.
Saying “Yes, we’re leaving,” comes with its own emotions. Having to repeat, “Maybe, I don’t know, things are up in the air…”?
Ricocheting back and forth about what country you’re going to live in while trying to stay on top of all the regular demands of day to day life is a special kind of expat hell.
Maybe the person you always thought was really nice is a little bit tetchy right now. Don’t take it personally. Maybe that solid, stoic figure you know who writes about these things for a living might just burst out in tears. It’s hard to tell what’s going to trigger that emotion these days. Accept that someone might not be cagey or uncommunicative, but that they simply might not know what’s going on, or might not be able to talk about it freely…and then consider how difficult that is for them. Imagine the one thing that affects absolutely everything is the one thing you can’t talk about.*
Give them a little space.
Be kind to your expat friends this month.
They’re definitely going through some things.
*It’s not me.
For more musings and observations of a life abroad, make sure to check out There’s Some Place Like Home: Lessons From a Decade Abroad