”The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.”
— Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)
In the last decade or so, the word ‘expat’ has rolled off my tongue more times than I can count. A short form of the word ‘expatriate’, Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a person who lives outside their native country.” While this definition is true, to actually describe the life of an expat is incredibly difficult. I have toyed with whether or not to start writing a series here on being an expat as the internet is full of posts and articles already. After doing some quick searches, I became frustrated with two themes that popped out at me (this is definitely unofficial research): 1) Expats are living the high life in a luxury compound in some far, exotic place and, 2) Expats are miserable, suffering from issues of making friends and trying to fit in with locals.
Yes, there are many articles discussing the merits of expatriation and the downfalls with more finesse than that, but with the amount of annual lists of ‘best and worst places for expats’ being published these days, I thought it important to discuss ACTUAL expatriation. We they move abroad, expats are doing more than just leaving their life behind, they are gaining a new one (or many) in the process. They become exposed to differences they never knew existed. They learn things about the world they shamefully admit they hadn’t been aware of before. They change. They also change how they view life ‘back home’. They see things in their native culture that might bother them. They see imperfections they didn’t see before. They see a place that they called ‘home’ for years from a different perspective. It can be scary to go through this process but it is normal and a balance between being from one place and being cultural enriched by another place is often found. This doesn’t mean expats all think their home countries are flawed. What it does mean, though, is that many find themselves no longer feeling 100% at ‘home’ in a place that they once were scared to leave.
With expatriation and all the changes that arise, expats often find friends and family back in their native countries unable to grasp the complete picture of what life their new life is really like. This should come as no surprise since they themselves were unable to foresee what their lives would be like once they moved abroad. Family and friends not understanding is normal and OK but it can cause frustrations, upset and misunderstandings. At this point, even those who strongly believed they wouldn’t move somewhere foreign just to make other expat friends, find themselves seeking others that ‘get it’. Expat friends often come on fast and strong. Someone I once knew, who eventually returned to her home country after a couple incredibly homesick years, told me expats can’t be choosey when making friends. I strongly disagree, but I will say the shared experience of leaving your native country and relocating somewhere vastly different not only tends to bond people together quickly, it can also trump other socio-cultural-economic differences which might have seen you not becoming friends with someone else if the situations were different. I don’t see this as not being choosey, I see this as sharing a mutual life-changing experience. Like new parents seeking other new parents to share their experiences with. It’s a needs-based relationship that plays an important role in an expat’s happiness abroad. Family and friends back home, don’t worry, we haven’t replaced you, we’ve merely added to our life and hopefully by doing so have stopped griping to you about things you don’t understand, such as why French bureaucracy is truly a mind-numbing experience.
Expatriation is scary. For some it comes with a clear end date depending on work contracts, visas, etc. For others, it is something more organic and undefined. When I moved to France, Mr H had 18 months left on his expatriation package. I moved there with the idea that in 18 months this might no longer be my home, therefore I struggled to really get involved in French life at first. I eventually got past that and made Paris my ‘home.’ Rather quickly, it seems, that 18 months turned into a decade, two Paris-born children, a labrador retriever and an eventual relocation to Switzerland. Along the way, I have learned that my home is where my children, husband and dog are. I have learned I can be both foreign and local at the same time. I have learned that expat life is definitely for me, despite the challenges and uncertainties it can sometimes cause.
I will be continuing this topic in the near future with subsequent topics that relate to expats and those out there who love us and miss us as we galavant across the globe. Stay tuned. I’m obviously not done with the expat train and therefore this topic is not done, either.
Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia