Expat guilt: being far from family

I’ve written before about homesickness and the price we pay to be expats. Anyone who has lived overseas for an extended period knows there’s not one price tag – there’s many. One of the biggest ones, and a contributor to expat homesickness, is being far away from family.

I’ve spent countless hours and dollars visiting family. And while I’m very fortunate to have family who have made the trip to see me more than once (something not all my long term expat friends have experienced) I’ve definitely spent more time and money visiting them. But that’s how it goes, because I was the one who left them.

And yet – I miss out on so much.

My choice to live overseas means I missed my grandpa’s funeral. I missed two cousins’ weddings. I wasn’t there when each of my parents went through cancer diagnoses, treatments, and all-clears. I have cousins I’ve never met. I have two nephews I haven’t met yet – one is 9 months old, the other is 3 weeks old! (I’ll see them in 11 and 12 weeks – not that I’m counting!) And let’s not even get started on the list of friends’ milestones missed.

Spending three years in Australia recently gave me the opportunity to spend more time with family. I could go on outings with my aunt, getting to know her as an adult. I could drive to visit my grandparents for the weekend. For the first time I could be an adult child who visited my parents easily, readily. Go home for my Mum’s cooking, or have lunch with her when she was driving through my city. I could call them up and say “so, I need to come run an errand this weekend, I’ll see you in five hours”. Seeing my grandparents was very important. During my three years in Australia their health declined markedly and it was such a relief to be nearby, to be able to help, to pitch in, especially with me living a few hours closer to them than my Mum. It was a blessing to have time with them before, and even while, things became more difficult for them.

While my sisters lived on the other side of the country, I still had more opportunities to see them than I would have otherwise. Plus there were so many events to celebrate with them! One sister got engaged, then married, then pregnant. Somewhere in the middle of that my other sister gave birth to my first niece. I was more connected to them and all these huge life milestones than I would have been were I further away.

But now I’m far away, again.

Somehow, that makes it harder.

Video chats are amazing but they don’t take the place of cuddling a niece or nephew, of interacting with them in person. I am so thankful for sisters who work to make sure I’m a part of their children’s lives, but I still miss being able to see them in Real Life. I know what it’s like to see my grandparents in person, and how very not the same it is to be far away – especially when they don’t use the internet at all, and now struggle to keep up with even a phone call.

And then comes the guilt.

Knowing that I can only blame myself. That I’m the one who decided to go. That I could be closer but chose not to be. Knowing I valued something more highly than being near the family members I love so dearly. That’s a hard truth to face – and yet also a hard one to escape! In a recent recommended reading post I linked to a really good post about the guilt of distance. It’s something a lot of expats (if not all of us) feel, at least sometimes.

To be honest, I wonder if I would have so readily made the decision to leave Australia again this time if I hadn’t become engaged to a man who was not Australian and did not live in Australia. To be even more honest, part of me thinks “Phew! Glad that stopped me getting trapped in one place!” And it does give me a pretty solid and good and guilt-free (or at least reduced guilt) reason to be far away. And yet…

I think the guilt can be like homesickness – coming in waves, rather than constant, sometimes taking you by surprise.

I was recently reminded of my grandparents by a simple scene – a decorative planter box outside a burrito place we often go to, in which was growing the unusual combination of begonia flowers and fresh mint. My grandfather grew lots of begonias (among tonnes of other flowers!) and he taught me to grow them from cuttings. We would select them, wrap them in wet newspaper, and after the 6 hour drive home I would plant them and tend them until they bust into vibrant patches of colour. My grandmother had big tubs of fresh mint outside the house (I suppose she still does?) which would go on boiled baby potatoes, in sauce for roast lamb, and into ice water with lemon. So many memories wrapped up in those two plants!

This happened shortly after I read several messages about the ongoing situation with my grandparents, their health and capacity, and wanting to work out what’s best for them. And while nothing had changed, there was also a comfort in those plants. I carry them with me. I carry all the people I love with me. They are a part of me, no matter where in the world I am.

begonia-mint.jpg

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Recommended reading: June 11th, 2018

Three weeks of Recommended Reading in a row! Quite an achievement, wouldn’t you say? I am definitely enjoying getting into a rhythm of reading and writing, starting to feel more at ease in my new life. Not to mention my new workspace (having not really had one for most of the last six months), and my new computer (the previous one having been dropped or stepped on or *something* during the wedding week craziness back in February). But back to the topic at hand – some great posts about TCKs and expat life that have inspired, challenged, or otherwise interested me lately.

Embracing the Good in Goodbye
TCK Town
I’m starting with a lovely little piece on saying goodbye – always relevant, but especially at this time of year. Solène expresses the different layers of goodbyes, which she calls: “an inherent part of living beyond borders. Goodbye to a place that was home for a while. Goodbye to the people who brought it to life. Goodbye to a version of yourself.” In her advice on goodbyes she recommends we reflect on time and treasures – both the experiences, and the physical tokens. Farewell people and places and experiences, and embrace the emotions. “I couldn’t help but be temporarily overwhelmed.” Then look forward to the future – future plans, future adventures, and even future reunions.

Top 10 ways to help your students say goodbye
Valérie Besanceney
Valérie is always amazing; she’s my go-to resource when thinking/talking about how to support primary school TCKs. This Top 10 list is a great example of why. It’s written with teachers in mind but there is good stuff here for everyone. I particularly love her first and last points. First – “comfort rather than encourage“. I talk about this concept a lot. When a child is upset we want to make them feel better – but we cannot ‘fix’ the changes they are experiencing. The best thing we can do is listen, offer comfort for how they feel, not try to jump in immediately with encouragements they aren’t ready to hear (even if they’re true). And Valerie’s last point: to reach out to those who have left a few months after their departure. As she writes, “Let them know you do care, that they are remembered, and that they matter. You are likely to make a much bigger difference than you imagine.

Mother’s Day from Miles Away
Thoughts Of A Third Culture Kid
I know Mother’s Day (for the US and Australia, at least) was a month ago, but this post is not to be missed. In it Adri reflects on the difficulty of being far from family on special occasions: “I put on a big smile and partook in festivities from this great distance, but internally, it utterly devastated me to not be there“. But what makes this post really special is that she goes on to discuss the importance of letting us feel those feelings – that it is valid to miss family far away, even though life is good and we are doing well. This is such an important message for TCKs, and I think for all expats as well. Here’s a bit of her great take on this:

Sometimes I get tired of looking at things with optimism. I think it’s okay for people to just feel how they feel and not be pressured to feel anything other than whatever emotion holds them hostage in that moment. We need to normalize the release of emotions, validate them and let people thaw out in their own time. If my job (that I adore) has taught me anything, it’s to let the pressure gauge release slowly. It’s healthy, actually. See, I miss my family every day, and that’s okay. I am still a high-functioning adult with responsibilities, job security, building a network, being social, trying to do my best on a daily basis. And because of that, I get to be tired and upset on days like this because it’s normal to not be okay one hundred percent of the time.

5 PCS Strategies for Navigating the Space Between Leaving and Arriving
InDependent
Jodi Harris of World Tree Coaching (who also featured in last week’s Recommended Reading) does a great job here of pointing out positives in the space in between leaving and arriving. As she writes, “It’s an incredibly unique place of limbo and it can feel daunting and overwhelming.” I love all her tips, but I must admit I found the last one challenging and therefore a bit uncomfortable. I need to get comfortable with ambiguity? It’s okay to not know everything? Noooo!!! Good to know I still have more to learn, hey? For my own sanity I’m going to leave that aside for the time being, and instead share with you my favourite piece of advice from this post: “Transition is not the time to go it alone. We’re not strong and resilient because we don’t reach out and ask for help, we’re strong and resilient because we do.”

If You Had a Few Weeks to Live, Where Would You Go?
Communicating Across Boundaries
Yet another week finds me reflecting on something beautiful penned by Marilyn Gardner. This time she is reflecting on a difficult question: if you had a few weeks to live, where would you go? She points out that for many people who, for many reasons, live in between lives, “Merely asking the question can make one anxious. How can I pick one place?” She mentions different people who have pointed to a single place, but then takes her readers on a sensory journey, a tour of the places that have shaped her and still speak to her: “even when given a limited time period, I can’t pick just one place. I still choose to live between. At the deepest core, I am a nomad who can’t contain the worlds within, nor would I want to. The exercise shows me that I would not choose any other life or any other way, and my heart fills with gratitude. I am too fortunate.”

25 Things They Don’t Put in the Life Abroad Brochure
A Life Overseas
Hmmm, I seem to be developing a pattern. That’s three repeat authors in one post – albeit writing in different places! But really, Marilyn and Jerry write so much great stuff so consistently, we should probably all be following them by now anyway. But, back on topic, and there’s no way I can sum up this latest list from Jerry, with his characteristic blend of comedy and right-to-the-heart reality. So instead, here are a few of my favourite points from the list:

1. Some days the most adventurous thing you’ll do is wash dishes.
5. You should embrace ignorance
12. Foreign people can be irritating
13. You’re the foreigner now
19. You can love two places
22. You’re probably going to act like an idiot

Mo! Sibyl: A Tale of Two Countries – Between Nigeria & South Korea
Bella Naija
In this interesting post Nigerian expat Mo’lanee Sibyl looks at South Korea’s development path and how that could work for Nigeria. But what I appreciated most was the way the author began by explaining her perspective. These reflections come following a recent visit to Nigeria, which brought the Nigeria she carries with her everywhere into conflict with the Nigeria she saw in real life: “I tend to adopt a romantic approach to talking about Nigeria, conflating her positives and almost very selectively leaving out the negatives. For those Nigerians like me, reality sets in when we make the sojourn back home.” I think this is something many expatriates find ourselves doing. She also makes an insightful comment about how return visits affect our thinking: “Returning to Nigeria after my protracted absence meant that everything I saw was magnified, especially her social issues, because I now had a base reference to make comparisons.” Experiencing other cultures in action gives expats a “base reference” by which to see our own cultures from the outside, to see other possibilities, because we now know life can be lived another way.

The Content Creator: Ayana Wyse [Osaka, Japan]
The Black Expat
In some ways, this is just an interview with a person telling their expat story – but it’s more than that. It’s the voice of someone who has experienced being a minority both in her passport country and now in her host country. She shared the difficulty of making friends that transcend cultural difference, especially when someone sees you for your appearance rather than for your self. It’s so important to listen to a variety of expatriate experiences and stories, so I try to deliberately go out there and actively look for those diverse voices – not passively assume (or hope) they will find their way to me.

 

Recommended reading: May 27th, 2018

Wow I’m behind on sharing my recommended reading! But I’m in transition and, as I tell everyone else, that takes more time and energy than any of us give ourselves credit for. So I’m going to go ahead and post these thoughts I wrote a month ago and managed not to post at the time and I’m *not* going to feel bad about that delay. One day I will find myself some sort of regular routine, but since this week is my first chance to BEGIN that process, it’s totally fine that a routine doesn’t yet exist!

So, without further ado (or excuses for lateness) here are some great posts I read last month!

Two suitcases, maybe three… and the gift of lettuce
Notes on a boarding pass
Poignant reflections on leaving – the overwhelming list of farewells and changes that add up; thinking through what will be left behind, and lost; the extra stress in not knowing what will happen next… This is wonderful writing, the kind that helps the reader see and feel another’s experience. I ached with the familiarity of my own recent transitions and months spent living out of suitcases.

When you’re a local again, don’t forget the expats
The expat partner’s survival guide
A lovely vignette, and a good point! We who know what it’s like to be the new person, the outsider, the one struggling in a new place, language, or culture – we above all others should be quick to reach out and welcome others.

For the least of these
Velvet Ashes
Beautiful piece from missionary mum (and adult Missionary Kid) Joy, writing about the importance of connecting with her kids, not letting them get lost in the pressures of ministry life. Many MKs I interviewed spoke of feeling less important than their parents’ work, and in this piece Joy focuses on something so important for these kids: “It shouldn’t be a surprise that MKs struggle with our relationship to God. After all, God is the one who is responsible for the repetitive losses throughout our lives. It is essential that I am intentional in building the foundation of attachment and trust, so that, when the time comes to question their faith and their God, they will be absolutely assured of their value.

Expats beware: losing confidence in your mother tongue could cost you a job
Conversation
Interesting piece about language attrition, and how this impacts adults. A key point is that language changes over time. Our use of language, especially spoken, changes rapidly. If you have been away 20 years, the rules that govern what is appropriate may well have changed. This is a concern for immigrant kids, too – many learn an “outdated” version of the language, based on how it was spoken decades earlier when the parents left. I particularly appreciate Monika’s first tip for those concerned about manage attrition: “”Always have all documents you submit checked by a fully competent native speaker who is currently living there.” That last phrase is key – check your command of the language against someone currently living in the place, with that instinctive knowledge of how it “feels”.”

Smells like home
The New York Times
A lovely little piece considering the powerful trigger of smell in conjuring up a sense of ‘home’. I love this quote in particular: “I remember my mother’s comment about how the smells of my childhood would remind me of home, and home, I now know, is a place that exists not on a map but in my mind, ready to appear in its full, smelly glory at any moment.

How To Connect With Your Multicultural Community
Multicultural Kid Blogs
I loved this piece on connecting to multicultural communities, wherever you live! Johana points out some key reasons we don’t do this: “I have noticed that it is actually quite hard. For one, our cultures can seem very segregated, by languages, color, or social class. Secondly, we are constantly busy with our everyday lives and obligations. It is easy to go home after a hard day and immerse yourself in only the things that are immediately around you. It is a comfort zone.” Then she outlines some great practical advice on how to get out there and broaden your (family’s) horizons.

A History of Nomadism
Colorado Review
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this longform piece by Megan Harlan, but I am oh-so-glad that I did. In it she reflects on what it means to be a nomad, both in the traditional desert-dweller sense, and in the modern TCK sense. She makes fascinating comparisons – similarities and contrasts. She expresses poignant thoughts on the impact of her own nomadic childhood. She ponders the nomad’s dilemma: “how to sculpt from rootlessness an identifiable, meaningful universe? Or, put more unnervingly: how do we attach meaning to constant change?” It is a long piece, and worth making the time for a long, slow read, considering and savouring the different elements she identifies and reflects on. Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:

Like traditional pastoral nomads, my sense of home was as temporary as a campsite. But unlike them, my family’s “campsites” — our homes — were never revisited. No seasonal structure directed my family’s movements; no terrain was deemed ours. . .So like any nomadic child, I learned to apprehend places differently than settled people. During all the travel, as each of my homes was replaced by another, again, another, again, those seventeen times, the world loosened for me into flexible components: the view from another kitchen window, shadows cast by unfamiliar trees, my self refracted through more strangers in a new classroom. Patchwork, scraps, jumble—these fragments pieced into a perspective that lacked a solid middle distance; that place we take for granted to be “real life” kept disappearing on me. . .When people ask where I’m from, my answer is always in some way a lie, not that I mean it to be. I don’t know where I’m from, but who wants to hear that?

My visit to the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam

I spent last week working with students, parents and staff at the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I really enjoyed my time there. I was warmly welcomed and had interesting conversations with a lot of people.

I appreciated the school’s efforts to farewell each student who leaves, and welcome new students. The primary school has boards with photos of each student arriving and leaving, along with a little information. I loved seeing children’s handwritten notes describing what they would miss. I had conversations with teachers who described different cross cultural issues that arise and ways they are trying to understand and address the individual students involved. I spent time with librarians working hard to make diverse and helpful resources available for children of all ages. I talked with parents who see some of the difficulties that come with the international life their children experience, and are trying hard to understand and support their kids the best they can.

I particularly enjoyed spending an hour with the Tanzanian teachers aides at the primary school. We talked about culture, cross cultural issues, and how this works in a classroom setting. They offered great insights into the cultural differences they notice in the international school setting, and shared stories of ways they have seen young children wrestle with this. I was able to encourage in them the benefit their different cross cultural insights bring to a cross cultural classroom.

This is one of the things I love best about what I do. I love coming alongside – providing encouragement and resources to parents and teachers who are doing their best and trying to do better. I hope to offer comfort abc reassurance to parents who feel weighed down by guilt that they aren’t getting it right, or that they have burdened their children with the negative aspects of international life. Yes, there are difficulties, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad! As children grow and learn to integrate their experiences, to appreciate the good without ignoring the bad, the vast majority sure thankful for what they gained through a less ordinary upbringing.

I also love spending time with young CCKs – hearing their stories and giving them tools for the journey they’re on. I always feel the weight of their stories – what a privilege it is when a young person shares with me something that matters to them.

I spent time with all the grade 4-10 students at IST, each group doing one of three workshops I offer on storytelling, transition, and grief. In each group, through different questions, I was privileged to hear dozens of stories of these young people’s experiences with change, loss, and identity. Different groups reacted strongly to different prompts. One 8th grade group had a long discussion (almost a debate, back and forth) or whether it’s harder to say goodbye or say hello. Lots of groups really engaged with the question: “have you ever been unable to say goodbye to someone?” Stories poured out of them – about friends leaving without warning, of relatives or close family friends passing away in a different country, of thinking they had more time. One 5th grader spoke about a friend who left in kindergarten and how he never found out what happened.

These stories mark our kids. The regular loss of friends is part of the pattern of life they learn through childhood.

Rainbows and rivers by 7th grade students

Rainbows and rivers by 7th grade students

Hearing pieces of their stories through drawings and poems was another highlight. They brought different countries and languages and loves together into colourful rainbows, unique rivers, and evocative poetry. I’m always surprised at the depth of insight that can come from seemingly simple exercises. It was a delight to see these windows into their experiences. To hear a single poem with different verses written in different languages – the appropriate language for each place that is part of “home”. To watch children read with delight a poem in a mother tongue they rarely get to share with their classmates – and then watch them receive a warm round of applause. No one understood the words, but they all recognised their significance.

Rainbows and hearts by 4th grade students

Rainbows and hearts by 4th grade students

As I said, I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I’m still travelling and visiting schools, so stay tuned for more thoughts after I’m back in Beijing!