Expat feels

Here is another in my series of reflections on popular content from the past year. Today I’m sharing three posts from May, August and September last year. One is the most popular post I’ve ever written on this blog, and the others are in the all time top 20 most viewed. All three focus on emotional experiences connected to expatriate life.

Homesickness and the price we pay to be expats

This is the most viewed post on my blog, thanks in part to being picked up and shared by a few expat networks online. It also talks about something that’s been an important part of my expat life – openly acknowledging what this life costs me, and allowing myself to feel that pain, but alongside the sure knowledge that this was my choice. This emotional integration is an essential tool for finding contentment in life generally, but especially as expats.

There are two sides to this. First, the cost is real. The fact that I choose to pay the price doesn’t change the fact that it costs me something – something real. In my first years overseas, expressing my sadness at this cost often led to comments from my sisters about how “you chose this!” That was true, but it didn’t change the fact that I was sad about missing this event, or seeing that person. . .

Secondly, it is a choice, and that reframes the loss and pain of paying the price. I don’t just lose something – I have given up something good (many good things) in order to gain something I have deemed better. When we hold these two things together – both the reality of the cost, and the reality of my choice to pay it – we can integrate these difficult emotions, and come to a place of peace.

Click here to read the full “Homesickness and the price” post.

Expat Guilt: Being far from family

This piece is related: part of the price of my choosing to live overseas is being far from my family. That is a choice which impacts both me and them – and that brings guilt. I made a choice which affects them, which may feel at times like loving them less. In this post I share my own struggles with this common phenomenon of expat guilt.

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!

Click here to read the full “Expat Guilt” post.

Phantom Pain: Feeling the pieces of self you leave behind

When I decided to share this, I honestly didn’t know how it would be received. I wondered if anyone would relate, or if they would think I was weird. But I put it out there anyway. In this post I explain a lightbulb moment I had after repatriating to Australia, trying to explain how I felt about China, now that I no longer lived there. I lived in China from age 21-32; it was where I lived out almost all my adult years and grew into my own woman. And even after I’d moved to Australia and settled into a life there that I enjoyed, China still felt like a part of me – albeit a part no one else saw, a part that was not tangible. It was particularly interesting for me to reflect on this now that I’m living in China again – a move I had not expected in the slightest!

Australia didn’t really feel like home. Not completely. I had settled into a routine, I had made friends, I liked the place I lived. But something didn’t feel right. I could still *feel* another place, a place that felt like part of me. I could feel the person I’d been there, I could feel the routines I’d had there, I could almost smell and taste the place I’d left. . .

I suspect anyone who moves around has the potential to develop this kind of phantom pain. The pain of sensing a part of yourself missing – a part of you which only exists in one place, one context. Losing a language, a role, a position – something you were or had becoming invisible, unreachable. Perhaps this is an inevitable (or at least highly likely) part of connecting deeply in and to more than one place. Another price we pay for this life.

Click here to read the full “Phantom Pain” post.

Re-reading the phantom pain post now, I realise it reminds me of something I shared in a recent Recommended Reading post – from an ATCK reflecting on how the language of her childhood home is a part of her even though she hasn’t lived there for a long time, and doesn’t often use it in daily life now.

That’s my reflection on the Expat Feels I’ve written about in the past year! It’s been a rollercoaster year of transition for me, and sharing these posts with you has been good for me, too.

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

Click here to read more posts about Third Culture Kids, transition, and expatriate experiences.

Homesickness, and the price we pay to be expats

I read an article a couple months back in which an Australian living abroad talked about how to deal with homesickness as an adult. As an Australian who has spent most of my adult life overseas, there was a lot in it I related to! Author Kate Leaver beautifully captures the tension of loving the life I live, while still missing the things I’ve left behind.

I am settled here, in my new London life. I am contentedly nuzzled into life and love and work here. And yet – and yet! – I find myself, recently, feeling homesick. Some days, I can feel those 12,500 kilometres in my heart. Especially when something happens to someone I love back home

She also articulated something I hadn’t thought through properly before: “homesickness feels kind of silly as an adult. It seems like the kind of thing you grow out of, the kind of thing you leave behind in childhood“.

Wow – reading that I felt the truth of it. It’s hard to leave space to accept and process our homesickness when we feel somehow weak or childish for feeling that way.

She goes on to share advice from psychologist Doctor Perpetua Neo. The advice she gives is simple but solid: be kind to yourself, get involved in life where you live. These are, simply stated, two of the six tips for transition which I offer in seminars I teach. This advice applies to expats generally but also the repats – those of us who go through the wringer of returning to a ‘home’ country after an extended period abroad. It applies to the person who leaves, and applies to the person who stays.

The price we pay

There’s one thing I’d add, though, when it comes to feeling homesick as an adult expatriate: this is part of the price tag.

By that I mean, recognise that by living overseas you pay a real price, and keep choosing to pay it. Take the time to acknowledge what you lose by being far away – those losses are real! But don’t stop there. Remember why you chose to be where you are. Meditate on all the things you gain, think about the life you have, think about what you’d lose if you weren’t where you are. Yes, living overseas comes with a cost – but we pay that price because we gain something else in return. Say to yourself “knowing this is the price I must pay to gain all these things, will I willingly pay it?”

(Years ago I wrote about learning this myself in my late twenties, as I wrestled with my changing accent.)

There are two sides to this. First, the cost is real. The fact that I choose to pay the price doesn’t change the fact that it costs me something – something real. In my first years overseas, expressing my sadness at this cost often led to comments from my sisters about how “you chose this!” That was true, but it didn’t change the fact that I was sad about missing this event, or seeing that person. (Strangely enough, those comments stopped after they each moved across the country themselves!) They were right – it was my choice. But my choice came with a cost, and it hurt, even as I chose to pay it.

Secondly, it is a choice, and that reframes the loss and pain of paying the price. I don’t just lose something – I have given up something good (many good things) in order to gain something I have deemed better.

When we hold these two things together – both the reality of the cost, and the reality of my choice to pay it – we can integrate these difficult emotions, and come to a place of peace. A space where feelings are recognised as valid, and given expression, but also seen within the perspective of decisions made for good reasons.

How does this work for TCKs?

One last thing that’s worth mentioning here: this outlines one of the big differences between the experience of adult expatriates and that of Third Culture Kids. A TCK moves overseas due to a parent’s choice, not their own. They don’t have the comfort of knowing they chose this themselves, for a good reason. They may see and understand their parents’ decisions – may even have been consulted in the decision making process. Even when they agree with the decision, however, there is a powerlessness in having had this childhood chosen on their behalf.

That is the reality of all children, really – whether a family chooses to stay in one place or move, both miss out on the other experience. But still, the fact that the power to make the decision rests with parents means that TCKs experience international life differently. They did not choose to pay a price in order to gain something else – growing up overseas is simply the childhood they were presented with. It is their normal.

Click here to read more posts about Third Culture Kids, transition, and expatriate experiences.

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?