Lay Down Your Heart: What I’ve learned as a Serial Expat
1- When are you moving ‘Home’?
The disconnect to ‘home’ is real and is probably the hardest thing to deal with. Guilt trips from family about not being home for such and such a thing can be heartbreaking and the ‘when are you moving back’ questions can be awkward, because how do explain why you don’t want to live in your home country. At times I feel very selfish for living the life I do, away from my family; in particular, watching my niece and nephew grow up barely knowing their Aunt, breaks my heart. I have to constantly remind myself why I got into this game in the first place. I love to travel and living in other countries is an experience no one should ever pass up. In addition, there are few opportunities for people my age in Canada, and as a teacher, unless I want to spend years on a sub-list or live in the middle of nowhere, there simply aren’t any jobs right now. Perhaps when the boomers finally retire out of the school system and there are jobs where I want to live, I’ll come back.
2- The Great Dating Experiment
Falling in love can feel awfully futile when you live such a temporary existence. Dating is horrendous in certain expat hubs like the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, because while the man to woman ratio there would appear to work in a woman’s favour, it does not give an accurate picture. The following saying sums up the situation perfectly: “The odds are good but the goods are odd.” Chalk it up to cross-cultural miscommunication and varied cultural dating norms or the flaky existence of most expats, but you’d be hard pressed to find a single woman satisfied with the GCC dating culture. If you do meet someone you like and might actually want to, if not totally deactivate but temporarily delete tinder for awhile; then there’s always the proverbial problem of: but he’s from xyz and I always wanted to settle down in abc so how could it ever work; or but I want to leave this year and he just got here! When I met my now husband; I told him straight away I was leaving at the end of the year and he replied, “ok, I will go anywhere.” My friends tell me I found a unicorn!
3- Love and Passports
Falling in love and marrying someone with a different colour passport than you can be a massive pain in the ass when wanting to travel to or move to a new country. Visa restrictions are inherently racist and while it’s not something me and my Canadian passport has to deal with, trying to apply for a Visa for my Tanzanian husband to join me pretty much anywhere (even Canada) means jumping through bureaucratic hoops. While he has to prove financial status that most of my well to do Canadian friends wouldn’t be able to achieve, just to get a work permit in Europe, but to collect said work permit he’ll have to apply for a separate tourist visa to enter the country; meanwhile I simply have to fill out some papers and get my passport stamped at customs. According to the Global Peace Index, Tanzania actually ranks much higher than many countries that are in the same Visa category. Bureaucratic BS aside, be open to love from anywhere, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I have to meet a guy from the same country as me.” That’s awfully limiting.
4- Making Bank
Saving money and/or paying off student loans might be a main goal to your overseas move but it’s so easy to get sidetracked. Most people I know barely saved a penny their first year in Abu Dhabi; so enamoured were they by fancy brunches, nightclubs, and hotels, that they spent all their time and money ‘living the life.’ I definitely fell into that trap temporarily but the main reason I barely saved a thing was that I travelled as much as I could and also I am terrible at money management. Don’t beat yourself up about it but do try to maintain foresight because international teaching positions can be unstable and you may need to up and move quickly. Remember that you will eventually want to move somewhere else and you’ll want to have a little money to take with you to ease the transition process.
5- Making New Friends
Meetup.com and Facebook groups can be amazing for meeting people! As much as I loved my nerdy male colleagues in South Korea, 2 months of watching them play video games while drinking copious amounts of Hite beer and soju started getting a little dull and depressing. I took to the internet (before I had ever thought about the internet as a place to meet actual humans) and in one fell swoop I found an active expat group nearby and met a guy who I then dated for 5 years. In Abu Dhabi I made my first new friend by joining an Arts group and going to one of their meetups and subsequently started an Arts Organization that held art shows and a festival. Now on my pending move to Prague, I have joined a few groups on Facebook and Meetup. In addition to seeing what’s going on in your new city you’ll also pick up tips about renting apartments, English speaking doctors, vegetarian restaurants, day trips, etc…
If you’re single then join tinder or another dating app; I know a fair few people who have met people who were terrible date prospects but turned out to be great friends.
6- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (people you’ll meet along the way)
While we’re on the subject of friends; you will probably meet some of the greatest friends of your life; people that become your dysfunctional family abroad but you may also meet some of the worst people you never knew existed. I will credit myself this one thing, I am fast judge of character, be it instinct, or I’m just a reserved, wary, and a judgy bitch but I can spot a disingenuous character across a ballroom. I give everyone a wide berth at first but I have seen and heard so many stories go down in Abu Dhabi (in particular) from my friends who had a fast and intense friendship with someone but suddenly things went awry and that person stabbed them in the back and messed up their relationships with others. The betrayal and anger felt towards this awful person was so that in the retelling of the events, those emotions were still evident years later. Every story I’ve heard was nearly the same as the last and each one shocked me because I still can’t figure out how you develop a bond with someone and then suddenly turn around and betray their trust, except to assume that the person must be a narcissist and/or extremely immature. One thing that is certain, international workplaces are often hiding places for people who either can’t hack it in the work place in their home country or are looking to ‘reinvent’ themselves because they burned all their bridges at home.
Don’t let that make you wary of new friends though because I am leaving Abu Dhabi with 4 of the most amazing friends. We’ve shared every up and down moment this life throws at us and we have had the privilege of travelling to some wild places. Apart from those 4 beauties, I also met an enormous amount of wonderful people who have had a positive impact on me in some way and of course I met my darling husband who can’t wait to continue this crazy expat adventure with me in Prague next year.
7- International Foodie
Your friends and family back home will both rejoice and be rightfully annoyed with your expanded palate. I am an awesome cook and I love to try making things I’ve had in different countries. I also like to experiment with those dishes; this usually occurs because I have to make do with the ingredients I can find wherever I am. My friends and family are always excited for dinner when I am cooking because they know it’s going to be both delicious and unusual. The downside to this is that I will inevitably say something like, “in Thailand you can buy this on the street for about 2$, ” or “this makes me miss being in XYZ, soooo much!” These statements annoy most people because they find them pompous or braggy, but in all honesty I am just stating fact.
The age old question of ‘What’s for dinner?’ becomes even more daunting when you know all the good things that are out there in the world and you can’t decide what you want to eat more. My friend Maysa has an interesting technique which I find useful; you think of two things you want and pretend that you have one dish in each hand, then you pretend to take a bite of each and somehow your brain will tell you which one you want more. Every time I move to a new city I have to play the ‘where can I get…?’ game. Finding the Korean restaurants in Abu Dhabi was priority number one but finding a Korean grocery store was the ultimate treasure.
8- Welcome to your new addiction.
If you’re coming from Canada or the USA, the cost of international travel is daunting and dissuades many but when you’re living in a country connected to many other countries either overland or by short, cheap flights, you may not be able to resist when your friend says, “are you going anywhere for the 3 day weekend?” I once went to Kyrgyzstan on about 48 hrs notice because it was the cheapest flight out of Dubai that weekend and none of us could think of a reason not to go. No regrets by the way. Another side effect of moving abroad, especially when you’re a teacher is that there is always another country to move to that needs your English teaching credentials and while the pay and benefits very greatly depending on where you go, the knowledge that I could spend the rest of my days teaching next to a beach in Costa Rica is always in the back of my mind.
9- The Impossible is Possible
Before travelling and moving abroad I wasn’t in great shape, I could walk and bike for hours but climbing a mountain or biking for days was not something I ever thought I would do. I started becoming regular gym junkie after moving to Korea due to some office chair induced weight gain after University and after some time I found I both enjoyed and NEEDED exercise. Years later when a friend asked me if I wanted to go on a bike tour in Vietnam I enthusiastically agreed, the thing that felled me in Vietnam was not a fitness deficit but swollen sit bones from not being used to the skinny bike seat (I had a cruiser at the time). A year later a different friend asked me to go trekking in Nepal, me 5 years prior would have laughed and said “hell no” but strong me was stoked. Before my first international experience so many things would have felt unattainable but I have fulfilled so many dreams from my ‘previous life’ and new ones that I never would have conceived of in the past that on the cusp of the most life changing event yet (pregnancy); I am not afraid of moving to a new country and having to relearn all the day to day things or travelling with a minion in tow. The future is so uncertain but I know that anything is possible and generally everything works out the way it’s supposed to. I have learned a strong sense of belief-in-self and positive thinking and that is definitely that most powerful lesson moving abroad has taught me.
10- The Repatriation Blues
Repatriating is hell, there are a multitude of personal essays written on why it’s hell so I won’t go into detail but from my personal experience, I spent 2 years in Canada between South Korea and UAE and the whole time I couldn’t wait to leave. If I hadn’t had a goal to leave I would have been pretty miserable. I once took a Greyhound across Canada and the USA because I didn’t know how to just ‘be’ at home. Most people have little to no understanding of what you’re going through because often in their minds, nothing has changed, but you know everything has changed. You forget the protocol for simple things like going to the doctor in your home country, and often instead of people being helpful they treat you like an idiot, or respond with snarky comments because they think you should know.
Something that can be quite difficult is to come home and find that your friends, who are less globe savvy, are really hard to relate to, there’s just not a whole lot to talk about anymore. This sounds pompous or harsh but consider the following scenario:
You’ve just come back from spending a year in another country and you are sitting down to dinner with a friend who is sharing a funny story about a night out. A year ago you might have related to the story with one of your own and your friend would have laughed and the conversation would have gone on. This year you relate to her with a story that occurred on a night out in some foreign city and it’s met with an eye roll or the look that says, “Brag Much!”.
It’s not about bragging, but your jealous friend (and that’s what it comes down to is jealousy) doesn’t want to hear about your life abroad; it’s quite frustrating from your point of view because you literally just lived a year of experiences that you can’t really share with most people back home. Many will treat you like you’ve just come back from a week at a Cuban resort, they want the slideshow and 2-3 funny anecdotes and never to hear about it again.
11- Lay Down Your Heart
Living in another culture vastly different from your own, teaches you to not only respect but appreciate things that most of your compatriots might find “weird” or not “right”. I remember returning to Canada from South Korea and telling a story about going to the dentist in Korea (I was simply going to comment on the price difference) but before I could even tell the story, someone interrupted with “Geez I would never go to the dentist in Korea”. I was momentarily stunned to silence while I looked at this person wondering if they were being stupid on purpose or actually just an ignorant twat. The latter was the case and I had to take a calming breathe before replying that “actually South Korea has incredible standards for dentistry and most types of medical procedures (in my experience) and that I had a delightful experience.” Instead of him acknowledging that he was wrong, he shrugged and said “still I never would go to a dentist outside Canada.” This is not an isolated incident, I hear this kind of ignorant talk all the time when I return to Canada or reading the news and comment sections. People talking negatively about places they have never been to and don’t know all that much about except what’s appeared in the media from time to time. If you tell someone you’re going to Malawi, they will respond with “I heard about a person in Nigeria who….” because they don’t know the difference between East and West Africa; after all, Africa is Africa except for maybe the white parts of South Africa and the Pyramids of Giza, the rest of the continent is a war mongering, malaria ridden, aids infested land and there’s nothing to eat there anyhow. I have the innate desire to ‘protect’ the reputation of any country I have travelled to because that place, for however a brief amount of time, changed my perception in some way, taught me something important, treated me with respect and hospitality and made me appreciate all things big and small. I purposefully never post photos of poverty because I know many people will just nod their heads and say “yup just what I thought.” Those who travel far and wide lack fear of ‘others’, and with the current dehumanizing and xenophobic political rhetoric coming out of right wing USA, Canada, UK, and many European countries, it’s nigh impossible to sit back quietly and allow hateful ignorance towards people to pervade when you know the world is not even a fraction as scary as they would have you believe. I think most people would prefer I keep my mouth shut around the ignorant, just to keep the peace at dinner, but to sit back and say nothing makes you an accomplice to the spread of hateful sentiments. Freedom of speech is an integral part of a free society but ignorant, baseless, hateful claims about ‘others’ should not go unchallenged lest they think they have a right to a platform for spreading misinformation. In summation, get ready to feel frustrated a lot.
Disclaimer: The term expatriate (expat) means “a person who lives outside of their native country”; it’s a term that implies privilege and evokes images of the white professional having the freedom to choose when they come and go and often where they go to. While the dehumanizing terminology, such as foreign worker or migrant; used for someone who comes from a less advantaged country to work as a labourer, maid, nanny, etc.. implies a person who has desperately sought work elsewhere, fleeing the poverty of their homeland thus assuming one has little choice in the matter. In actuality the terms foreign worker, migrant worker, and expat apply to everyone who has moved to another country for work. Many things I discuss in this post does imply a certain economic freedom to travel leisurely