Anyone who tries to tell you that expat life is a piece of cake, with everyone living the high life and doing whatever they please wherever they want to, is sadly misinformed.
The truth is, living abroad is a lot like living in your home/birth/passport country.
Except for the whole cross-cultural aspect to it, and the part about dealing with another language.
Oh, and the fact that you have to include home, birth and passport countries as options when you write about it because not everyone has a ‘before’ place that wraps all three up in a tidy package.
I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I have just that: I was born and raised in and remain linked by more than a passport to the same nation. Ditto for Husband (and Son and Daughter). It makes it easy when we think about visiting family and friends. They may be scattered in different states as geographically dispersed as some of the countries in Europe, but in the end the culture is essentially the same.
For some, the closest thing to ‘home’ may be the country where they lived the longest or put down the deepest roots.
Last week I attended a going away coffee for an expat friend. I went primarily to say farewell, or in this case ‘see you later,’ since she’ll be back a couple times in the upcoming months to sort out pesky things like selling their home and moving the contents to another continent.
After almost a decade living here in The Netherlands, she and her husband (each originally from different countries in the Western Hemisphere) have decided it is time to move on. From what I can tell, it’s complicated as these situations often are. For a variety of family and work-related reasons, they will head back to the country she was born and raised in to live during this next stage of their lives.
They and their school-aged children are all very excited about moving and at the same time desperately wishing that they could remain here in Nederland.
That’s not surprising, this dichotomy of wanting this AND that, being here AND there. Unfortunately, they needed to make a choice: they weighed the pros and cons, made a decision and so they are going.
I said earlier that I went primarily to say goodbye, because I also went to catch up with some of the other attendees. I didn’t know exactly who else was invited, but guessed that I would know at least a handful of the others, and I was right.
While I hadn’t seen some of them in awhile, several were doing well: family, work, school, favorite activities and passions were all coming along nicely.
But for others, it was an entirely different picture. For those friends, they or their spouses have been going through yet another round of reorganizing, restructuring, down-sizing and potential lay-offs.
Worry about having a job, salary and health care had grown to include concern about having to uproot the children in the middle of the semester, where they might be going and when.
The adults are scrambling to determine best options (if any); they discuss and dissect and evaluate and suppose, all the while trying to maintain emotional stability and a sense of continuity in daily life, for themselves as well as their family.
Some are looking around for possible reassignments or even new jobs. They are steeling themselves for last minute decisions that may mean they pack up and leave hurriedly for a new assignment, or return ‘home’ without a job.
These same challenges are being faced by others on a daily basis in countries all around the globe. Unemployment continues to hover (and in many cases, to grow) at high levels.
It’s just that when many expats lose their jobs, their legal right to be remain in their current country ceases to exist. Staying may not be an option. Just when you most appreciate having a home base from which to lick your wounds, regroup, look for a new job and consider alternatives, you face having your family torn away from the center of stability in their lives.
Again, it’s not that others who aren’t expats don’t face these situations; it’s just that they may have more time to think things through and plan before they have to take steps like pulling kids out of schools and moving.
A dear friend I’ll call Sharon recently moved away with her family, heading back to the Middle East to rejoin her husband. They’d lived there for several years, then ended up here for a few more. Everyone was firmly entrenched in life here, but after three rounds of having her husband’s job cut followed by a reassignment to another part of the company in one year, it all began to take its toll.
Is it any wonder that when offered a multi-year assignment back in the country they’d left that they jumped at the chance? Others aren’t as fortunate.
One of the main tenets to making successful and emotionally healthy expat transitions (or transitions of any type, for that matter) is what Ruth Van Reken and her late co-author David Pollock termed RAFT: reconciliation, affirmation, farewell and think destination. This holds as much for repatriation as it does for moving to another country.
[If you're new to this site or not familiar with these concepts, you can read more about the importance of expat transitions, emotional resilience and RAFT here; you can also check out related posts under the Emotional Resilience and Expat Transitions & Change categories on the sidebar to the right.]
It’s challenging to employ RAFT under the best of times, but when operating under anxiety, stress, shifting options, short timelines and sudden decisions, it can be nearly impossible. I say nearly because it takes an almost Herculean effort to help guide your spouse, your children and your self through the rituals and actions that will eventually aid in making emotional peace with saying goodbye to one home and moving on to another.
Uncertainty is an integral part of expat life, not only in terms of when, where and how you live but also in the comings & goings of those around you. While I may have been saying goodbye to one friend, the uneconomic uncertainty and the mobility inherent in the global marketplace mean that I may well be doing the same with others in the days ahead.
So although I’m sad to be losing the chance to be able to see my friend on a regular basis, it helps knowing that this is the path that they have chosen.
I can tell you it hurts much more when the need to leave is not voluntary, when those we say goodbye to have little or no say in the decision.