28 May 2014


“One day a long time from now you'll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That's when you'll finally produce the work you're capable of.”

That J.D. Salinger quote was posted to a friend’s Facebook status yesterday, and it got me thinking. After a few seconds, I made the Facebook-appropriate gesture and “liked” the post, and then I typed a comment about how the quote described my current state of being, sure that living in Papua New Guinea helped me achieve enlightenment. Ironically, I felt a bit hesitant to post the comment. I was cautious of what others might think – would I sound cocky? Would others be find my comment distasteful in any way?

I hit the enter key and sent the comment into the internetsphere because I really did believe that I was content.

While it is true that my personality and my values have transformed since leaving America more than three years ago, it didn’t take long for me to reconsider my recently penned statement. The friend who posted the quote – an actual, real-life, amazing friend – wrote back, “Moving out of your environment gives you a nice, clean slate to be yourself without as many preconceived notions and pressures from people who know you.” I suddenly realized that I did care about the words some people say to and about me.

I studied those words for several minutes and examined them from different angles. Was I supposed to take offense to those words? Did she really intend to sting me or prod me, I wondered. Maybe I am interpreting the words incorrectly, because I don’t believe she would actually intend to throw a transcribed punch, even though in that moment I absolutely felt as if a fist had struck my chest.

After a couple minutes, I decided that I probably was misinterpreting her words, so I began to look at them from other positions, examining my life as an expat wife. I began posing questions to myself, trying to remember back to the days of April 2011 and July 2013 when I landed first in Singapore and then in Port Moresby.

Was moving to a new environment easy or difficult?

Was starting over pleasurable or a bit of a nightmare?

Did I leave others behind in order to start afresh?

Did I feel social pressures in my new environment?

Did I experience social pressures from my friends and family left behind?

I posed two of those questions to Nicola via WhatsApp, and then I wondered if I had ever answered any of these questions in front of the people who knew me in my previous life. I say “previous life,” because that’s how other expat wives describe their own lives. Apparently there is a pre-expat life and a post-expat life. The two worlds meet at one point like walls dividing rooms but never overlap. There is a distinct “before” and an “after.”

When a person refers to life in before and after terms, the listener should infer and understand that the middle point – that wall – represents transition, and transition is often difficult.

Yes, the expat lifestyle is exciting, but why is it exciting? Because anyone who is not an expat isn’t living the life of an expat. The grass is always greener.

Expats get to explore another country. We travel to locations that others only see on Google Maps and other people’s social media pages. We have stories of retreats in Bangkok, Bali and Sydney, which are only glamorous to those who live on the opposite side of the world. My British friends think the U.S. and Canada are amazing, faraway lands. Those who live in Asia likely dream of visiting Capetown, the Outback or London, among other places. Since I am being honest here, I will admit that I am jealous of my expat friends who go to Vietnam, Cambodia, France and the Maldives because I have not yet been there. The grass is greener and the water is bluer. I get it. I am one of you.

People are excited by travel and experiences other than their own. That’s why we have dreams – because we all aspire to be someone other than who we are right now or to do something other than what we currently do. If we did not dream, we would accomplish nothing.

So, yes, expats travel. Yes, expats observe cultures different from our own, we participate in celebrations that are unlike our norms and we experience life in a new environment – all of these things are very cool. But on several occasions, being an expat kind of sucks. And maybe while we have been flaunting the good and the amazing, we just haven’t been honest about the bad and the ugly.

When a couple becomes an expat (I will use couple to describe my own situation – please insert person, family, individual, whatever will make you happy), the first step after committing to the opportunity is to tell people. When we told my mother, she finally felt her umbilical cord pop and it wasn’t a clean cut. My husband’s mom was not happy. Our friends told us we were crazy and gave us looks that said, “See you in a month” as they toasted us farewell. Not having immediate support from the people who mean the most is challenging.

Once a couple tells everyone and hopes they all recover from the shock (and they do), the couple then either finds someone to rent their home while they vacate for an unknown period of time and assume the undesirable role of landlord, or they sell everything they own so as not to be tied down. We broke our condo lease and chose the latter. Moving sucks.

We determined which items were valuable enough to make the trip across oceans and we got rid of the rest. We sold furniture and a car; we donated a full-size Honda sedan’s worth of goods as the car was filled – trunk, front seat, back seats and all; we donated the second car. In a matter of days, everything we owned was gone, whether in someone else’s possession or on the back of a small semi. Parting with and disposing of items that just days prior were completely necessary takes some adjustment. Learning just what you can live without takes some adjustment.

Saying good-bye to friends and family members sucks. There are tears and sad faces and long hugs and lots of tissues. My husband and I have spent the last three years leaving and every time we prepare to board a plane, Paul’s mom gives a quick pat, pivots and heads for the door because she can neither bear to see us go nor for us to see her cry. My mom cries every time. I cry every time. Expats experience sadness and those around them do as well.

Landing in a new country is thrilling but the 29-hour commute on no fewer than three economy class planes is something entirely different. That’s right, not everyone flies business. And even 14 hours on a business class seat will make your butt hurt. And toes turn into Tootsie Rolls for days after landing. And the dry airplane air makes the boogers inside your nose feel like jagged glass. And there are airplane lavatories used by hundreds of people throughout the 14-hour flight. Flying from one part of the world to another in a matter of hours is incredible, but it isn’t all pleasant.

Climate changes distress the mind and the body, and women’s hair. For the first three months in Singapore, Paul and I would sweat just walking outside. We would sweat while getting ready to leave the house and desire a shower after we had already taken a shower 20 minutes prior.

And then there’s the time adjustment. Imagine taking one day per every hour difference – that’s more than two weeks between Ohio and PNG no matter which way you fly. Jet lag isn’t pretty. Just ask my friend, Van, about the time he flew from Singapore back home to D.C. and immediately attended a wedding and landed in the hospital because no one should have alcohol after traveling for an entire day. Well, you could ask him but he doesn’t remember, so you should instead ask our friends in Singapore about the epic night that Paul and I joined them for dinner within hours of making the day-long commute. Better yet, read about it.

The thought of starting over is refreshing, I will agree with that. When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to start college at a place where no one knew me. I could reinvent myself as a gregarious person instead of the shy, approval-seeking, wishing-so-badly-I-fit-in person I was at the time. Moving to another country is not like going to college.

Landing in a foreign country without having someone to guide you, to point you to a grocery store, to teach you how to use the public transportation system is courageous. Learning that English is a universal language that is not universally spoken or understood is frustrating. Telling a taxi driver that you need to go to Cairnhill (kayrn-hill) Road and having him tell you to get out of his car because he doesn’t know where you need to go because karyn-hill is actually pronounced cane-hill is confusing.

Trying to find basic essentials in a country that has not discovered online shopping or even commercial websites is frustrating. Waiting in line for 30 minutes and finally making it to the front of the line only to find out you spent 30 minutes in the wrong line is frustrating. Having businesses open late and close on time is frustrating. Having a bank tell you that you cannot take money out of your own account because they do not have the cash to give you is frustrating.

When the couple gets beyond all of the emotions a couple experiences in the inaugural week or two, they might give a thought about making some friends – finding someone who can act as an ally. This is when the real emotions emerge.

“When you move to a new country, there is no pressure from people that know you, agreed,” Nicola told me last night. “But that's because you have no friends. So actually the pressure to get to know people, find friends and get to be around people that will accept you for you is worse. I get it, I really do. And I intend no offense towards anyone in stating my opinion. It's beautiful here, and we are blessed and honored by the opportunity of living in a different country. It does give a person a clean slate, and I am not being ungrateful for this amazing life, but the reality for me personally? The reality was being in a room full of people and feeling totally alone. Trying to piece myself together after leaving a career that defined who I was. Crying silently to myself because all I wanted to do was see, touch, hear and feel something I knew.”

For me, making friends with the expat wives was actually pretty similar to high school. I joined an organization and clung to the first handful of women I met. We were casual friends first who were all new to Singapore. We explored each other, observed each other and slowly bonded. Six to eight months later, I found myself wondering why we were all still hanging out. It took a while for me to realize that I didn’t have to be friends with these women just because they were the first friends that I made. We drifted, and that drifting process taught me that it was O.K. to not be friends with everyone while still being friendly to everyone.

In the last three years I have met a lot of women with whom I did not mesh. Though Singapore was getting a slow inflow of women in their 20s and 30s, the vast majority were closer in age to my mother and grandmother. I met an incredible amount of people yet failed to find the good few for the first year. When I did finally find them, I could not remember a time in my life without them. With these people, I learned the value of true friendship. Then I experienced a new friendship phenomenon, one where the new good people moved out of the country as quickly as they arrived. Friends left, and when I was close to leaving Singapore, I began erecting my own expat wall, distancing myself from making new friends.

When I moved to PNG, I was even lonelier than I had been in Singapore because there were no organizations dedicated to making friends. I met the pilot wives but I did not come close to fitting in with them. I was on the outside of a social circle while feeling trapped on a guarded compound. I have friends and family elsewhere who love chatting on the phone, and I have a husband who is with me all day every day, but I feel it is important to communicate that being an expat can sometimes be lonely.

Expats also try to make friends at work, if the suddenly-unemployed other half can find work. Obtaining employment in your own country can be difficult. Add to that an unfamiliarity with your surroundings, no experience within the region and fighting for a position in a place that values hiring its own citizens above foreigners, and the caveat that if an employer does want to hire you, that employer must jump through massive hoops of paperwork in order for you to have the legal right to work, and employment becomes more of an honor resembling a prize on The Price is Right than a guarantee. What? You cannot commit to a term longer than your spouse’s contract? Job security what?

Finally, what about the people we left behind when we embarked upon the greatest journey of our ever-changing lives? We miss milestone birthdays, weddings, pregnancies and births. We miss reunions and face time with our ever-aging family members. We miss experiencing inside jokes and watching our nieces and nephews through each stage of life. While we are living “the good life,” we are missing out on others’ lives, and then when we do make it back to our home countries, we are hit with the expectation that we must see everyone we ever encountered – who live all over America, by the way – within the three weeks we are Stateside because, after all, we are only there for three weeks.

And when an expat couple repatriates back into their home country, another wall is affixed, again preventing one side from ever fully touching the other.

After considering all of this, I wondered if I was the only one with this thought line. Do other expat wives feel the same way? Did they feel social pressures?

My friend, Megan, a fellow American expat who I will claim to have known my entire life said, “I definitely felt my own pressures. I wasn't sure what the ‘expat lifestyle’ was. I joined a million groups and clubs to meet other expat wives, only to determine that THAT ‘expat lifestyle’ was NOT for me. It was only once I abandoned trying to embrace being an expat and fitting in with the expat wives, and doing the ‘expat thing’ that I found true happiness and made TRUE friendships.”

When I asked Nicola about her initial expat experience and whether she thought starting over in a new country was easier or harder than it was when she lived in England, she stated that she “never found anything harder in my whole life.”

So, yes, expat life is amazing, and, like many other expats out there, I love a lot about what my life has become. But there are also a lot of disadvantages to the life that at times appears to be so much better than everyone else’s. The grass is always greener on the other side, but even grass can be deceiving. You don’t know if the grass is naturally green, if the owner meticulously nurtures and manicures the grass to form it into the green it has become or if the green you see has been spray painted to mask the true battered state that some expats are not likely to reveal.

I am beyond grateful for the opportunities that have allowed Paul and me to become expats twice. I have learned to not take for granted branded goods, electricity that works for 24 contiguous hours, water coming out of a tap, toilets, friendships.

I have learned that I can leave the house without makeup, that I don’t have to look pretty to feel pretty and that life without solid people supporting me is no life I want to pursue. Because I have made the good friends in my life abroad, I now have pillars on nearly every continent. I have come to a place where I do not put much care into what other people say or think because I know who I am and the people I choose to have in my life accept me as I am. I accept that I am not on this earth to please anyone, let alone everyone.

Except I do care what some people say and think. I may not care what any other person in the world has to say about me or my actions, but I do care what my people say. If my friends find fault with my words or actions, I want to be a better friend, so their words matter. If my family members are hurting, their feelings matter.

If my people say something that strikes me wrongly, I realize that I do care what they think, but if I am hurt by their words, it is my responsibility to determine whether or not those words merely sting and quickly heal or plunge and form deep scars. To Mr. Salinger I would say, “One day not far from now you will realize the value of true friendship. On that day you will discover that true friends will help you produce work beyond your capabilities alone and that nothing else matters quite as much.”

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