The view from here
"For anyone out there making this transition, I promise you – the first year is the hardest. It can be lonely and there will be times that you want to pack up and move home."
“The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.” — Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)
I took a break from writing my blog about living in New Zealand, mainly because for a large chunk of that time I was using all of my creative energy to write stories about things like real estate, elevators, and golf – subjects that I found boring and knew nothing about.
This non-stop writing and people managing gave me invaluable experience, connected me to an amazingly talented group of people, and supplied me with in-depth knowledge about topics I never even thought about before. I now know a great deal about real estate, elevators and golf (and am still bored to tears by them).
Now that I’ve returned with a renewed passion and appreciation for writing words that sound good together (oh the irony!), it’s weird to go back and read that timeline of stories from when I first arrived in this beautiful country.
I believe this weirdness is caused by the inevitable morphing process from being a ‘visitor’ – who laughs every time I see a Kiwi wearing no shoes in a mall (happens more than you think) – to a veteran foreigner who has long ago accepted and embraced the ultra-casual Kiwi way.
I won’t quite make the stretch of calling myself a ‘local’. And if you ask New Zealand Immigration, I’m still very much a wannabe Kiwi, allowed in the country because of my incredible hoop jumping abilities and patience with bureaucratic red tape.
Essentially, I am an expat who is living in limbo, and from this realization I’ve come to some startling conclusions about living abroad and confronted a series of beliefs that are simply not true.
Myth Number One – Living abroad is easy and requires little to no responsibility
I’m pretty sure that when certain people back home picture what I do here on a day-to-day basis, my typical routine is to lie on the beach, hang out with dolphins and go to parties.
While I do try to explore this amazing country in all its glory on the weekends and during my time off, I am living a somewhat normal life the majority of the time workin’ 9 to 5, trying to make a livin’ (sing it sister!), in a full time corporate role. I have evolved from being a visiting traveller to ‘alien resident’.
Being a traveller verses an ‘alien resident’ is a key distinction because knowing there is an absolute finite length of your trip categorically changes your outlook and lets you live with an almost reckless abandon.
Anyone who has set out with the sole intention of ‘travelling for travel’s sake’, knows the vast difference between planting your feet – setting yourself up with a job, place to live, support system, etc. in a foreign country – and going from place to place not knowing where you will wake up next.
Staying adds pressure to the experience. When you intend on living somewhere you automatically start nesting. You try to find the best area to live in to maximize your experience. You try to get a job that is going to do something for you in the long-run. You constantly evaluate people as potential friends and maybe even partners.
At first arrival without a job and social obligations, you have nothing but time to think about the life you left behind, the possibility of the future, and – if you happen to be with someone – the state of your relationship.
If you are not careful, you can think yourself to insanity by trying to create the perfect life.
Travelling is different. Your main focus is on pinching pennies, paying for your next meal and gearing up for your next adventure. You meet people easily as you are all out for the same thing – to enjoy your trip. You pick up jobs but are willing to work almost anywhere to get to the next destination and will sleep anywhere that has four walls.
Responsibility is in fact heightened when you are an expat because you have no one but yourself to rely on, help is an ocean away, and in many cases you are paying bills in two countries. There is no safety net or ‘life starts when I get home’ mentality, life starts now.
If you fail, you might feel like you have essentially failed at life and facing the prospect of going home with your tail between your legs is enough to keep anyone profoundly aware of the consequences of doing it wrong.
Myth Number Two – As an expat, you forget your roots and think only about your wings
Being an expat in limbo means that you are not in the aforementioned travelling state of mind, but you are not home either. For anyone out there making this transition, I promise you – the first year is the hardest. It can be lonely and there will be times that you want to pack up and move home.
The allure of home can be strong. After all, you can’t just visit any time you want. The place of ultimate comfort is a giant ocean away. The cocoon of family and friends who have known you forever, who get your jokes and would drop anything to help you out are too far away to come to your rescue or cheer you on.
If your car breaks, your dad can’t fix it. Your mom can’t cook you a nice meal after an especially challenging week. You can’t just call up anyone to go for a drink and – with a 20 hour time difference – you can’t even just call to have a chat.
You long dearly for that (in my case) free healthcare you take for granted and the comforting taste of a delicious poutine, spicy Caesar or double double from Timmy Ho’s.
Worst of all, you feel supreme guilt for missing those important days in your friends and families lives. Weddings, babies and funerals will all happen when you are gone and you simply can’t make them all.
This reality is possibly the toughest one to experience but often even harder for people to understand.
Relationships require regular attention and you can neglect them if you are living next door or across the world. My family and friends are my heart and soul and I try to let them know that as often as I can.
I think I have more to give them by living a life that makes me happy and I cherish and appreciate every moment I have with them.
Myth Number Three – You are running away from ‘real’ life
The beginning of expat living, when you are basically betting with life as you know it that you will make something of yourself, is both the crushing challenge and ultimate exhilaration of moving abroad.
You are not running away from your existing life but in fact taking the road less travelled and creating one all on your own.
You have to relearn how to grocery shop and go out for dinner. You need to find somewhere to get your teeth cleaned, hair cut and eyes checked. Driving a car and crossing the street can go from second nature to risking your life. Almost every area in your existence that you had complete confidence in will come into question and shake everything you thought you knew. (All of this is heightened even further in countries where you don’t know the local language or are not taken seriously because you are a woman. Shout out to the girls who are tackling this challenge!)
You are half way between the world of stability and being a vagabond – a mixture of the familiar and the alien and you’ve got so much time to think about who you are and what you’re doing that you question everything, looking for signs everywhere about what to do next.
Taking the easy way out has never to my knowledge involved making life-altering decisions with no guiding lights or familiar faces to see you through to the other side. A fake existence couldn’t possibly see someone challenging everything they’ve ever known to learn more about the world and become a more empathetic and well-rounded person.
‘Real life’ is living, no matter what you choose to do. While moving abroad may be less common or non-traditional, there are a great deal of people who are doing this and yet still seem to be breathing in and out, facing daily challenges of all kinds.
Myth Number Four – You will never really belong
As time goes on, you will get a job that interests you, a place you love and a network of friends to depend on. You will master some of the local customs and start to prefer them over what you were used to back home. You will start thinking less and living more.
The strange accents, local food and social behavior will eventually seem normal to you. The novelty of the country will taper off and you will start to see the real culture and the underbelly of where you live.
Just like a new romance, if it’s meant to last, you will be enticed and enveloped by the idiosyncrasies known only to the people who know it best.
You will want to experience everything it has to offer and get to know it better than anyone else – and you’ll have a hell of a good time trying!
Soon you will change in ways you do not even realize and this foreign land you have worked so hard to break into and be a part of will take you in subtly and silently.
Belonging is a feeling that comes in many different forms. It could be as simple as going out with friends after work, being invited to a BBQ or getting an inside joke. Like all fuzzy warm feelings, you are the only one who knows if it’s there or not and the impact it has on you.
Myth Number 5 – You can’t come home again
A new you will be born. One who thrives in this new place, and loves all of the amazing things it offers you intellectually, socially and physically. You will swell with pride when you realize how far you have come from being a scared and clueless visitor to an expat master, literally building everything in your life from scratch.
A life put together by you, created by one choice followed by another – no pre-determined circumstances, no clear path and no easy route taken and still you have succeeded.
But will it ever feel like home?
It will for the new ‘expat you’, but same old ‘home you’ will always be there. One day you may feel the need to choose between the two, but the best advice I can give is to think seriously about that day only when it comes. Life is too short to ruin the present by living in the future.
Go home if you want to and if you decide you want to leave again, do so. While there are immigration rules and certain limitations (of which I am all too familiar), it is us who most often impose the biggest boundaries we have to face.
After you have lived abroad, whatever choice you make, and no matter where you end up, you will know in your heart that you will not just survive but thrive, because you’ve done it before and you are strong.
Meg is one of the co-creators of Travelher and lives and breathes travel. She currently works for an e-commerce travel company in New Zealand and often sells herself on cruises, motorhome trips and other exciting adventures. Meg misses her family back in Canada and wishes someone would invent the teleport already.
(This post was originally published on her other blog, Madventuring. )