Myth 1: Adventure
I’m an expatriate! Cue the Indiana Jones soundtrack, give me a whip and a cool hat, and let’s have an adventure! Okay, life as an expatriate is not all about adventure. In fact, it rarely is. Expatriate life is just life. Sometimes we do super awesome things but most of the time we are working, loving people, not-so-loving people, and doing the mundane things of life.
Myth 2: Living is the same as traveling
You might be a seasoned traveler who has seen the world and had a wonderfully adventurous time doing it. But traveling is not the same as living. Travelers don’t need to open bank accounts or rent a post office box or figure out what school to send their children to. Travelers get to see the world they want to see and they get to leave it when they’ve seen enough.
Myth 3: Feels like home
If you stay long enough, you’re right at home. Right? How many times have I heard, “You’re local now”? I’m not. I never will be. Yes, I understand things much better than the adventurous traveler passing through and I have some depth of cultural insight and some history and shared experiences. In some ways, the host country does start to feel like home. We have made it a home. We use phrases now like passport nation and global nomad. Home is being constantly redefined.
Myth 4: Expat life is always fulfilling and purposeful
Oh, but you do such meaningful work! Yes, yes we do. And sometimes, I feel that. Sometimes it is a humbling, awesome thing to see people thriving in a business start-up we launched or a girl earning a personal best in a race for a club that we sponsor. Other days? I see the beggar on the street and I wince. I don’t want to deal with their need. Some days, I give to someone because I am compelled by faith and compassion. Other days? I give because I just want the person to go away. And most days? Most days I don’t give. Most days are groceries, homework, friendships, and culture confusion. Most days are regular days. I believe we carry ourselves with us when we move abroad and that my husband and I would live the same way if we lived in the US – pursuing purpose and doing fulfilling work there, too. Simply slapping on an expat label doesn’t automatically make my writing or my husband’s teaching more purposeful. In many ways, it simply makes it lonelier.
Myth 5: Expat life is one of suffering and deprivation
Well, if it isn’t all gold and diamonds, it must be suffering. It must be lonely and frustrating and discouraging and really, really hard. Yes, sometimes it is. I hate missing funerals and weddings. I hate that I haven’t even met my nephew yet and he is almost one. I hate that I’m not there for my friends’ pregnancies and divorces and to help people move or celebrate. But I wouldn’t classify this as a life of suffering or of deprivation, not any more than life anywhere could be. A stay-at-home mom wondering if she will ever talk to an adult again? A too-young mom with breast cancer? A parent working so many hours they can never make their kid’s t-ball games? Expat life is not more or less. It is just one kind of life.
Myth 6: Expats are heroic
We are brave, we have been through coups and murders and robberies. We are creative, have learned how to make bread by hand, brown sugar by hand, clothes by hand. We are strong, don’t complain about cold showers or our hair falling out or about the boys who shout ‘sex’ at us when we walk past (or even if we do complain about these things, we don’t leave, so we have perseverance). We hear the phrase, all too often, “I could never do it.” Baloney. One – yes you could, if you had to. Two – I can’t do it either. I cry and fight and want to quit. Three – I could turn the phrase around and say I couldn’t do what you are doing – the long hours, the isolation of American independence, the cultural intensity. But that’s not true, I could. Just like you could.
This is refusing empathy, drawing dividing lines, creating unhelpful comparisons. I don’t like hearing, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about my bad day because you have been to a refugee camp.” Don’t compare our challenges. Just open up your life to me and be open to mine and let’s listen to each other. I’m not a hero. You aren’t a hero. Or maybe we both are. We’re just trying to make it through our days, trying to make a little difference in the lives of others and eking out some joy and thankfulness.
I do it here, you do it there. Press on.
Rachel Pieh Jones
(Writing, running, raising three kids in Djibouti)
6.5 Myths About Expat Life