This is a blog I drafted a while back, after I read a post (Here) from another expatriate. It fits my current situation so well, I’m dusting it and throwing it out there.
With only a few words, the author gives us a glimpse into the emotions of a woman (expatriate mother newly landed somewhere) going through a painful time. It feels like fiction, which appeals to me as a reader, and a writer. In fiction, you can penetrate the soul of your characters and expose it for all to see. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? And yet, as soon as I finished reading the blog, I thought: ” it is very unlikely that this would happen in real life.”
There are more and more non-fiction books written about the expatriate experience (I was asked, a couple of years ago, to review just such a book, and I’m not proud to admit that I never delivered. More about why below.) They suggest solutions to a number of issues we’re most likely to encounter in any given expat situation, often using self-deprecating humor to get the message across. Robin Pascoe remains unrivaled, in my opinion. She offers empathy, demonstrates how most expat women go through a lot of the same experiences, and she does it in a way that never feels self-pitying. On the contrary, her no-nonsense approach and the way she laughs at her own experiences give her readers strength and hope that they, too, will cope… sooner or later. When I discovered her first book, I was having a truly miserable time in Nigeria, and reading her was like opening a door and finding a crowd of like-minded and understanding people after having wandered in a long, lonely tunnel forever. I was not alone. I was not crazy. It was all part of the expatriate experience. After that, I thought I could handle any move efficiently, and even more importantly, with a positive attitude. And I did just that when we moved to India, with a four-year-old and a six-weeks old baby. The transition wasn’t necessarily easy, but after Nigeria, I felt I could tackle any country in the world. That notion died a quick death when we moved to Bangladesh and I found myself struggling with the type of problems I thought I would shrug and laugh at, now. Wasn’t I the experienced, informed, enlightened expatriate? My struggle during our first year in Bangladesh is probably the main reason I never managed to finish the book I’d been asked to review. I just couldn’t bear to read another list of well-meaning solutions to the numerous problems expats women are likely to encounter when moving to a new country. I had enough just trying to deal with my own, and feeling thoroughly disgusted with myself because, come on ! I’d done this before, I knew all the ropes, and I should not (ah, the dreaded, blasted should”) have been having such a hard time of it. Which is why I think the scene described in that blog is more likely to happen in fiction.
In real life, expatriate mothers are much too good at wearing the mask of the efficient, multitasking general-in-chief of their little army of a family, and keeping it all together – as in carefully bottled in. Over the years, I have heard dozens of stories of women who went through grueling, amazing odds – grinning all the way. After all, “it will all fall together in the end.” The strong negative feelings, the anxiety, the loneliness, only come out when they cannot be seen, with their partners at work, much too busy to have time for any of this, the kids at school, and they’re alone in their new, empty house, apartment, or hotel room. Of course, “they” is “we”.
As soon as we’re out in public, meeting other expats already settled, the grin comes out invariably. There might be a few dispirited shrugs, we might even go as far as saying that we don’t like it “here,” but we usually downplay the negative feelings we’re harboring. We’ve all mastered the art of the understatement: “I can’t say I’ve fallen in love with this place” is one of them. And it makes sense. You can’t start complaining in front of perfect strangers, can you ? Some might show empathy. Some might even help. But some might judge you, mock you or make you feel like a debutante lacking inner resources and wit. And how are you to know which category they fall into, if you’ve only just met them ? Last, but not least, I won’t go into the politics of who is who, where, the gossiping, and what knowing this or that might or might not do to some husbands’ careers.
So, arriving in a new place can feel a lot like walking a tightrope strung high in a jungle you know little about. If you’ve done your research, you have some inkling as to the kind of creatures inhabiting it. But until you actually meet them, well, what do you know, really? And so, you walk your tightrope, the way you walk in life, I suppose. Some people just go for it, others move forward gingerly, carefully… As you go, you might encounter a friendly smile, an outstretched hand, and decide to trust them, because you need a little rest, because you’re bursting for some company, some conversation, and sometimes, you’re lucky, and the first branch turns out to be a strong, dependable vine that speaks your emotional language (chemistry matters, after all), other times, you think you did find such vine, but it turns out to be a mirage, and other times, you look for a long time, concentrating all your energy on walking that straight line, looking focused, erect, and as much in control as possible. Till you reach the other side, anytime between six months and a year or so after you’ve arrived.
Sounds like life, doesn’t it? You gotta walk your tightrope because nobody else can do it for you. Only, expats get to walk a new tightrope in a totally new jungle every few years. On the plus side, they accumulate several lifetimes of memories packed into one. They travel the world. They do things most people only dream about. And they build pretty amazing friendships that can last forever. The downside is, well, probably the place I’m in right now. No, I wouldn’t exchange my life for the world, and yes, I have fantastic friends I love dearly scattered all over the globe, and won’t that be dandy when we’ve all retired. But they’re far, and even though, in today’s world, Skype, Facebook, email and all these technologies make it so much easier to keep in touch ((remember what it was like for serial expatriates, only twenty years ago, running huge telephone bills when you just couldn’t stand it anymore?), when you are at the beginning of that new tightrope, in that new jungle, having to figure your environment all over again, to create a new social network of friends… it takes time, and it takes energy, and it takes grit, and stamina, and faith. And some days, that’s a lot…
So, to go back to the blog that prompted this outpouring of words, I believe many of us in that situation might want and very much need to shed a single tear (or bawl their eyes out) just out of sheer exhaustion. I also think most of us will never allow that tear to roll down.
Now, even though I am going through that very process at the moment, I am all right. This has been the easiest transition I’ve had to deal with over the years. It’s Europe after all. Mostly, things work and I don’t encounter mind-boggling situations like in developing countries (I won’t say it’s almost boring, to not provoke the friends who heard me complain bitterly about our crazy construction or plumbing issues in Bangladesh.) I just found out about a Zumba class happening in the early mornings, twice a week (with two school age children, I cannot disappear from the house every evening, and I already have Flamenco classes. Most activities in Belgrade happen at night), and this is sure to help me face the days more positively as I have truly missed Zumba and my Zumba partners at the Nordic Club. I may have found a hairdresser (even though I’m still to make an appointment) so I can finally have my highlights done, and that will be another major milestone. So, step by step on my tightrope, in the Serbian jungle.