Saturday, May 19, 2012

Advice from a broad abroad

Oh, hello!  Has it been six months already?  Where does the time go?  Not only have I failed to contribute to this blog in the last 6 months (I cringe when I think of my mother’s steely ‘look of truth’ as she reads this), but it’s now coming up on 2 years since I left Canada.  To move to the UK.  In the middle of a recession.  Yikes, what were we thinking?

Luckily it’s all turned out well for the most part.  We’ve gotten into the routine of life in London and we’re quite happy here for the moment.  I feel like a real expat success.  I’ve conquered the expat lifestyle.  I have become an expert on all things expat.  I could even write a guidebook if there weren’t already a thousand of them out there (these ones are quite good, by the way).

Still, in all the times I’ve moved overseas, I’ve gained little nuggets of wisdom.  Wisdom I wish I’d had from the start.  Wisdom I’ll now share with you.

Your body will always crave what it cannot have.  When I moved to France, I bought maple syrup at a premium.  In Brazil my cousin and I ate an entire jar of imported peanut butter with a spoon.  While living in Korea I forced my parents to send me care packages of Lipton noodle soup, with its fluorescent yellow salt-broth.  Regardless of the fabulous food in your new country, you will begin to crave unavailable home staples.  You will yearn for foodstuffs you previously found unappealing for the simple reason that you can’t find them now.  You will then go to ridiculous lengths to source them, paying terribly high prices along the way.  Start a fund for this before you leave.  It’s no fun to realise you’ve been spending all your pocket money on what is basically dried pasta and powder cheese-like flavouring.

You will feel like a teenager again.  Remember the rollercoaster of emotions?  The elation at a newly discovered song, or despair at not being able to join your friends because you were grounded?  The confusion and clumsiness of your new body, and the frustrating dynamics of your friendships?  They’re baaaaaaaaaack!  Oh, I’m sorry.  You thought you were a grown adult and now I’ve gone and burst your bubble.  You see, the expat’s life is full of emotions like these – lofty highs when you discover you can now speak to the butcher instead of pointing, and crushing lows when you have to fill out yet more paperwork.  Interactions with new friends will seem fraught with complications (in Brazil it took me a frustratingly long time to realise that a planned outing had to be confirmed about 8 times, and even then it was common for my new friend to cancel last-minute).  Your body will seem clumsy as you catch yourself trying to mimic local gestures.  And even when you’ve reached the final stage of culture shock, you’ll still have the occasional day when you burst into tears the second you get home because some undeserving commuter managed to squeak onto the train ahead of you, despite the fact that you’d given him your best pointy-elbowed jab.

There’s a reason many of your friends are expats too.  You may not all share the same nationality, but you share a common experience – coming from all over the world to make this new country your home.  These friends understand what you are going through because they are living the same thing.  By all means, you should have local friends.  Go out, get to know your host culture and befriend its people.  This is an essential part of integration.  Just don’t beat yourself up too much if you find yourself gravitating towards other foreigners.  It’s a natural and powerful bond, one your local friends won’t understand even if they’ve lived abroad themselves, because it’s hard to wrap the mind around the foreign experience of one’s own country.

As your perception of home shifts you will begin to feel deeply disconnected from your old life.  Things you thought you’d miss terribly (having a proper bathtub, for example), you find you can do very well without.  You come to think of your new life as being better than your old one.  Returning for a visit, while a pleasant prospect, also seems a bit of a chore.  You can also go months without speaking to friends with whom you used to keep in touch on a regular basis.  When you do think to ring them, you fluctuate between feeling sad that you’re no longer a big part of their lives, and feeling resentment that you’re the one who always has to make the effort.  You might get jealous of their easier and more comfortable lifestyles, and feel miffed that when you extol the virtues of your own life, they don’t really seem to get it.  Given this cocktail of angst, it’s no wonder you don’t ring them more often!  But it’s not really their fault, either.  You are, after all, the one who chose to move abroad.

I know I wouldn't have it any other way.