By Slow Train
I was eight, maybe nine. I was glued to the TV. On it, in that crazy time before streaming, was a show about someone who had been traveling the world for months. My little mind was blown. I thought people only went on vacation for a few days at a time, a week max. But months? And the outside world didn’t just consist of beaches and hotels, but entire countries with different foods, languages, and things to see. Instead of looking for my ‘Babysitters Club’ books at our library trip, I found books on learning to speak Italian. I didn’t even know where, or what Italy was, but I knew it was out there. In the world. And one day I could go visit it.
A few years later, we had our first exchange student at my school from Japan. I volunteered to show her to her classes and stalked her until she became my friend. I was obsessed. I asked way too many questions, and any comment she had about something small like Japanese food or something more different, like how they didn’t celebrate Christmas, would send my brain into a new frenzy. I couldn’t believe how different the same world could be. Why didn’t I know this before? Why didn’t they tell me what was out there? I started planning trips, even though I had no money or goodwill from my parents. I begged them to let me do an exchange program to another country, which was not even met with a real answer as much as a laugh.
But my day would come. Eight years later I boarded a flight for Madrid, Spain, where I was going to live for a year. My parents had seen the logic of living somewhere Spanish-speaking to improve my fluency. I was thrilled. And while I navigated my new host family, a gigantic city, and a different culture (all without smart phones, I might add), I was shocked to hear that many of my fellow exchange students were not thrilled with their choice to live abroad. In fact, many were dying to go back home, counting down the days. When they asked me how I could stand it, and how much I missed ‘home,’ my easy answer was ‘I don’t.’
Looking back now, 15 years from my first flight outside of the U.S., I’m still living abroad, and my friends that hated it are safely nestled in their home states. I’ve had other friends comment that I”m more comfortable as an expat than living anywhere within the U.S. Sometimes I hate how that sounds, but I can’t help but agree.
Is there something all expats share that makes them shift their feet? That makes them shuffle towards the border and yearn for something different? Or are we all motivated by different circumstances?
Growing up, there were obvious signs that I would be leaving the U.S. And since I’ve lived abroad I’ve noticed some trends.
Here are a few of the things most long-term ex-pats share:
A tale of discontent
A co-worker once told me that all expats were running from something. I think she was right. Whether it’s one person in particular, or a whole society, I turned 13 and realized my small town was too…well, small. I set my sights on the closest big-ish city (Lexington), but once I got there I realized it too felt limiting. At some point it dawned on me that I could look outside of the state, and then over several states, and from there it never stopped. Coming from the U.S. the physical distance between California and Kentucky is so large that it made me wonder what the difference would be if I lived in Canada, or Mexico. My search only blossomed from there.
The push to start exploring the world for a lot of expats comes from first getting the idea that maybe their hometown isn’t the best place for them. When there’s a long list of things you don’t like, it’s a lot easier to leave.
It would be interesting to do a study on how many expats would describe themselves as loners when they were growing up. While some people move for short-term job contracts or to study abroad, the ones that thrive moving place to place have to have an autonomous sense of resilience. People who can’t go a couple of hours without texting their mothers need not apply.
It’s not to say that close ties with your family aren’t important, but to enjoy being abroad you also have to accept that you’re not going to see your family for longer stretches than you would if you lived in the same town. For some people that’s OK, and for others it’s not.
I would describe myself as an introvert who is close with her family but could have easily lived on her own from when she was 15. I moved out as soon as legally possible. I was not the college student who spent every weekend at home.
When you’re an expat you have to start over. This includes with making friends and creating a social circle. So long-term or repeat expats have to be comfortable with being on their own for a while. At least at first.
Speaking of building a new social circle, another thing most expats have in common is their ability to accept the discomfort of being in a new place. From small inconveniences like having to hang dry your clothes, to big inconveniences like not being able to navigate the new language, expats are often masters at rolling with the punches. There are, of course, exceptions.
Generally, though, expats are open to trying new things, which will inevitably reveal some things you’d rather not have tried. These wins and losses are a part of the process, and an ex-pat knows this.
Curiosity created the expat
These personality traits speak to what it takes to enjoy adjusting to a new life in a new country. But, the most important one has to do with the desire to do it in the first place. Since I was little, I loved everything about other cultures, foods, and languages. I couldn’t help it. I found it fascinating and still do.
Those that leave feel the call of the big, wide world and can’t help but answer it. They feel the grandness of the universe and feel, intrinsically, that there is no sense in only seeing a tiny, tiny part of it.
That’s one of the biggest traits long-term expats have in common. They might have needed a push from a job or friend, or they might have felt the fascination from the beginning. But either way, their eyes light up when they learn something new, plan a trip, or think about living in a different country. And that’s it. Once you’ve felt that fascination, you won’t be able to sit still until you make your first move.
Can you be born to be an expat? Born to cross lands and seas in search of a new home? I’m not sure. But, I have a sneaking suspicion I was.