What are the qualities of successful expats: Two writers offer their view
By Viktoria Vidali
In 2013, the number of people leaving their home country reached 232 million, up from 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990, putting global migration at an all time high.
A common question expats the world over are frequently asked is: What brought you to this faraway place?
We may each have a number of responses, some of which are easily shared with strangers while others are cautiously revealed only to family and close friends, but what was the catalyst that led us to choose one path over another?
Was it something as whimsical as the flipping of a coin?
In his late 30s and a father of four, poet Robert Frost found himself at a juncture in 1912: In a bid to re-launch a stalled literary career, he needed to decide whether he should relocate his family to London or to Vancouver. So one day while his wife was doing the ironing, he took a nickel from his pocket and flipped it. It was heads, which meant London, and two weeks later the entire family was steaming across the Atlantic.
Was it something practical? Or romantic?
Literature, like poetry – think Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” – is full of narratives in which protagonists find themselves at a crossroads.
Take for example this Klondike trek tale by Jack London. Published in 1899 by Overland Monthly – Jack received whopping $7.50 for it – “In a Far Country” begins thus:
“When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped. To those who have the protean faculty of adaptability, the novelty of such change may even be a source of pleasure; but to those who happen to be hardened to the ruts in which they were created, the pressure of the altered environment is unbearable, and they chafe in body and in spirit under the new restrictions which they do not understand.”
London’s opening paragraph cleverly prepares the reader for what is to come: The account of two men, both lacking in self knowledge, who, because of a vague yet sentimental wish to experience something different in their otherwise uneventful lives, set themselves up for disaster (if you’re curious, here’s the link).
Now imagine happening upon this paragraph from “In A Far Country” on the eve of making your own decision to relocate. Would it be a catalyst for deciding to stay put or might it propel you to redouble your efforts and move ahead with determination and confidence?
Assuming you have not been driven from your home because of famine, war, or natural disaster – in other words, you made a conscious choice to migrate – the answer will depend on how well you know yourself; whether you have tolerance for handling the exotic and unexpected or whether you find comfort and well-being in the familiar.
If you generally perceive life to be a come-what-may proposition (in a positive way), and relish the freedom of not knowing what comes next, then you’re probably a type like Frost who accepts change as a natural part of existence and embraces it as an adventure.
If, on the other hand, you value security, consistency, and foreseeable patterns like Carter Weatherbee and Percy Cuthfert in London’s story, then placing yourself in a foreign land where you need to learn a new language, eat foreign foods, and struggle to comprehend foreign customs will – predictably – unnerve you.
So, in truth, making the decision to expatriate has more to do with understanding yourself and how you engage in life than with the desirability and allure of your destination, be it Patagonia or Bora Bora.
Viktoria Vidali has been a piano teacher, publisher, TV and documentary producer, photographer, and executive director of an environmental and educational nonprofit organization. Her first children’s book, Francisco and Gabriel’s Blue Moon Adventure, a magical tale of two brothers, is available on Amazon. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area , she’s now a resident of Vilcabamba.