The expat’s life

If you hadn’t noticed already, expats love talking about being expats. Usually it’s pretty vapid stuff. However, there’s a good discussion at the IHT Rendezvous blog about life as an expat. It started with the general pitfalls of being an expat, which led to what may be the “glass half full” way of looking at it:

If you are a member of Rendezvous’s global tribe, “home” might be where your apartment, your work or your belongings — or even your family and friends — are. But it might also be a place where language and culture are confounding. And deep down, despite the thrills and invigorating challenges of an experience abroad, more often than not, we know it’s not a place we’ll stay forever.

This dislocation — psychic as well as geographic — comes with inevitable lonelinesses, small and large. There are holidays with family missed, and life events — weddings, birthday parties, memorial services, births — that happen without you.

For some expats, their life as an expat is more of an immigrant status. They have chosen to move abroad and found a place to settle. But for others (like myself, and the majority of expats in China), the expat life is indeed temporary. “How much longer will you stay for?” is the question that usually follows the one about how long you’ve already been here. Few people know the real answer, but it’s always at a hazy point within the next few years.

But really, many of the comments on the Rendezvous blog are very eloquent and capture the myriad viewpoints every expat has about experiencing life abroad. Being an expat can certainly seem glamorous, but we are also distinctly aware of the trade-offs we must make.

For me: I miss being able to just pick up the phone at any time and chat with my closest friends back home for what can be hours (the fees and time difference really do make it impossible!). I never know how to choose between using my annual leave (and a month’s pay) to go home and reconnect or to travel to any of the numerous countries just a stone’s throw away from Beijing. I have to constantly think about whether I am accumulating too much stuff.

But that’s about it for disadvantages. And apart from the first thing, most of them are first world problems. One very thoughtful commenter on the post mentioned how living abroad is a privilege. This is (or should be) the foundation of expat living: It is a privilege for me to live and work in China; a privilege to be able to learn a new perspective, culture and way of life; a privilege to even have had the choice of moving to a different country, and the choice of returning home.

Just a few years ago, I never even thought that living outside the U.S. was a possibility or that it was something I would even be capable of doing. The thing about living abroad is that at every moment you feel there is an opportunity — to meet someone, to see something different, to learn. I’m still not sure when I’ll be moving back home, but it is a feeling I hope to be able to take with me.

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