How Living Abroad is Like Marriage

by Rachel Pieh Jones on March 20, 2017

Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be its precondition.

Alain de Botton

The same could be said for living abroad. I hear many people say they ‘fell in love with Africa’ as soon as their feet touched the ground off the plane. I’m not sure how Kenyan or Nigerian or Burundian tarmac has developed this incredible ability to inspire love for an entire continent, while American tarmac is just tarmac. But. I think the above quote by de Botton applies to living abroad as much as it does to love. We achieve compatibility with the new places we live in as foreigners, we don’t arrive perfectly adjusted. We need to know this and we need to know this is okay.

Here’s how living abroad can be like building a marriage (aka: achieving compatibility in love):

Week One

Everything in this country is awesome and fascinating and I just want to know, like intimately, know it. I want to be one with it. I think that is totally possible. I want people to see that I belong here because I’m so good at communicating, I can even do it just with my hands. Who needs words when I’m such a good fit? I fit in so naturally; wearing all the beautiful clothes and eating all the fascinating food. I adapt so easily to all the things that are done differently here. This country is the best country I could have chosen, it will make me better, smarter, funnier, more attractive. People will think I’m amazing, just because I live here. I’ll probably never leave. This country can do no wrong.

Month Six

Did I say this country could do no wrong? I meant it could do no right. It smells bad. The food is weird. I don’t understand the clothing or fashion. There are these strange noises at night that interrupt my sleep, which I really need because living here is exhausting because everyone is so weird. Dare I say everyone is so backward and wrong? Why would anyone live here? On purpose even! This is so much harder than I thought it would be. I think I made a huge mistake.

Year Three

Seriously? I still live here? And I still don’t understand anything? I mean, I understand the words but I don’t understand what they mean. Why doesn’t anyone communicate clearly? Why can’t people here just do things like I do things? Why am I the one who has to adapt all the time? Doesn’t anyone care about how lonely and exhausted that makes me? No one seems to appreciate me at all. I wish I could leave but I signed that contract. sigh Maybe I’ll make it a couple more years, if that box of chocolates ever arrives in the post. I mean, it is starting to feel like home, a new definition of home anyway.

Year Ten

Double digits, baby! Most people would have gotten out of here by now but then look what they’d be missing out on – deep relationships. Like with people who have stayed with me when I couldn’t even use a squatty potty without falling in, people who have watched my kids grow up. We’ve celebrated and grieved together, cooked and danced and prayed. This place has changed me and, this might not even make sense, but I feel more like myself than I ever did before, more like myself when I’m here than when I’m other places.

Year Fifteen

I’m the grandma expatriate around here. I say things like, “Oh, I remember back before we even had electricity,” and “That’s just the way they do things here, honey, suck it up.” Sometimes I’m afraid being here so long has made me cynical. I know how messed up things are. I know how messed up I am. Sometimes that makes for a bad combination but we’re kind of stuck together now, me and this country. I’ll never fully shake this place out of my hair. It hasn’t been easy, but its been good.

Year Twenty

(not there yet as an expatriate, two years to go in marriage)

I never did succeed in changing this place into the image of my own liking. I’m okay with that though, I probably would have made things worse. I’m the one who has changed. I’m learning to be honest and to live authentically and to work with, instead of against the culture. I think maybe, just maybe, I’ve had a small impact outside myself. I’d say that’s good enough because I’m not anxious about the future anymore. I’ve seen people and projects come and go, succeed and fail, and things keep moving along. I’m just happy to have played my part in this rich, complicated place. Its been an honor.

What year of marriage expat living are you in?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • What a brilliant post 😉 Since we’ve practically been expats since our wedding day (our honeymoon was also our first international move) I experienced it all at the same time 😉 Only five years into both journeys, but I can imagine the rest is also true… Encouraged to keep on going and I look forward to the double digits and more.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Wow- that’s a serious honeymoon! Also really cool, to experience it all together.

  • Gina

    Love this! I grew up saying you betcha and eating jello salad too. We were blessed to spend 13 years in Asia. Lots of ups and downs but it was so good!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Ya sure now! Maybe we could add hot dish to that list. :O) Thanks, Gina!

  • Kay

    I think I’ve gotten to what “year 3” describes, 2-3 three times (in three different countries) in the last 7 years. I can’t express the kind of tired that makes me. I have been married for 10 months by the way, and so far married life is way easier than expat life. Guess I’ll wait ’til our third anniversary to count my chicks though 😀

  • Amy Medina

    I’m at year 13 and can totally relate to year 15. Oh my goodness. I am such a grandma and I am only 40.

  • Brazil Nut

    I’m starting year 23, and fully agree with what you’ve written. Some things here, like the noise, the mess and the general lack of organization, still get to me, even at this late stage!

  • MaDonna

    Good fun, yet accurate read, Rachel. I’m year 18 as well. We are year 2 of our new city and I have many of those same feelings with each move though within the same country. Haha.

  • Year 13, but only year 6 of marriage. I often think about there being just as much culture shock in marriage as in expat life. Each person/family unit is a mini-culture. Sure, I married into a different culture, but I also married into a different family. I’m sure it would be the same story if I had married someone from my own country. Your “year 20” is a perfect description of my expat life now. Still learning when it comes to marriage. 😉

  • Love the metaphor, and your discussion. Year 41 of marriage; year 18 of expat living, but that has been in 5 countries. Year 6 in this place, and I resonate with years 3 and 10, but most deeply with year 20, which is a place I so often wish I could communicate to the “youngers,” AND to the folks back in the States. Blessings on you, Rachel!

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