The Temporary Intimacy of Expat Life (and my search for rootedness)

by Elizabeth Trotter on May 24, 2017

It’s not hard for me to put down roots in a new place. Roots are all I want. That may sound unconventional coming from a Third Culture Kid, but Army life was unsettling, and even small tastes of stability were tantalizing to me. I’m always searching for roots.

Specific places can be very healing to me, but I almost wonder if the place itself doesn’t matter as long as the place seems permanent. I could settle anywhere as long as it’s forever. I know this need for stability points somewhere. It points to a longing for a forever home. A hunger for the new city. A desire that can’t be completely fulfilled in this sin-tarnished world.

So whenever I move to a new place, I pretend it’s a permanent home. I decide I never want to move away. I give myself, heart and soul, to this new place and to this new people. I make plans for future years, future decades even. I tell myself that I will settle here and live here forever. I imagine everything in the future taking place in this place.

While some TCKs want to move places frequently, that hasn’t been my experience. I don’t want to leave a new place after a few years of living there. I don’t become unsettled at the thought of settling somewhere. Sometimes I tell myself that this desire I have for roots is good. I tell myself that it means I’m stable and secure. But then I have to ask, if I’m so stable and secure, why would I become so unmoored by goodbyes?

A desire to move frequently can be unhealthy, it’s true. But it is equally true that this insatiable desire I have never to move homes or see life change can be unhealthy too. For see, God is the God who is doing a new thing. And growth in Christ never happens without change — sometimes painful change. So I sometimes live in denial, for this overseas life is not, and can never be, permanent. I will have to move eventually. My friends, the dear people with whom I live my life and to whom I’ve pledged my undying love, must also move at some point.

I long for the kind of lifelong friendships I read about in books. I long for the kind of small town community my grandparents experienced in rural Iowa. I want roots, and not sky. And I will put in the time and energy, dog-gone-it. I will pour into friendships as though they were going to last forever. I want to be able to trust these relationships. I want them to become the structure of my life and of my heart. Always niggling at the back of my mind, however, is the fact that they can’t be. That this marvelous intimacy we create with fellow expats is at best a generation’s length: no one stays on the field forever.

We often lament that people in our passport countries don’t fully understand us. Neither do the people in our host countries. But with our fellow expats, the friendship goes deep, fast. These friendships are deep and strong, yes, but alas, they remain short. They are not forever. The very thing that draws us together – our mobile lifestyle – is what pulls us apart. We move. Someone else moves. And the friendship is stretched taut. It was good, it was deep, it was real. And it was temporary.

Because one day all that precious intimacy goes poof. It evaporates. It dissipates. Not that we won’t keep in touch – in this internet age we probably will – but that our daily and weekly fellowship will be severed. Love may not wane, but shared life must and will. This small, tight-knit community is practically perfect, except that the closeness isn’t here to stay. It’s not long-term in real life the way it is in my imagination. And for now, this is a tension I carry with me in all my non-familial relationships.

I live with the unwanted understanding that this place cannot be my forever home. I can’t settle here for all time. I know I must leave someday. I must say goodbye to the people and the place and I don’t like it. Not one bit. In these times I tell myself it’s ok. That all I really need is my relationship with God.

But that attitude tends to isolate me from others. I retreat into my protective shell and cut off life-giving relationships. But doesn’t God set us in physical places, all the way from the Garden to Canaan to southeast Asia to the new heaven and earth? Christ is central to our rootedness, yes, but physical places and physical people are important too. Fellowship and space-time were His idea, after all.

So where does this leave me, unable to settle permanently in a space, unable to live continually with the same people, unable to depend solely on Jesus for companionship? It leaves me in a place of temporary intimacy with people and temporary settledness on the map. It leaves me in a place of desiring more permanency than I can currently claim. And it leaves me waiting for a better day and a better country, for a time and place when temporary fades away and I’ll be given eternal roots.

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.

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