Moving overseas starts as an experience.
When you move to a new country, the remnants of your old life stay with you for a long time. At first, keeping in touch with your friends back at home is a big priority. You get lots of packages in the mail. You grieve the loss of all that you left behind. But you are excited to be in this new place you dreamed about for so long, and that excitement keeps you going for a while. After the honeymoon wears off–which could happen in a week or a year–then it just takes grit. A lot of grit. As in, I’m going to grit my teeth and stay here even though I hate it.
That stage also can vary in length. But it usually morphs into the next stage, which is a settled acceptance. You re-learn how to do everything you used to be good at–how to shop, how to clean, how to drive, how to relax, how to keep the electricity on, where the best place is to buy mangos. You find a new normal and you forget that it’s weird that there’s a gecko on your wall watching you brush your teeth.
But quite often, you still need that grit to get you through another water shortage or your third flat tire in one week or another Christmas without grandma. The lure of your old life is still there, and your heart will regularly long for what you left behind.
Your new life is still an experience. It’s something temporary—even if it lasts years—because in the back of your mind is the assumption that someday you will return to your real life.
And then, somewhere along the road, so slowly that you don’t even realize it, you adapt. You fully transition. I don’t know when it happened for me. But I’ve lived in Tanzania for fourteen years now, and I don’t think it starting happening until somewhere around year eight. It’s different for everyone, I’m sure. It happens a lot faster to children.
It’s a strange, strange feeling. It’s not that I’ve stopped missing those I love who I have left behind. It’s that I have stopped missing that life. I used to long to return to that life, and now I can’t fathom leaving this life. The good things are so numerous that I hardly notice the hard things anymore.
My roots have crept down into this rich foreign earth, grasping firmly to the people and amongst the culture and way of life, intertwining my life with places and events and relationships. And the tree above is vibrant and thriving.
This normal has become so normal that I can’t imagine leaving it.
Except, I know that someday I will. We don’t have plans to leave Tanzania, but I’m certain that we eventually will. I am not a citizen, or even an immigrant. My passport is still American blue; Tanzania is not my country. Our residence here is dependent on a fragile balance of health, financial support, ministry opportunity, and government favor. Yet the thought of leaving someday fills me with an intense grief, knowing that it will tear away part of my being. Not just a loss of place, but a loss of who I am.
The experience has become real life.
Which is a good thing, of course. It’s what every expat should want to attain. But it’s also a tragic thing. It’s like coming to the realization that I’ve fallen in love with something that I can’t keep. I know that my deeply planted roots will one day be unceremoniously yanked up again. It will hurt, and pieces will surely be ripped off.
And I’m not sure I want to think about that.