How Living Abroad is Like Marriage

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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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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