6.5 Myths About Expat Life

(this is a repost from Djibouti Jones)

Myth 1: Adventure

I’m an expatriate! Cue the Indiana Jones soundtrack, give me a whip and a cool hat, and let’s have an adventure! Okay my husband does have an Indiana Jones hat and I have used an Ethiopian whip, but life as an expatriate is not all about adventure. In fact, it rarely is. Adventures in the grocery store aisles! Adventures in biology homework! Adventures in filling the car up with gas! Laundry! Dishes! Disciplining children! Resolving marital conflict! Wow. All those exclamation points are making me tired. About as tired as the thought of living a constant adventure makes me. Expatriate life is just that. Life. Sometimes we do super awesome things like swim with whale sharks and hike down into live volcanoes but most of the time we are working, loving people, not-so-loving people, and doing the mundane things of life.

Myth 2: Living is the same as traveling

You might not believe what I said about Adventure. You might be a seasoned traveler who has seen the world and had a wonderfully adventurous time doing it. But traveling is not the same as living. Travelers don’t plan for where their next pair of running shoes is going to come from in a country with no running shoes. Travelers don’t need to open bank accounts or rent a post office box or figure out what school to send their children to. They don’t need to hire and fire language tutors or deal with grumpy bosses while seeing the world. Travelers get to see the world they want to see and they get to leave it when they’ve seen enough.

Myth 3: Feels like home

If you stay long enough, you’re right at home. Right? How many times have I heard, “You’re local now”? I’m not. I never will be. Yes, I understand things much better than the adventurous traveler passing through and I have some depth of cultural insight and some history and shared experiences. In some ways, the host country does start to feel like home. We have made it a home. But it is a divided home that comes, every year or two, with a ripping feeling as we shift between homes. We use phrases now like childhood home, passport nation, global nomad, and Third Culture Kid, and home is being constantly redefined.

Myth 4: Expat life is always fulfilling and purposeful

Oh, but you do such meaningful work! Yes, yes we do. And sometimes, I feel that. Sometimes it is a humbling, awesome thing to see people thriving in a business start-up we launched or a girl earning a personal best in a race for a club that we sponsor. Other days? I see the beggar on the street and I wince. I don’t want to deal with their need. Some days, I give to someone because I am compelled by faith and compassion. Other days? I give because I just want the person to go away. And most days? Most days I don’t give. Most days are groceries, homework, friendships, and culture confusion. Most days are regular days. I believe we carry ourselves with us when we move abroad and that my husband and I would live the same way if we lived in the US – pursuing purpose and doing fulfilling work there, too. Simply slapping on an expat label doesn’t automatically make my writing or my husband’s teaching more purposeful. In many ways, it simply makes it lonelier.

Myth 5: Expat life is one of luxury, comfort, and ease

I have a house helper. At one point, after I had our third child, I had a house helper and a nanny, as anyone with reasonable amounts of income is expected to provide jobs. We also have a guard who washes the car, waters the rocks, opens the gate, and runs errands. This sounds luxurious. And I will never, ever complain about not scrubbing our toilet or about not doing the dishes. We need this help to keep the house from literally falling apart (doors fall off hinges with frightening regularity) or friends from literally falling into our crap (the cement covering our septic tank cracks far too often). Grocery store trips require 3 stores, the market, vegetable stalls, a corner shop, and a delivery man. We have no dryer, no dishwasher, no microwave, no box mixes or fast food restaurants. I could dust twice a day and still go to bed with feet covered in dust. Things break at ridiculous speeds. Things like water pipes inside the walls, electricity, internet, appliances. We speak one or two foreign languages every day, navigating complicated cross-cultural relationships, and don’t have access to most convenience foods or products. There are no museums or concerts or plays or movie theaters so even our entertainment is DIY.

Myth 5.5: Expat life is one of suffering and deprivation

Well, if it isn’t all gold and diamonds, it must be suffering. It must be lonely and frustrating and discouraging and really, really hard. Yes, sometimes it is. I hate missing funerals and weddings. I hate that I haven’t even met my nephew yet and he is almost one. I hate that I’m not there for my friends’ pregnancies and divorces and to help people move or celebrate. But I wouldn’t classify this as a life of suffering or of deprivation, not any more than life anywhere could be. A stay-at-home mom wondering if she will ever talk to an adult again? A too-young mom with breast cancer? A parent working so many hours they can never make their kid’s t-ball games? Expat life is not more or less. It is just one kind of life.

Myth 6: Expats are heroic

We are brave, we have been through coups and murders and robberies. We are creative, have learned how to make bread by hand, brown sugar by hand, clothes by hand. We are strong, don’t complain about cold showers or our hair falling out or about the boys who shout ‘sex’ at us when we walk past (or even if we do complain about these things, we don’t leave, so we have perseverance). We hear the phrase, all too often, “I could never do it.” Baloney. One – yes you could, if you had to. Two – I can’t do it either. I cry and fight and want to quit. Three – I could turn the phrase around and say I couldn’t do what you are doing – the long hours, the isolation of American independence, the cultural intensity. But that’s not true, I could. Just like you could.

This is refusing empathy, drawing dividing lines, creating unhelpful comparisons. I don’t like hearing, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about my bad day because you have been to a refugee camp.” Don’t compare our challenges. Just open up your life to me and be open to mine and let’s listen to each other. I’m not a hero. You aren’t a hero. Or maybe we both are. We’re just trying to make it through our days, trying to make a little difference in the lives of others, trying to keep little kids fed and happy and spouses content and in love and eking out some joy and thankfulness.

I do it here, you do it there. Press on.

What are other myths you hear about expat life?