The Expatriate Balance Sheet

A friend visited me once, coming from a country further east. She brought boxed blueberry muffin mix, Cheerios, and other American brand name goodies. I thought, ‘oh, her life must be wonderful and easy.’ When she left, she packed a few cans of Dr. Pepper and bags of Doritos and thought, with such luxuries at my fingertips, ‘Rachel’s life must be so easy.’

I also read Under the Tuscan Sun, or From Paris to the Moon and I think, well of course they love being an expatriate. They live in Paris. They live in Tuscany. For crying out loud. What are they whining about?! This makes me feel both proud, look where I’ve lived! And sad, look at where I could have lived!

Expatriates easily succumb to this lie that the grass is always greener. This is especially true when there is no grass, like where I live. If you have grass, even dead grass, I guarantee you it is greener than my grass. That small truth aside, believing the euphemistic meaning of the phrase is dangerously easy.

In that country they have movie theaters. In that country they have high speed internet that never cuts out. In that country the temperature is always perfect. In that country women can wear whatever they want. In that country they have access to postal services. They have affordable schools. They have cheaper airplane tickets. They have clearer visa regulations. They speak English. They have churches. Parks. Pork. Playgrounds. Kids’ sports clubs. Grandparents. Quality healthcare. Streets clean of litter.

The list is endless.

Keeping the list is dangerous.

It is all a lie.

I mean, those things are true, some countries or cities do have certain amenities or social communities that others lack. But, where there are no boxes of Cheerios, there just might be Dr. Pepper. Where there are playgrounds, there might not be beaches. Where there are churches, there isn’t your small but precious and intimate house group.

And, dig a little deeper, and the same losses afflict expats people everywhere.

Cancer. Car accidents. Loneliness. Interpersonal conflict. Mysterious fevers. Culture shock. Marital strife. Wayward children. Aging parents. Poor career fits. Weak leadership. Isolation. Depression.

Guess what? A bag of Doritos or a can of soda, aren’t going to take away the pain or ultimately soothe the grief.

At the same time, expats people encounter the same joys.

A baby’s first steps, holiday traditions, meaningful work, heartfelt conversations, the sunrise, a child’s spontaneous act of service, success in a new cross-cultural situation, a delicious meal, college acceptance letters (that one’s for my twins).

There are all the unique-to-your-situation griefs and joys, but the underlying emotions – of satisfaction and love, of sorrow and loss, attend everyone, in every place. Comparing only serves to kill joy or foster envy.

Even if keeping a balance sheet of comparisons is done with the intent of summoning gratitude, it will be a gratitude based on a façade. It won’t last, it won’t carry us. It will likely lead to either pride or self-pity.

Instead of looking at our challenges or losses and saying, ‘This isn’t as bad as her pain so I’m foolish for feeling so sad,’ or, ‘This pain is far worse than their pain, so woe is me,’ we need to grieve. Let yourself feel your own sadness, acknowledge your own losses, name them, and mourn them. They are true and real and a comparison to someone else’s is irrelevant.

And, be thankful for your joys. Rejoice in that one simple new word learned, even if someone else learned twelve. Delight in the satisfaction of the food you are able to creatively summon from near-empty market stalls and don’t feel guilty or inadequate.

A big challenge for expatriates is to learn to grieve and to rejoice without keeping a balance sheet of where things are easier or harder.

Be thankful. Rejoice. Be sad. Grieve. Somehow figure out how to hold them both without looking at the grass on the other side of the fence.

We hold two countries, or more. We can hold these complicated, conflicting emotions.

Do you struggle with comparison to expatriates in other places?

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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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