There is so much that aches to be told but can hardly be said when one moves to another country. As it happens, from time to time, I find myself falling into a state of muteness.
Expats go through a deeply nuanced process known to those who have packed their lives into big shipment boxes and resettled in a foreign land. This process varies from person to person, and I discovered that an imminent expat’s length of preparation time for a move does not at all guarantee an easier transition. I have met expats who learned they would have to move out of the home they knew for decades then sell everything (or most of everything) they owned to live in another country and region of the world within a month’s time.
Shock, denial, numbness, grief, tolerance, acceptance…this is not a linear and clearly sequential order of emotions. With eight months’ notice, I had a sweeping sense of excitement and a bubbly version of optimism before the first jarring weeks of arrival; despite these, I still came across the lows of transition in several unexpected moments. Aren’t peaks and valleys what true adventures made of?
More than two years after our arrival and I learned that shock and denial tend to revisit just when I think I’m over them. There is a myriad of other emotions that sneak in, some more fleeting than the rest. Being an expat is like Adulting 3.0 with more curveballs than you’re ready for.
The state of New Normal is elusive, slippery, and in my case, a little too slow in coming.
Many trailing spouses talk about displacement: the all-too-real “I’m not from here” but “I’m also physically and mentally so far away from home” that one can’t help but feel like a stranger and mere visitor wherever one goes. The displacement extends to the idea of a floating identity: this is who I was then, this is who I am now, this is the person I’m becoming. They are at times three different persons in one body and there is creeping anguish in getting to know each one, most especially in having to let one part of me go.
Some expats can be quick to abandon the old for the new, some still make the old and new come together, some take longer to find who they are and will become. Working expats who are resuming their old careers may, arguably, find it relatively easier to get acclimated to a new place. Trailing spouses, on the other hand, enter a new universe of identity search. I met ex-doctors, corporate executives, architects, and what-nots who became trailing spouses and found themselves having to relinquish their past, start over, and rebuild their identities. I speak for myself and others when I say that that road is rarely easy and well-paved.
Our new country has weather, laws, norms, smells, and culture so different from where we’re coming from. With layers upon layers of new things to learn and unlearn, I get acquainted with my naivete, intermittently humored and humbled by it.
I stumble upon challenging concepts of home with its fluidity and its vagueness. My husband and I remain attached to the homes we know, and yet miss the “home” stamped in our resident visas when we’re away. Over time, we know home to be a movable place, a label that can be multiplied without losing its sanctity. We know that some places are easier to call “home” than others, as a result of the experiences and people that are a part of it.
I wasn’t prepared for how being an expat can be such an alienating experience. I remember standing hands-on-hips facing the blank white walls of our new house and listening to a kind of silence that echoes. I remember walking down the streets without seeing familiar faces and a tropical landscape, missing sounds and smells from memory that I never thought of twice before. I remember craving to sit down, drop my head, and spill my heart out but not knowing who would listen. The time difference kept me from trying to reach my friends back home. And as I navigate my way, I have grown accustomed to overthinking my emotions while suppressing them. Honesty, to me, has no place in an uber-polite society, and well, I am constantly trying to be polite.
From feeling alienated, I guiltily alienate. There is so much work that goes behind building a new social circle. As a new mom, the circumstances amplified my retreat to self. Before I could tell what was happening, the lack of deeper connections
was creating a hollowness that seemed to expand.
I click “Like” on social media to my friends’ posts where I normally would like to say more. The ease of connecting online is deceiving. I “thumbs-up” and “heart” dozens of posts in an hour when I really need a good 30 minutes of sitting across a friend who will see me in my vulnerable rawness and laughing silliness. There is beautiful energy in people that is felt in their presence, and it takes time to create and recreate deep, authentic connections.
In its own sad way, this detachment as a result of expatriation forms part of a coping mechanism. There is a pervading temporariness to the expat life. We knew that we would be in our new country for a number of years, but those years would fly by: four or five years would soon feel like one.
Packing and unpacking, connecting and leaving, settling and resettling, welcoming and saying goodbye. In a few years’ time, it will be another country, another home, another circle. My husband, who is in his fourth country away from home, said that it all eventually gets easier.
One day, there will come a time when I’m an expat forgetting that I am one, immersed in a community that owns a piece of my and my family’s hearts.