May 21, 2012

What Happens When You Live Abroad

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A very dependable feature of people who live abroad is finding them huddled together in bars and restaurants, talking not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. And strangely enough, these groups of ex-pats aren’t necessarily all from the same home countries, often the mere experience of trading lands and cultures is enough to link them together and build the foundations of a friendship. I knew a decent amount of ex pats — of varying lengths of stay — back in America, and it’s reassuring to see that here in Europe, the “foreigner” bars are just as prevalent and filled with the same warm, nostalgic chatter.

But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.

It’s hard to deny that the act of living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s often part of the reason you left in the first place. You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.

So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.

Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once.

But there are the fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay in your new home, the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings — every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider. There are those who stay so long that they can never go back. We all meet the ex-pat who has been in his new home for 30 years and who seems to have almost replaced the missed years spent back in his homeland with full, passionate immersion into his new country. Yes, technically they are immigrants. Technically their birth certificate would place them in a different part of the world. But it’s undeniable that whatever life they left back home, they could never pick up all the pieces to. That old person is gone, and you realize that every day, you come a tiny bit closer to becoming that person yourself — even if you don’t want to.

So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.

When you live abroad, you realize that, no matter where you are, you will always be an ex-pat. There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home. TC mark

image – Kuster & Wildhaber
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