Today I found myself in a conversation with a group of “newbies”.
Despite my best efforts to appear polite and kind, but completely unengaged (think: Swiss), there I was. There is a part of me that wants to be an ambassador of all things welcoming. Really. But there is a much bigger part of me that simply cannot bear one more conversation about how impossible it is to find Velveeta (or insert another unnecessary item that is only sold in said person’s home country).
I’ve been here before. In my last year in Switzerland I recall having a conversation with a really close friend who had been an expat for even longer than we had. I asked her specifically how she DID IT. How she gathered up the energy and the motivation to put herself out there time and time again to be the Welcoming Committee. To be the smiling beacon that lessened somebody else’s trauma over the First Expat Experience. I’m not knocking the newbies. I know it’s challenging to figure out a whole new…well…everything. I remember it so well, and I am forever grateful to the really wonderful women that I met at baby group and the English-speaking playgroup at the English Church. I truly don’t know how I would have survived those early years without those friendships. As a newish mom, and a woman who had lost her identity as a professional, and as a person completely lost in a foreign culture-I needed them. I think it was key that we had a few members of our group that weren’t newbies. But it was also wonderful that so many of us were. We truly could relate to each other’s foibles….and failures and communication issues. We laughed at the same idiosyncrasies, and bonded over what we missed from our respective home countries (my long held-out import item that took up suitcase room and precious suitcase weight was peanut butter, not Velveeta). I definitely remember making newbie friends and loving being the one that helped them navigate the system. I loved that I could feel helpful to other people. I suppose I felt like I was paying it forward in a way.
But something happens inside you after you open up completely and make a brand new life for yourself. The people who help you settle in to a new place are part of what you love about the place. And in this Expat, Nomad life…we generally get two to three years. And then people move on. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating:
It is easier to leave than to be left behind.
We expected to be in Switzerland long-term, so I knew logically that people would move on. But like all painful realities, knowing it doesn’t make it feel any better. After our third year in Switzerland, many of our close friends had moved away. I’m not sure how it happened…if it was gradual or all at once…but one day I realized I didn’t want to go to the mom’s group coffee, or the playgroup, or the Bunko game. I didn’t want to meet anybody new. I didn’t want to put myself out there. I think it’s a self-preservation thing. I had to retract in order to toughen up so I could extend again. Ultimately, we were wrong, and when we left Switzerland I vividly recall thinking I would never again pull back because it’s so isolating.
Moving to Hong Kong was a revelation. It was the Loser Ex-Boyfriend Bump, of course…but also, we truly just lucked out and met people who are interesting, interested, and loads of fun. Obviously, when YOU are the newbie-you put yourself out there. You are on your best behavior and presenting the most interesting version of yourself. And if you’re anything like me-you re-invent yourself a little. You leave behind the part of yourself that maybe you don’t like so much or you aren’t terribly proud of. Or you just work really hard to become more of what you do like about yourself. I didn’t have time to get tired of Hong Kong and in the end, I was the one that left. I’m not sure my Bestie in Hong Kong has ever forgiven me for leaving in such a blur.
When we arrived in Bangkok there was a big group of people who arrived simultaneously. Most had two to three-year gigs. Meaning-they are gone. I’m not dramatic with the goodbyes. I believe that friendships can be maintained with a little effort. But it can’t ever be the same. The thing about these Expat friendships is their intensity. When you are away from your family and the people who have known you all your life, you establish connections quickly. When the bonds are real-they are strong. My theory is that family members & friends that have known you all your life tend to have a very specific idea of who you are. It’s a little bit like no matter how old you are, your “baby brother” will always be the baby. Even when he’s old and bald and has grandchildren. But in Expat friendships-we take each other at face value. For good and for bad. And we establish routines and lean on one another and there’s simply no discounting the bond that happens when you go through struggles alongside someone. That’s special. It’s can’t be duplicated here or anywhere. And when you re-connect in a different locale, it’s still wonderful but it’s not the same.
One of my dearest friends gave me the most perfect gift this Christmas. A tiny little illustrated book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words From Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders. It is both beautiful to look at and absolutely fascinating. I tell you I can taste these words they are so delicious. There is one in particular that haunts me. The meaning of the word (untranslatable into English of course), is “A homesickness for somewhere you cannot return to, the nostalgia and the grief for the lost places of your past, places that never were”. The word is hiraeth and it’s origin is Welsh. I plan to use it regularly because it is uniquely poignant in this Expat life. The combination of circumstances and people and events and time make up our experiences. There is no going back because nothing will be the same. That’s the way it will always be for us Expats. If we were to go home, life would have gone on for everybody there for the past 10 years-there is no slipping back into that life. Returning to any of our previous Ports of Call would really mean starting all over because what made them home were our friends and our connections.
I’ve realized something about myself. For me, after I’ve become the Long-Termer, I sort of time-out. I’m good for that two to three-year window (ish). Beyond that? I can’t promise that I will be all that helpful. If someone asks me directly for help, I would never dream of saying no. And sometimes I just can’t help myself. My inner Disney Cast Member comes out at the strangest times. But, I justify my unwillingness to reach out by telling myself that it’s somebody else’s turn. I’ve helped people find the closest organic grocery, and helped them navigate after school activity registration. I’ve been on the board of every sport and/or activity that my kids have taken part of. I was on the welcoming committee at the PTA for 3 years. It’s not that I’m not friendly. I’m just a little bit worn out. All of that training from Walt Disney World…and here I am, not making eye contact with the smiling, slightly desperate new faces.
So, there I was…in a circle with three “newbies” and another “long-termer”. I put on my gracious face and tried hard to be honest without being negative….to be upbeat without being snarky (no small task for me)…to be warm without being too friendly. It’s a balancing act. Eventually, one of the women asked how long we’ve been in Bangkok and I unintentionally must have exhaled a little too much before my “This is our fourth year” reply….because I looked up to see alarmed faces. I back-pedaled. I don’t dislike it here! It’s easy! It’s a lovely, convenient life. And seriously-who wouldn’t want to have our kids lives here?? But the truth is…we’ve been Nomads for a decade. I like it that way.
It’s not like anybody really “settles down” in these places-at least not in the Expat communities that we’ve been part of. It’s transient…mutable, in a constant state of shift. The Husband once made the astute observation that it’s like a revolving door. The beginning of every school year brings in a fresh crop, and the end brings goodbye parties and lots of tears. In & Out. In & Out. Ad Nauseum.
I’m feeling the itchy feet. I need a new project, or a new adventure. And by adventure, I do not mean trying to find Velveeta in Bangkok. The ES Musical is next week and Genius Friend and I are wrapping up our costume project…so clearly I need to start a list of to-do’s. I hesitate to call it a bucket list but at this time of year, I always start thinking along the lines of “if this is our last few months here, I really ought to (insert whatever it is here)”. So, until we know what is next….you can bet that I’ll find something to tear up and re-do. Because there is no way I am going to a New Parent coffee.