An old friend of mine, a long-term expat himself, asked me the other day if it has all worn a bit thin by now. He was referring to my expat life. ‘Tell the truth’, he said.
I was thinking whether it has, and the honest answer was no, not really.
I think it is too easy to forget, after a few years of expat life, about all the aspects of it that attracted you in the first place. Of course, it can be challenging. But adult life generally is, no matter where you chose to spend yours.
I still quite like it, and here is my personal list why.
- I was reading a children’s book to my toddler while in England, about a woman who thought her house was too small. A wise old man told her to bring a chicken in, then a goat, then a cow…until she could hardly move inside her own home for all the craziness around. Then he told her to kick them all back outside. Wow, she thought, my house is humongous! I feel a bit like that every time when I go back to the UK. Living in Doha makes me appreciate things in the UK that I took for granted. Fire and Safety regulations. Fresh air. Pork products and vino you can buy everywhere, any time of the day, in even the smallest shabbiest shops on the corner. Non-Pilipino waitresses, just because it feels odd having a white chick take your order. Other small, unnoticeable normalities that you don’t know you are lucky to have until you don’t get them anymore.
On the other hand, some things are definitely soooo much better in Doha! Maids! HUGE houses. The pool-any time of the year. My car. (I hope no neighbours witnessed me talking to it affectionately the first morning after I had got back.) Because it is so easy to have fabulous cars in Qatar. No taxes. No waiting anywhere. No walking. The list goes on, but…
Without going back to the UK, I am sure I would easily forget about all these privileges we have as expats here and focus too much on the negative aspects. And this gentle reminder about various things that are better in one country or the other is only possible if you live abroad as an expat and keep going back.
- Friends and Family. Alright, I appreciate it is not quite a separate item as such but a sub-item of the above, but because of the crucial importance of it, I am allocating it a separate category. You, people who live all your life next door to your elderly parents probably have no idea what it feels like to be far away from them. You are so lucky to have them live next door to you; but because you don’t have a friggin’ clue just how lucky you are, you probably spend most of the time (that you have left together while they are alive) trying to get away from them. The same applies to old friendships. You might get too complacent and stop appreciating your old friends who live nearby. You don’t think they are good enough, or nice enough to you, or call you often enough, or remember your children’s birthdays…But, having lived away from them for a couple of years and only being able to see them for a few days at the most every summer you realise how special they are. With all their annoying imperfections. They are your old friends, who know you better than anyone else, and they still like you and miss you, even when you change (and we, expats, inevitably all change) and become this peculiar person with permanent tan and weird stories. So, when we do get to spend some time with old friends or family, we really enjoy and appreciate it. More than we might have done before.
- It is exciting. Because it is new. And we all know that everything new can be exciting, even if it is not necessarily better than the old. Just ask my friend who changes girlfriends every two months. Even after almost three years in Doha, I find some things wonderfully weird and fascinating. And because I know that I will not be here forever, I can easily put up with them, filing them into a local folklore category and not letting them bother me.
- Uncertainty of the future. I have absolutely no idea when and where we are going to next. My friends in the UK keep asking when we are planning to come back, and give me incredulous looks when I say I don’t know. One thing that is certain is that we have no certainty and no concrete plan ahead of us. To most people that would be scary, and to me…actually, pretty terrifying. But I can easily see the exciting side of it, too. You know? How can I get bored if I don’t know where my home will be next year? And to someone like me, who gets bored too easily, this is not a bad thing.
So, there you are. A long answer to my friend’s short question. Expat life can be uncertain. It can be nostalgic and sad at times. It can be dangerous. Yet…the whole package is somehow pretty good. Does it make any sense? Probably not, until you try it.