Myth 1: Adventure
I’m an expatriate! Cue the Indiana Jones soundtrack, give me a whip and a cool hat, and let’s have an adventure! Okay my husband does have an Indiana Jones hat and I have used an Ethiopian whip, but life as an expatriate is not all about adventure. In fact, it rarely is. Adventures in the grocery store aisles! Adventures in biology homework! Adventures in filling the car up with gas! Laundry! Dishes! Disciplining children! Resolving marital conflict! Wow. All those exclamation points are making me tired. About as tired as the thought of living a constant adventure makes me. Expatriate life is just that. Life. Sometimes we do super awesome things like swim with whale sharks and hike down into live volcanoes but most of the time we are working, loving people, not-so-loving people, and doing the mundane things of life.
Myth 2: Living is the same as traveling
You might not believe what I said about Adventure. You might be a seasoned traveler who has seen the world and had a wonderfully adventurous time doing it. But traveling is not the same as living. Travelers don’t plan for where their next pair of running shoes is going to come from in a country with no running shoes. Travelers don’t need to open bank accounts or rent a post office box or figure out what school to send their children to. They don’t need to hire and fire language tutors or deal with grumpy bosses while seeing the world. Travelers get to see the world they want to see and they get to leave it when they’ve seen enough.
Myth 3: Feels like home
If you stay long enough, you’re right at home. Right? How many times have I heard, “You’re local now”? I’m not. I never will be. Yes, I understand things much better than the adventurous traveler passing through and I have some depth of cultural insight and some history and shared experiences. In some ways, the host country does start to feel like home. We have made it a home. But it is a divided home that comes, every year or two, with a ripping feeling as we shift between homes. We use phrases now like childhood home, passport nation, global nomad, and Third Culture Kid, and home is being constantly redefined.
Myth 4: Expat life is always fulfilling and purposeful
Oh, but you do such meaningful work! Yes, yes we do. And sometimes, I feel that. Sometimes it is a humbling, awesome thing to see people thriving in a business start-up we launched or a girl earning a personal best in a race for a club that we sponsor. Other days? I see the beggar on the street and I wince. I don’t want to deal with their need. Some days, I give to someone because I am compelled by faith and compassion. Other days? I give because I just want the person to go away. And most days? Most days are groceries, homework, friendships, and culture confusion. Most days are regular days. I believe we carry ourselves with us when we live abroad and that my husband and I would live the same way if we lived in the US – pursuing purpose and fulfilling work there, too. Simply slapping on an expat label doesn’t automatically make my writing or my husband’s teaching more purposeful. It pretty much just makes it lonelier.
Myth 5: Expat life is one of luxury, comfort, and ease
I have a househelper. At one point, after I had our third child, I had a househelper and a nanny, as anyone with reasonable amounts of income is expected to provide jobs. We also have a guard who washes the car, waters the rocks, opens the gate, and runs errands. This sounds luxurious. And I will never, ever complain about not scrubbing our toilet or about not doing the dishes. But my life as an expatriate is not the picture of a foreigner sitting on the porch in a rocking chair looking out over their gorgeous tea plantations and being handed a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade by a maid. I still spend several hours a week on household maintenance plus management of the people who work for us. This means medical care, getting involved with extended relatives, relational conflicts, and so much more. Grocery store trips require 3 stores, the market, vegetable stalls, a corner store, and a delivery man. We have no dryer, no dishwasher, no microwave. I could dust twice a day and still go to bed with feet covered in dust. Things break at ridiculous speeds. We speak one or two foreign languages every day, navigating complicated cross-cultural relationships, and don’t have access to most convenience foods or products. There are no museums or concerts or plays or movie theaters.
Myth 5.5: Expat life is one of suffering and deprivation
Well, if it isn’t all gold and diamonds, it must be suffering. It must be lonely and frustrating and discouraging and really, really hard. Yes, sometimes it is. I hate missing funerals and weddings. I hate that I haven’t even met my nephew yet and he is almost one. I hate that I’m not there for my friends’ pregnancies and divorces and to help people move or celebrate. But I wouldn’t classify this as a life of suffering or of deprivation, not any more than life anywhere could be. A stay-at-home mom wondering if she will ever talk to an adult again? A too-young mom with breast cancer? A parent working so many hours they can never make their kid’s t-ball games? Expat life is not more or less. Not more or less of anything. It is just one kind of life.
Myth 6: Expats are heroic
We are brave, we have been through coups and murders and robberies. We are creative, have learned how to make bread by hand, brown sugar by hand, clothes by hand. We are strong, don’t complain about cold showers or our hair falling out or about the boys who shout ‘sex’ at us when we walk past (or even if we do complain about these things, we don’t leave, so we have perseverance). We hear the phrase, all too often, “I could never do it.” Baloney. One – yes you could, if you had to. Two – I can’t do it either. I cry and fight and want to quit. Three – I could turn the phrase around and say I couldn’t do what you are doing – the long hours, the isolation of American independence, the culture craziness. But that’s not true, I could. Just like you could.
This is refusing empathy, drawing dividing lines, creating unhelpful comparisons. I don’t like hearing, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about my bad day because you have been to a refugee camp.” Don’t compare our challenges. Just open up your life to me and be open to mine and let’s listen to each other. I’m not a hero. You aren’t a hero. Or maybe we both are. We’re just trying to make it through our days, trying to make a little difference in the lives of others, trying to keep little kids fed and happy and spouses content and in love and eking out some joy and thankfulness.
I do it here, you do it there. Press on.
I find myself agreeing with everyone of these. Yes, this is what I want to explain to people. 🙂
Hi Rachel, I just read your post and for the most part I agree with you. I guess since I am single and older I look at things a little different. It is an Adventure for me because God has something new each day for me. I agree with myth two, myth three Feels like Home is true but going back to the States is not like home either, if anything I am homesick for Heaven! Myth 4 Living a life of fulfillment and purpose I do! I have been in ministry for 35 years now and the last 10 in Ethiopia has been amazing! God has showed me something new each day and I am being used like never before! I agree with Myth 5 especially in rainy season! Clothes never get completely dry but then I think they are clean and I’m not wearing the same thing for two or three weeks at a time like my neighbors. Myth 5.5 is very close but working with people here for so long they have become my family in Christ and I go to their weddings, funerals and births. I hold those who have lost loved ones to HIV and more. Suffering for the cause of sharing the gospel is an honor. Myth 6 we are not heros. You said something that hit a cord with me and a team mate who was asked “What made you come to Africa?” She answered and my heart was so sorrowful for her. She said, “I am being an obedient wife because my husband was called to Africa!’ You said, “I’ve heard the phrase to often ‘I couldn’t do what you do’, and you said, Oh! yes you could if you had to. I am sorry “if you had to.” She was hurt and missed her family in the states but then God gave her a ministry and she is thriving and so very happy at what God is allowing her to do. I understand this is your perspective and I respect that but I don’t believe it is the perspective of all expats. Keep praising the One who loves Us so very much! and continue to be faithful even when it’s hard. God has you in the palm of His hand. Blessings, Shelly
Hi Shelly, appreciate your comments. I guess my point is that life can be purposeful and fulfilling and adventurous and all these other things no matter where we live. Everything, and always, is by grace.
Yes- this. All of this. Well written and so. Much. Truth.
Living in Tanzania, and totally agree with all you said here! Plus, in addition to the normal difficulties, life seems exponentially harder than before I was married and had kids! Thanks for sharing honestly from your heart, it has really encouraged me on a normal, mundane, “easy”, lonely, crazy day.
So glad to encourage you, Leisha.
Oh how I relate to your desire to say these things to people “back home” who see your life as exotic and heroic, who say things like, “My life must seem pretty boring next to yours.” My husband speaks it well when he says, “I am a full-time Christian. It doesn’t matter where I am or what work I do.” I especially resonate with your points about travel vis a vis living in a place, and about the ongoing nature anywhere of the mundane stuff of everyday life. A couple of years ago I started a sporadic series on my very-occasional-blog that I titled “The Tuesday Report.” Writing about normal days. I love Kathleen Norris’ line that is the title of her little book: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. Blessings in your day-to-day.
What a great title, I will have to look that book up. Your Tuesday blog posts will be wonderful to have in the future – as a record of how things ‘really’ are/were.
May I use your post for part of what I present in Texas to a group of M parents and again at a WMU meeting in the next couple of months? Our daughter and family are in your area.
Martha, I’m sending you an email as well but wanted to comment here in case you’ll check back – yes! I’d love for you to share it, I’m glad it resonates. Please just refer back to where you found it. Thanks!
You are my favorite “cross-cultural” blogger! Thank you for your reflections, which resonate so deeply and honestly. Please keep the writing coming – you have an appreciative ex-pat fan in Ecuador!
I definitely resonate with your overall response to the idea that there is something special or unique about folks who live in other cultures – you are totally right that it’s so much more ‘normal’ than many seem to understand. You express it all very well.
I have a different perspective on point 1 and adventure: I DO see our life abroad as an adventure. At least it feels like more of an adventure than my life in our country of origen. And our cross-cultural life is rather ‘comfortable,’ living in another developed country in the western world. I understand what you re getting at, and you are right – our life looks largely mundane compared to what I’m afraid most folks think of as adventurous. But I think I’ve come to recognize that, at least in my life, so much of what we do and live is done in new territory. No matter how long we live here (nearly 8 years – see myth 3) we consistently are faced with the challenge of the new and unknown. There is always more to learn. And, yes, it is often learning about the seemingly “mundane” things in life.
Perhaps it comes down to how you (I) understand what adventure is. I am increasingly convinced that the life of the mundane is actually full of both adventure and deeper meaning. Living abroad has helped me see that in a way that I think I missed ‘back home.’
Good post. Thanks for sharing it.
Thank you for writing! It is so good to see a new generation of workers in BAM, cross culturally. Suzmae forwarded your blog to me. Having done this life in developing (and underground) Nepal since 1987, I am grateful for your recent insights. Go for it! It is WORTH it!