I’ve been living abroad for nearly three years now. Being an expat is a unique experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But the life of an expat isn’t perfect either. Shocking, I know! Here’s a little bit about what it’s really like to be an expat.
You need to find a balance between your life abroad and your life back in your home country. The hardest part for me is finding time for my relationships. Being a people person means that I am blessed to have many friendships and family relationships both here in China and back in the US. Finding the balance between developing new friendships with the people you meet as an expat while still maintaining your friendships back home isn’t an easy feat. Not only is the time change a barrier (being 13 hours ahead is difficult when it comes to finding common phone times), it’s just plain easier to talk to people face-to-face. The friends you make in your new country are physically there, making it easier to converse with and develop a deeper relationship. Let’s face it, typing lengthy emails, updating your Facebook status, responding to wall posts, Skyping, and making phone calls is harder. It’s not that your relationships back home aren’t worth the effort. They are. But there’s only so much you can do. While they, too, try to make the relationship work, it’s different. Where you have loads of people to worry about keeping up with, they only have you. The guilt associated with not contacting a friend or family member back home is enough to make you feel like an awful friend. Sometimes you feel like you can’t do anything right, and you retreat, putting more and more distance between you and your friends without even realizing it.
When you talk to your friends or family back home, they don’t always know what’s really going on in your life. To be fair, you talk to people back home less frequently than you did when you lived there, and sometimes only sporadically. Therefore, you wind up giving them the highlights, those fun, amazing parts of living abroad– your most recent vacation, that funny story about the time that you were misunderstood when speaking Chinese and ended up in a totally random part of town, the new things you’re learning about the culture, or the exciting project you’re working on at school. You neglect to tell them the parts of your life that are less than perfect– those times when you get caught in the rain with no umbrella, no money, and a phone with a dead battery in a country where you don’t speak the language well, the parts of work that aren’t so fun, the fact that you still don’t have your flight booked for the summer, or the awful sinus infection you had last week– because they don’t want to hear that. You don’t want your only interactions with them that week/month/semester to be complaints, and let’s face it, you’re not “supposed” to have problems. I mean, come on, you’re living the dream, right?!? Everyone is envious of your life where you get to travel to exotic and remote places on a regular basis, immerse yourself in an entirely different culture, and constantly experience new and exciting things. Who wants to hear you complaining about it?
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell people back home what’s really going on because they don’t understand. They don’t experience your day-to-day life, so when you tell them a story, you wind up having to tell them the back story, explain who this person is, what this is, what that means, etc. It takes so long to tell them what’s happening, that you end up just giving them the big picture, leaving out the little details. But then, do your friends really know what’s going on in your life if you’re leaving things out?
Then there’s the fact that most of your friends back home don’t “get” you anymore. You’re the one who has moved away, leaving behind the known to chase the unknown. The one who is different. The one who has changed. And try as you might, you can’t explain it. You, yourself, don’t really understand all the changes you’ve undergone as a result of living abroad. How is someone else supposed to understand? Inevitably, some of your relationships change. Sometimes you don’t even know why, but you don’t relate to your friends like you once did. It doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong; it’s just that you’re not in the same place that you once were, and that is ok. It’s tough when that happens, and oftentimes you want to hold onto the past, clinging to the memories you once had. When do you let go?
Moving to China was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve learned more about myself and become more independent, flexible, and open-minded. I’ve been given career opportunities that I could only dream about in the States. Living abroad is the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life, but not everything is perfect all the time. That’s life.