We’ve lived away from our birth country for 20 years and a lot’s happened in that time – we moved to the USA, raised a family, took American citizenship, relocated back to Europe and will move on again. The first two moves were career driven (my husband’s – I’ve accompanied him and reinvented myself each time), the last will be our choice – but not back to our ‘home’ country.
Throughout these years I’ve never considered myself an ‘expat’, although in the broadest sense we are. In my head ‘real’ expats are those who have a life of continual 3 to 4-year global contracts, who are on expat packages, spend the summers in their home countries and where most will return when their working lives are over. They are never in doubt who they are, where they belong, or where ‘home’ is.
There are also the ‘silver expats’ – retirees who after a life living (generally) in one country, opt for a retirement move to somewhere warmer and more relaxed. A last hoorah, a new adventure and a chance to break the mould. I salute them, but oftentimes the adventure ends when a partner dies, illness strikes or family reasons drive them ‘home’.
Then there are the travellers, those young souls (irrespective of age), who can’t resist seeing what’s over the next horizon, the eternally curious, eager to see what they can before ‘real life’ and social constraint try to pull them back into line.
We’ve never fitted a particular box. Wherever we’ve lived has been home, we’ve never experienced life on an expat package – we’ve been local from day one – so no tax-free salaries or generous family travel allowances. We’ve bought homes, settled in and got on with life.
When we moved to the US we never intended to leave, but opportunities come up and you take them. We know our stay in the Netherlands won’t be permanent (cold weather, high taxation, population density), not when we have the choice of living in the whole of the US and Europe – not to mention the rest of the world.
The biggest impact of our choice to live overseas has been on our children rather than us. Something that wasn’t on our radar in the days before the Internet, social media and Google. At a time when books on global mobility weren’t researched let alone written. In some ways we feel we have been pioneers, but it’s been a huge regret (guilt?) we didn’t have the tools to help our children transition better. Our motives were good (better opportunities, life enhancing) but the costs have, at times, been high.
Our eldest moved back to our/ his birth country and married his English Rose (he always said he would marry an English girl). He struggled/ struggles with transition and change. His younger sister – Little Miss America – remained in the States, and is living and working the American Dream in Houston, sharing her life with a native (Italian/ Irish) New Yorker.
Our youngest son moved with us to the Netherlands, attended the American School of The Hague, and can see no point in staying in the same place when there’s a whole world out there. He’s about to graduate from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, as far west as he could get from here. He has no plans to leave.
Despite the distances between us we are an incredibly close, tight-knit family unit. Perhaps because we’ve had to rely on each other while adjusting to cultural and social change. The distances and time zones between us are accepted, we plan ahead for when we can get together, and Skype is a Godsend.
For any young family having the chance to move overseas today, times are very different. The toolbox is well packed when it comes to helping and guiding your children through global transition. Most kids will adjust well, some need a little more help. The help is there in research, books and the Internet.
Today we have no concept of ‘home’ in a geographic sense. This used to worry me and I know it caused consternation for our families that we no longer felt, or identified ourselves as, ‘British’. I used to feel wholly American, now not so much. I find I can’t identify with any given nationality, but am most comfortable surrounded by people like me, who are from everywhere.
And this will be the future as more people interact globally, as more children grow up and are educated in international communities and see their place in the world as global citizens.
The last 20 years have, at times, been incredibly challenging, but those challenges have been balanced by the positive, exciting experiences we’ve enjoyed and the amazing people who have been a part of our lives. We would never have seen the world from this perspective if we’d stayed ‘home’.
So what have those years taught us? After recently contributing to the HiFX expat tips page, I thought I would share with you a few thoughts:
People are more the same than different: Language and cultural/ social mores may be different but people the world over generally want the same things – to fall in love, raise and educate a family, and live in a safe and peaceful environment.
Learn the language: Even the basics will help you feel more connected and settled, bottom line it’s good manners in a host country.
Be open: Don’t have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. I hate hearing things like “they have no idea how to do things here”. Because things are done differently to they way you have done them, doesn’t mean they are ‘worse’ just different.
There will be down times: Wherever you are life will have its ups and downs, especially when you’re in transition to a new country/ culture. Acccept it as part of the adjustment process. Seek help if ‘feeling down’ or withdrawing from those around you persists for a long period.
Maintain a sense of humour: Laugh at yourself and with others, it’s the best form of communication. And your worst disasters make the best stories down the years.
Have fun: Having fun is what life – and your adventure – is all about. Fun people attract others. Being around positive energy makes everyone feel good and helps when life hits a few bumps in the road.
If you’re thinking about moving overseas, figure the worst that can happen and if you can deal with that, then go for it. Nothing is permanent – except regret.
Change is constant and things are changing for us too. A new stage of life, new adventures, – anything is possible. But wherever life leads I hope we never lose our sense of adventure, fun and curiosity.
Will keep you posted.