This post is for my expat friends, the people who dream of becoming expats, and the ones who want to better understand the experiences of the expats they love. I think everyone knows that becoming an expat– moving overseas to a new country and a new culture– will produce times of loneliness. There will be the sense of alienation, the culture shock that hits you a few weeks in, then keeps on coming in smaller, steadier amounts. There is homesickness, for sure– I’d like to write about that sometime soon. There will be missing people and feeling isolated. But I don’t think I’ve seen many people talk about the ongoing loneliness that can come with an expat life.
In a few months, we will have been in England for three years. We have gotten used to Bury St. Edmunds, and we also still struggle to make peace with certain aspects of the culture. We are lucky to live in a nice neighborhood, for my husband to have good co-workers and for my daughter to go to a good school. We have a very small handful of friends– which is actually a big accomplishment, at this point. I wish we had plenty of people who we naturally jive with and who share similar interests and are available to do fun stuff with, often. It’s true that I’m a little (OK, a lot) disappointed that this hasn’t come to pass in nearly three years. But that’s not the loneliness I’m talking about here.
It’s a loneliness more like feeling left out, or unaccounted for. Not being a part of an organic community– family events, friends’ get-togethers at “home.” Missing my grandpa’s 90th birthday party along with countless other milestones, and not being with relatives for Thanksgiving… Having a niece I’ve never met, not being able to bring meals to new moms and dads I love, being away when I would like to help someone going through a crisis. Having my own crisis and needing support from someone who already knows me well.
Yes, we’re doing interesting things over here, and have racked up some great memories over the last few years. We have a pretty wonderful life, frankly. We like living in Europe, and we don’t want to move back to the USA any time soon. But I am struggling to even describe the depth of loneliness that I often feel.
Social media makes it really easy to stay in touch with people when you live overseas, and I think it’s amazing and usually GREAT. On the other hand, there is a lot of talk about how Facebook can breed discontentment, as people only publish the best parts of their lives and we get caught up comparing our own lives to these carefully curated images of others’. I understand that our life in England may sometimes induce envy as we share our adventures with friends on Facebook (and here.) But I wonder if others realize that I may feel the same way when I just see pictures and posts about normal daily life. Getting together with a childhood friend to take kids to the park, having dinner at a relative’s house, community events, calls for help moving (and so many responses) and all of the ordinary life that goes on without you when you leave. We can’t have it all, can we?
One of the difficulties of having a blog from afar is that everyone feels like we’re in touch. (I’m sure all of you other expat bloggers know what I’m talking about!) People “see” or hear from me nearly every day and get enough information to not feel like there is anything to ask about. That’s hard. It’s a one-sided relationship, for sure– but that is always the lot of the people who choose to leave, isn’t it? We carry the burden of staying in touch. And I’m not saying it’s unfair, because life does go on back home without us there, and we certainly have our own thing going on over here.
It’s not wrong. It’s just… Lonely. I think about this a lot. I wonder if it will really ever change for us. What if we lived in a much warmer social climate? (Like Turkey.) Would we be treated like family, brought into community, and have those gaps in our hearts filled in with others? Is it just especially hard here? As you know, I am so ready to move, to try a new place.
But it’s not that I want more friends, necessarily– I love spending most of my time alone, and we are busy enough as a family. It’s that sense of being accounted for, and that feeling of comfort– the ease of visiting an old friend, falling into familiar routines with people you love and have known for a long time. Do expats get to have that?I can’t end here without saying something important about my experience. This sense of loneliness and not being a part of our old communities has been a real catalyst for strengthening my own little family. Feeling like we’re all we have has been really good for us– Jeff and I take better care of each other and our relationship, the three of us do everything together, and becoming expats has made us live much more intentionally. These stronger family bonds are worth the price of loneliness to me– but I still wonder if we can have one without the other someday.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this!