My Theory On Blooming

LIFE OF AN AMERICAN EXPAT LIVING ABROAD

This past week I traveled back to the US. My husband planned a surprise trip to see my family and a well deserved mom break… I was able to visit my family, my husband’s family, many friends and I was able to sleep in my own bed in my own house. Along the way, I was able to complete some tedious tasks and complete nearly all of my Christmas shopping via Amazon, Target and my beloved Meijer. I even brought Thanksgiving dinner home to South Africa via canned pumpkin and stuffing mix. To say my heart was full upon departure was an understatement. 

It was a fast ten days. And, the last evening was filled with my entire family. Their was laughter, banter and smiles among us all. It made leaving hard, especially with my dad still battling the effects of growing older and the sadness I saw in my parent’s eyes as I said goodbye. I was so thankful for the time we had shared over the past week.

I had a five hour layover in D.C. on my way back to Johannesburg. I sat in an empty Lufthansa lounge idly listening to a podcast on the day before Thanksgiving. A bartender by the name of Seth approached me with a warm smile and a gentle hello, and asked if I needed anything. I had an empty wine glass, and he was happy to fill it up. We began to chat about my upcoming transatlantic flight and how long it was going to be… long story short, it turned out he was Ghanaian and had been living in the D.C. area for 6 years. I asked him when the last time he’d visited home… It had been two years since he’d hugged his wife and four kids, two years since he’d eaten a familiar meal with friends and two years since he’d celebrated a holiday with those he loved. 

We sat in conversation for a long time, and he told me about his decision to come to America to make a better life for him and his family… to make enough money to educate his children in hopes of a better life than he had in Ghana. He said he had always loved the idea of traveling  and hoped one day he would be able to show his family where he now called home. He had been a teacher in Ghana for many years, and loved to take his students on field trips to explore the unknown. With a smile on his face, Seth reminisced of the adventures he and his students would embark on together. I had gotten the feeling Seth had been a good teacher, and his wanderlust may have come from those field trips from the past.

I asked him if he would be celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday. Seth seemed unsure how to answer the question. He then continued to explain how he had to work, but if someone had invited him to dinner… he would happily partake in what he described his favorite American holiday. I wished he did not have to work on a public holiday… the idea that stores are open on days like Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July down right drive me bonkers, but I guess working as a police officer, fireman, nurse or doctor or in an airport which doesn’t close makes it rather difficult… but I digress. 

Surprised by the idea that Thanksgiving was his favorite American holiday, I inquired further to find out why it was so special to him. I assumed it was the pumpkin pie or green bean casserole, but what he said next floored me… I am paraphrasing here, but this is basically the gist – “Thanksgiving is a day when you can look back on your life and be thankful for those who have been a part of it. You can pick up the phone and call them to let them know you still think of them and let them know how thankful you are for their part in your life.” 

I nearly fell off my seat. 

He continued by saying we should celebrate days of being thankful more often (like all the time) and being able to honor the act of giving thanks was a gift. Most Americans are hitting the stores as soon as they throw the last dish in the dishwasher on Thanksgiving night in order to grab a 72” plasma TV for a steal of a deal or a pair of Beats for $100 off. It hit me like a bad oyster… Our priorities are all wrong. 

Here is a guy who didn’t even grow up with the tradition of Thanksgiving, yet he gets it on an entirely different level. I’m not talking about the scenario where pilgrims and indians break bread because we know that’s not a good example of model behavior in history. He gets the idea of giving thanks to it’s very definition. He hasn’t held his child in his arms in two years, but he’s thankful for the technology that allows him to see them grow even though he’s 5000 miles away. He doesn’t get to see his friends from home, but he’s thankful they were part of his early years. He doesn’t get to spend holidays with those that he loves, but he knows his family still loves him. 

Seth is modeling the true definition of being thankful and meaning it. I’m not sure he was happy with his life in its entirety, but he seemed happy when he spoke to me. He was smiling the entire time he spoke about Ghana, his family and his friends. To me, his words were profound. I don’t know why they affected me so much… maybe he made me have a little more faith in humanity, maybe he taught me a lesson or maybe he was destined to cross my path to remind me what being thankful is really all about. 

So here’s my theory… 

Perhaps by being a little more gracious and thankful for all the things we do have in our lives could inevitably make us happier. Being able to recognize what makes us happy  and those who have impacted our lives in the past or who currently make our lives a little richer on a daily basis keeps our story from becoming boring. These are the memories and the people who add layers of depth to our experiences, teach us things we could never imagine and provide us with love, comfort and support…. and maybe even a smile. If anything, Seth made me realize the need for finding the brighter side to life and everything it’s given me.

IMG_4141.JPGIn a little over a week I’ll be boarding the plane to head back to South Africa. I miss so many things about my Johannesburg home… I miss my dogs, my friends, my gym routine, my ballet class… pretty much my life in general. But, I am starting to get that dreadful feeling in the back of my mind about leaving my Michigan home.

I don’t know what causes this phenomenon in expats. I suppose not everyone who lives abroad deals with this feeling of emotional limbo, but I know I’m not a solo act singing the “Holiday Return Blues”. For me, it starts about two weeks before returning. I start to realize I haven’t a moment to meet up with a friend or I didn’t get a chance to take my kids somewhere. I get this sinking feeling like the time I’ve spent at home has slipped between my fingers like the sand on the shores of Lake Michigan. At the same time, I know I have done so much… days at the beach, riding bikes, indulging in enormous ice cream cones and enjoying dreary rainy days shopping at Target.

When I touch down in the US, I feel like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. It’s weird. It’s like my mind automatically turns on its internal cruise control, and coasts carelessly throughout the length of my visit. I don’t have to “think” about things because I just “do” them. The self-confidence level in regards to the knowledge of my surroundings is so high that I don’t have to question myself. My innate abilities of being a local kick in, and I can accomplish things with ease and without anxiety. (Disclaimer: Please keep in mind I’m talking about my experience as a non-ATCK. Those who grew up abroad might have the complete opposite feeling about visiting “home”.)

I suppose I never realized how much harder my mind has to work when I’m living abroad. Nothing comes naturally to me when I’m going through the motions of my expat life. The language is typically different, the food is different, the bureaucracy is different, the driving etiquette is different — EVERYTHING is different!

Even though these challenges create opportunities for growth, they can also create an overwhelming sense of anxiety causing you to question everything you do. It’s not that you can’t complete these chores (if you were back home, you’d have had this done in a jiffy), it’s just that you don’t always know the easiest or best way to accomplish the task at hand, Instead of going in a straight line, you end up zig-zagging through an ordinary errand, and are sometimes left exhausted and often deflated.

When I’m in my host country, I think I subconsciously stress over things I wouldn’t give a second thought over at home. For instance, how am I going to exchange the broken cable box since the account is in my husband’s name and they won’t talk to me? At home, I would walk into the  cable provider’s office and know someone would talk with me and not require a passport, blood oathand my husband’s stamp of approval to exchange a broken cable box (though I might want to bang my head against the wall while waiting to complete the process).

I can’t quite put my finger on the root cause of my expat holiday return blues, but perhaps the catalyst for me is caused by the anticipation of #expatlife’s little added stresses and the feeling of being “under the gun” to get all the things I plan to accomplish before I embark on another 10 months abroad.

So here’s my theory… You could be the most experienced expat in the world, but as a foreigner you probably won’t know all the details of living in your host country like a local. You might get there one day, and you probably won’t even notice when you’ve crossed the threshold to innately living in your host country. But, to me, it’s comforting to know that even though I might not always take the most direct path to get from point A to point B, I can still manage to get things done. It might not have been the way I did it back home, but that’s okay because I’m not home. And, at the same time… I occasionally I do really enjoy being able to get behind the wheel and cruise every once in a while. So, no matter where you are… try to enjoy the ride.

One of my favorite words in the english language is serendipity. It’s defined as finding something good without looking for it. I think serendipity is planted where you least expect it, and can come in many shapes and sizes.

Lately, I have really been noticing how many serendipitous encounters I have been having when it comes to my relationships with people or places. These moments are little reminders of how #expatlife is more common than ever before. I keep going back to this hashtag, but I seriously love it…and if you missed my original blog post about #expatlife on the Families In Global Transition website, click on this link.

A few weeks ago my family and I had dinner with two sets of friends. We all knew each other, but not as a collective group. This triangular friendship is a prime example of #expatlife. An friend and colleague of my husband, who lives in Switzerland (we met while living in Belgium) was visiting their South African office. Ralph is the little brother of the best friend of my dear friend, Marybeth. I mean seriously…what are the chances?

These episodes of chance have been popping up for ages, but they are becoming more personal each time. For example, I have a friend who moved from South Africa to Detroit last year…She lives on the same street as an old college roommate of mine. I was once talking to a mom at school in Mexico City and found out they had lived one mile from where I grew up, and their kids attended the same elementary school I did. On a flight from New York to Johannesburg, my husband discovered a Brazilian coworker had a brother who was an exchange student at my husband’s small town high school over 25 years ago…and my husband remembered the coworker’s brother too.

The latest coincidence happened the other day, and was made possible through my connection with Families In Global Transition (FIGT). I returned home to my small West Michigan town two weeks ago to find out not only one, but two well known FIGT presenters (Megan Norton and Michael Pollock) live in an adjacent town and the other literally lives right down the street. This connection spurred the opportunity for me to participate in a panel discussion at Michael’s book discussion about Third Culture Kids.

As expats, we seem to be able to make connections with other globetrotters with ease. We also have the ability to connect others with those we know around the world…creating a large web of relationships. Expat networks are vast, and technology has helped create easily accessible platforms of knowledge and virtual tribes who understand #expatlife for us to tap into for guidance and support. All of this is great stuff, but the personal bonds we uncover when global nomads collide are what really amaze me. The happenstance of two people who live on opposite sides of the Earth and share a tiny piece of historical landscape is an incredible example of how the world creates relationships amongst its citizens.

These types of discoveries are what make #expatlife such a special experience for me. Being an expat has unleashed me from having a connection to only one specific place with links to the local community. My global lifestyle has given me the chance to connect to an army of global citizens of the world, But, I must admit… I do get a little excited when I‘m able to root out small ties to one of the many places I have called ‘home’… it reminds me of my past experiences and those who have crossed my path. It also fills the small holes in my heart that I carry (I like to use the word nostalgia instead of homesickness) from country to country.

So here’s my theory… The small connections we unearth while living abroad are the surprising benefits of playing the expat version of “Six Degrees of Separation”. As you begin to peel the nomadic onion, I predict you will begin stringing together a laundry list of connections quicker than you’d ever imagine. The expat world is a microcosm, but it’s spread across all corners of the Earth. Even though you might feel like a small seed in this big world, you never know when an unexpected coincidence will fill your cup and help you BLOOM.