The 3½ stages of life, according to expats

The 3 1/2 stages of life, according to expatsLiving overseas is a big deal. As life transitions go, it’s HUGE. So it’s not surprising that expats who have settled into their new domestic situation live thoroughly “in the moment” — even when the moment lasts years and years.

One of the side effects of that laser-like focus on expat life is a devilish mixture of amnesia and denial that pops up whenever the conversation turns to repatriation.

Ask a happy trailing/accompanying spouse/partner about her pre-pat life, and watch closely for her reaction. It only lasts a moment — blink and you might miss it — but the cognitive shift is perceptible. It’s as though her brain has to dig around in the archives to retrieve a file that’s no longer relevant. (“Life before this? Oh, it was just, I don’t know, ordinary, I suppose….)

If you really want to watch her squirm, ask her thoughts about repatriation. That whooshing noise you’ll hear — just before the sound of crickets chirping — is the mental equivalent of flushing something distasteful down the toilet. Nobody wants to think about it, let alone discuss about it.

Most of the expats I’ve talked to who are in the thick of their international stay have a vague mental image of the trajectory their lives are following. (Those who are happy with their expat lives, that is. The unhappy ones follow a different route.) There are 3½ stages:

The 3 1/2 stages of an expat's life

1. Prepat Fog. Yes, there was life before expatriation, but somehow the memory isn’t as sharp as it once was. It’s still there, of course, just a little fuzzy around the edges — and it’ll become even fuzzier the longer the expat stays away.

1½. Adjustment. I consider this half a stage, because it’s relatively short-lived and usually challenging. The diagram portrays adjustment as a little dip, but it can be wider and deeper, depending on the circumstances (and the skill of the diagram artist.) Moods and satisfaction levels can swing violently during this time, but for most of us, they do level out eventually.

2. Happy Happy Fun Time. New experiences, new people, lots of mistakes, adjustment, growth, feeling alive. Good stuff.

3. Repat Gloom. Life. Is. OVER. It’s all downhill from here. Cue the sad music, and fade to black….

There is a fourth stage. I don’t have a snappy name for it; for the purpose of this discussion, we can simply call it “life.” It involves another adjustment, but after that the direction it takes is wide open. Sad music and fading gently away are certainly possibilities. It’s also conceivable that this stage can involve new experiences, new people, lots of mistakes, adjustment, growth, and feeling alive. Which one sounds better to you?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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24 Responses to The 3½ stages of life, according to expats

  1. Christine says:

    Good stuff. My graph would look a lot different. I think where you have a plateau of expat life I’d have the Rocky Mountains. All up and down and back up again. It would certainly have a higher elevation than pre-pat life because awareness of daily life as an expat makes it all more intense. I can’t speak about the re-pat gloom yet but I suspect the gloom spreads so that a bit of fog covers expat life, making it seem more exciting than it really was? Where is “life” on the graph? I’m hoping it’s peak is up there with the peaks of the expat life.

    • Maria says:

      My own graph would be similar to yours: up and down. I didn’t include life on the graph because so many expats think there’s no life after expatriation. I thought that myself once, but once I emerged from the gloom I discovered that post-expat life can be very good.

  2. expatlingo says:

    Ha! Well said….though I have yet to face the feared repatriation!

  3. Sine says:

    Oh Maria, you have a way of getting to the innermost me with your posts. With repatriation looming, I have sort of introduced a 2 and a half stage, if you will, where I am cramming in even more to suck the most out of our stay here before repatriation. A happy happy fun time on steroids, so to speak. (Although you might argue that climbing mountains and signing up for 100k bike races is not so easily summed up in the word “fun”). And I’m afraid the drop will be even steeper afterwards. I can already feel that sadness knocking on the door, but I keep pressing the “flush” button, to use your words. And I’m making contingency plans, asking school and friends if our kids (and me!!) can come back next summer, which makes me feel better because “next summer” sounds much better than “forever”. But I know it’ll never be the same…

    • Maria says:

      I know you’re going to miss South Africa terribly, but look at the bright side: you’ll be far too tired and sore after that bike race to notice. :) Sine, I think you’re doing exactly the right thing: saying a proper and respectful goodbye to the place you love so much. Remember that the gloom doesn’t have to last forever — I’m sure there’s plenty to make you happy in the US (lots of mountains to climb, boot camps, etc — LOL) I’m looking forward to your blog posts from the other side!

      • Sine says:

        You definitely got that one right – I can already hardly sit after a 30-something k training run. Why hasn’t anyone come up yet with a saddle better suited to the female anatomy? And thanks for your encouragement, I know you are right. I was just saying so myself in a newly drafted blog post – the higher the mountain, the lower we might have to come down again, but then we pick ourselves up and find another mountain. Remembering the peaks makes the dark valleys more bearable…

      • Maria says:

        A Kilimanjaro reference? Just read your post about coming down the mountain. If you can do that, Sine, you can do anything.

  4. I’m still living outside of Canada (only in the US, but it is a very different place) so have not (yet) faced the re-pat let-down. With many friends and some family in Ontario, I head north from NY usually 2-5 times a year, which is as much to remind me of what I left as to see them. I also read the Globe and Star on-line to keep up with political and economic developments. I think it’s very tough to return to “your” country when you chose to leave it, (and I still face resentment and frustration that I have not come “home” and I left in 1988) and your friends and family and former colleagues have never done so. If you have other ex-pat friends, it’s easier because they, too, know this oddly divided life…so many of my friends live it, like an American woman in Austria (single journalist) or Canadian in England (married) or an American in England (married) or an Aussie woman in Sri Lanka.

    The larger challenge, for me, is that women who choose to become expats are forever changed by this amazing experience. We see the world and our relationship to it probably very differently indeed than those who have never once left their home nation. I’ve lived in four countries beyond Canada. Of course it changed me. Not sure if or when I will go back (with my 2nd American husband.) He adores Canada. I am wary of the changes to the medical system there.

    • Maria says:

      It’s the changes we experience that make it so difficult. Of course, home changes too — it’s just that we often grow in different directions.

  5. I love this one! You have summed it up so beautifully. Even if I am now very, very nervous about the idea of repatriation..

    • Maria says:

      Nervous is probably good — a little adrenaline rush never hurts. And if it makes you think about repatriation before you go, so much the better. It’s the ones who don’t think it through (people like me!) who are caught off guard.

  6. A very interesting subject!

  7. fiona says:

    Ha, ha, I LOVED this post! I’m just dusting off my sad face in time for my repatriation in 7 weeks time!

    • Maria says:

      No, no! Keep your happy face! Repatriation is an adjustment, just like expatriation was. You can come out the other end smiling — it might take a little time, but hang in there.

  8. This is fabulous and I’m now fiddling around with bits of paper trying out my own diagram. It’s very spiky! I think we may be repatriating in 3 years but I don’t know yet. In a way I’m looking forward to it (or more accurately, I’m looking forward to moving from here). Perhaps the later in life you start your first expat experience, the less pre-pat fog there is. Or maybe that’s just me?

    • Maria says:

      In many ways I was looking forward to repatriating, which is why it was doubly shocking that it hit me so hard. But what I’m noticing is that the longer I’m back home, the less foggy my pre-pat life becomes. (Except now I’m getting older, so my memory isn’t quite as reliable as it used to be.) Everybody’s story is different, I guess.

  9. There is hope! After being a global nomad for 25 years I recently returned to the base…. The Netherlands. This was also when the last child left the nest. You expect depression, financial misery, rain all the time etc etc. But I decided life was too short for all this. I rewired my brain and saw this move as another posting to the unknown (and it was after such a long time). I visited touristy places (why only abroad?) was excited about the abundance of yummy food and enjoyed the change in seasons. The lack of a housemaid was a little bit of a shock, but I gained the privacy in my own home and read a few books about cleaning your house efficiently. What people here take for granted is still a hurray-moment for me. Garbage pick up, Dutch newspapers delivered on my doormat, almost everything can be ordered online, bike lanes everywhere, long summer evenings, cozy winter evenings with an open fire……..
    Start your repatriation with an open positive mind and decide you will make it work :-)

    • Maria says:

      That’s the way it should be done! Attitude is everything — you’re living proof of that.

    • Sine says:

      Well said, Ellen. I think that’s exactly how it needs to be approached, just like another expat posting. Who says you have to treat your home country differently? It all takes place in your mind, doesn’t it. I’m already feeling much better about our repatriation after reading your comment, thanks very much!

  10. It seems we’ve all pretty well got it sussed – and I suppose that’s because we’ve learned to adjust and make new lives for ourselves wherever we find ourselves – either by choice or circumstance. It’s heartening though to hear that making the move back ‘home’ the beginning of a new adventure is the way to go; I’ve been working very hard on fostering this attitude in myself in preparation for the end of January, when the pendulum swings … :)

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