Becoming an expat is like gaining membership into an exclusive club. We don’t have a secret handshake (although that would be kind of cool), but certain features – such as the specialized jargon and loosely-defined set of norms – do a pretty good job of establishing a common in-group identity.
Being ripped from the comforting embrace of that expat community was traumatic, and losing my active member status has been one of the hardest things about moving back home. Without my peeps to support me, I feel alone in a way that’s completely different from the loneliness I sometimes experienced overseas. Truth is, I’m not entirely sure how to define myself anymore.
Today, however, all that got pushed aside when I met Judy, the former trailing spouse who writes one of my favourite blogs, Expatriate Life. What a relief it was to talk to someone who understands the tangle of emotions I struggle with daily. Judy and I chattered the afternoon away as though we’d known each other for years. I’ve missed this ease of expression, this sense of being comfortable in my skin.
The bonus for me is that Judy has also repatriated (several times!), so she gets it. My expat friends who are still out there are long on sympathy but woefully short on understanding this final stage of the expatriate cycle. (In fact, they’re in complete denial, mentally sticking their fingers in their ears and singing la la la I can’t hear you! whenever the subject comes up.) Judy and I, however, are on the same page when it comes to the ups and downs of re-entry.
I realized recently that somewhere along the way I started viewing my life in three distinct parts: before, during, and after. It’s a constant juggling act, keeping all those balls – the former me, the expat me, the repatriate me – up in the air. I’ve discovered – the hard way – that those personas are best kept separate, since allowing the “wrong” one to show can cause the whole lot to come crashing down.
It’s not that the people in my life are unsympathetic; they just can’t relate. They don’t want to hear about the 3-inch long cockroaches in the car, or the funny things that happened during the shopping weekend in Bangkok, or the time I cooked horsemeat for dinner by mistake. So I edit myself. I don’t want to become one of those people – the kind you’d dive into a dumpster to avoid a conversation with.
Something happens, though, when you deny a significant aspect of who you are: you start chipping away at your youness, bit by bit. You never actually feel whole. When your expatriate past becomes your dirty little secret – one that you feel you must hide from the world – that speaks volumes about the value we place on important things such as unconditional acceptance, loyalty, and friendship.
Meeting someone like Judy is an opportunity to burst out of the expat closet, free to be the real, complete, unedited me. For two hours this afternoon, she gave me the gift of authenticity. I’ll take that over a secret handshake any day.