Today is the birthday of Theodor Geisel, that giant of children’s literature better known as Dr. Seuss. He wrote an impressive number of much-loved classics in his lifetime, including my favourite, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. (I’ve been watching the animated version every year since I was about 5 — it just wouldn’t be Christmas without the Grinch and all the Whos down in Whoville.)
Dr. Seuss is also the author of an exuberantly sweet story called Oh, the Places You’ll Go! It’s fast becoming a traditional high school graduation gift, and it’s easy to see why. The book chronicles the excitement of being on the cusp of something new, with an engaging sense of child-like wonder.
My own high school graduation took place in the Dark Ages (ie. pre-Internet) and now that I’m practically in my dotage, I find myself relating the book to the ups and downs of expat life. The experiences of the pint-sized protagonist are intimately familiar to anyone who’s been an expat or a repatriate, with situations that cover the emotional gamut:
Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!
The book begins as all adventures should: with exhilaration. I get the impression our unnamed hero has been eagerly counting down the days until this, the reddest red-letter day of his life. I felt exactly the same way whenever I began a new expat journey. The adrenaline rush — amplified by a healthy dollop of pure fear — made it seem as though life was just waiting for me to grab it and ride it hard.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go. You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
Erm — maybe not. 🙂 Career considerations and other factors mean we don’t always have a choice about where we end up. When one partner is unwilling to relocate but choosing not to go isn’t an option, the stresses on a family are considerable. Resentment is a tough cross to bear, and many expat marriages collapse under the weight.
I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you. And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.
Stuff happens, and it’s not always good — but it doesn’t have to destroy you. As the British government famously said during the Blitz: Keep Calm and Carry On. In other words, don’t hide away in your condo, don’t give up on learning the local language, and above all, don’t leave yourself open to regret that you squandered this amazing opportunity for growth.
And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.
Sometimes you’re the one who’s flying on, but the result is the same. Expat friendships are vulnerable things, susceptible as they are to the dictates of outside forces. When life feels like one long series of goodbyes, it can get you down.
You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump. And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.
Depression is a widespread but largely invisible problem in the expatriate community. It sucks the joy out of life and makes daily tasks unmanageable. “Un-slumping yourself” can be difficult to do on your own; this is where a licensed un-slumper (doctor, psychologist, therapist, coach) can work wonders.
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
When we first arrive at a new destination, we don’t have a clear understanding of what to expect or how to behave. Yes, we’re full of doubt, but that has its uses: it forces us to think through the consequences of our decisions. Too much doubt, however, leads to paralysis. The luckiest expats quickly find a cultural informant or mentor — either a local or a long-term resident — who can explain cultural norms and steer them in the right direction.
All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.
Just accept it: at some point in your expat life, you’re going to be lonely. Perhaps not “quite a lot,” but there’s no denying it’s an occupational hazard of this lifestyle. The most treacherous thing about loneliness is that it opens the door to other unpleasant emotions such as doubt and depression.
Learning from experience
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact, and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
If you’re looking for a life philosophy, you could do worse than this. The man pretty much covers all the bases with these lines. I especially like the reference to “great tact,” which is something every expatriate should have in her tool kit.
Dr. Seuss published Oh, the Places You’ll Go! in 1990, a year before his death. He crammed a lifetime of wisdom into this, his final book. I’m going to start giving it as a going-away gift to friends heading off on overseas adventures. And high school graduates, of course.
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Note: Today, on what would have been his 107th birthday, The National Education Association honours Dr. Seuss (as it does every year) during its Read Across America Day campaign.