The Gestalts of an Expat
Article for the N.S.G. electronic journal "e-wareness",
Leiden, February 2014
Reality versus Fantasy
Like all things in life, being an expatriate* is an experience you can adequately comprehend, only if you experience it. And it goes without saying, that despite that, everybody has an opinion, whether they have experience or not. When I visit my home country, there are, almost always, a few moments of horror, when your doctor’s assistant, the hairdresser or anyone with zero experience in living abroad, will say: “Oh! You are living abroad, how amazing is that! You are so lucky! Living there should be perfect, unlike this mess here”. Like you are living in wonderland or paradise. In the beginning, I bothered enough, to explain that life is nowhere easy, but not anymore. I rather let people into their blissful ignorant fantasies, than come across as an arrogant, ungrateful country deserter. Because, that is what happens, most of the times, to expats, who dare to acknowledge the difficulties of living abroad. Being an expat is a more luxurious choice than being an immigrant. Thus, being an immigrant you don’t need to explain yourself for your choice, people assume you were forced into it. As an expat, on the other hand, not only you need to explain your fully deliberate choice, but also, you don’t get to complain about it. But the truth is, most expats that I know, are struggling on a regular basis with quite some issues. Little daily issues or bigger life changing dilemmas, just like everybody else, only, surrounded with an extra veil of insecurity and loneliness. In addition, you have naturally, all the problems of adapting to the culture, the language, the weather, this new different environment, which some people never get used to.
The dance of the lost contact(s)
Like Gestalt theory indicates, we only exist in relationship to our environment. We exist in an ever-changing field, constituted of people, physical and abstract surroundings, ethical codes; whatever contains us in a way. As I mentioned before, by moving to another country, you have to start this contact from scratch. Moreover, there is an extra difficulty in being expat in respects to your environment and that is, that your environment could be changing a bit faster than usual. Lots of expats have to move frequently from one country to another and even if they don’t, fast changes are taking place anyways. What I personally find the toughest to accept is the people coming and going, in and out of your life. You not only have to say goodbye to your loved ones in your home country and bear that pain, you also have to say many goodbyes in the country you are living in. Expats very often develop relationships and usually work together with other expats and expats move a lot. In the course of four years living here, I had to say goodbye to classmates, colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and good friends. I have attended an awfully lot of goodbye parties and drinks and I have to confess, every time it gets worse. Especially when the good friends leave, you cannot help but wonder, what is left for you here?
Appreciate the difference
Fortunately, you have enough good reasons to support your choice of living somewhere, otherwise you would better go back, or find a new country to experiment with! During my expat life, I quickly realised that new countries are exactly like new relationships. The new ones always look all shiny and exciting in the beginning, a probable perfect match for you. Only to discover later, that there is nothing flawless in this world. You begin your new “affair” thrilled and soon comes the moment that you start making comparisons, favourable in the beginning of your new love. “This is so much better here”, “That could never happen in my previous situation!” but sooner or later these comparisons can turn around “Oh, it was so much better before”, “That would never happen in my previous situation”.
I was myself, once falling in love with this country; alas, it was a warm and sunny spring, if I only knew how an ordinary winter would be like… And as someone in love, I was blind enough, to fail to see all the imperfections and in my excitement, I decided to come and live here for “at least five years” as I told to myself. The critical question is whether you will manage to stick with the good things in this new setting. Is your new love satisfying enough to let you go of the previous one or do you find yourself suffering, tormented by all the differences and the things you are missing out? I know many people who could not manage to find enough positive aspects in their life here and they eventually flew away. I also know people, who are so happy in their new setting that they completely let go and moved on with their lives. Personally, I have learned, as the time went by, to appreciate the beauties of this land and like with every relationship, eventually you get used to it if you devote enough time and energy to it. I still cannot decide where my home is, but now I know that the only way to exist in a place that you are not certain that you can call home is to appreciate the differences. Ice skating on a frozen canal in the winter, going everywhere with your bike, sunlight until the evening at summertime, are still and always will be moments of magic for me.
Live in the here and now
In the moments of magic you are happy and content with your decision but there come moments when you question yourself. My sister was born while I was busy writing my thesis in a library and is since then, growing up without my presence by her side. The moment of her birth, I honestly didn’t know what was stronger in me, my joy for this event or my sorrow that I was not there. Leaving behind people that you love has a big cost, you miss the growing up and the growing old, you miss the joys, and you miss the sorrows. Sometimes I feel I have pressed the pause button but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Life is going on and you ran the risk of missing it in both places if you don’t live in the moment.
Many expats are busy with the plans about the future, moving elsewhere or moving back, busy with fantasies regarding how their life would be in their home country, preoccupied about the validity and the duration of their decision and how loyal they have been to it. All this cloud of doubt can hide your present, the moment that goes by, many times, unlived. I recently asked a friend, who lives in England, what are his plans for the future. Is he staying there forever? Is he going back home? And if yes, when is this going to happen? He then just replied “Every day, I decide for the next one”. I laughed a bit astonished at that moment, only to hear back again “Seriously, every single day, I make a conscious choice of whether I want to stay or I want to go, and this is how it goes”. I understood only later, how Gestalt-full is this way of being. Living and making decisions consciously, in the here and now! Needless to say, this way of being requires lots of awareness from your part and it is much easier if you have no strings attached like a spouse or a whole family. But still hearing that gave to me great clarity and comfort. Life is happening and it is your own choice whether you will make it or let it happen.
*An expatriate (sometimes shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person's upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex ("out of") and patria ("country, fatherland").
In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals or skilled workers sent abroad by their companies, rather than for all 'immigrants' or 'migrant workers'. The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an 'immigrant' or 'migrant worker'.
There is no set definition and usage varies with context, for example the same person may be seen as an "expatriate" by his home country and a "migrant worker" where he works. Retirement abroad, in contrast, usually makes one an "expatriate". (Wikipedia, 05/02/2014)