The expat life often feels like living in some sort of forever-state of transition. When you meet other expats (at work, at a bar, even in the supermarket if you live in a place where expats are few and far between) the same two questions always arise;
How long have you been here?
This usually comes first. It seems very important to establish who has been around the longest, who is the expat expert in this conversation. Certain breeds of expat will relish in discovering that they have encountered a newbie fresh off the TEFL train and will take great pleasure in showing off their credentials. Six months trumps six weeks, those who have been around for a year or two trump the six monthers, and then the real hardcore lifers take the table with claims of ten or twenty years of expat living.
How long are you staying?
Once who has been around the longest has been established it is time to figure out who is the most dedicated. (People in the TEFL teaching world will also face questions about when they will get a real job. Because working 40+ hours a week isn’t a real job, obviously). It’s like our expat status is defined by two points in time – our arrival and our expected departure, like our whole existence is some passing moment in the space-time continuum.
So many things in this temporary life are make shift – I have a sup par smoothie maker because I’m only making do until I go back home; I’m driving around an old banger of a car I would never dream of using back home because it’s only got to last me while I’m here. I don’t even have a set departure date in my expat plan and yet I’m unable to commit to anything proper or with any permanence.
The majority of friendships also lack permanence and are formed by default; we work together, we are the only foreigners in the area, we met on a long weekend… these kind of transitory acquaintanceships are perfectly fine when travelling around a country, but when your timeline in one place is looking more long term it can feel very insecure and unstable not having a truly tight knit group of friends around you. Your friends from home, as you quickly start to refer to them (or real friends, but only to yourself), come from years of cultivation, of shared experiences and histories and memories and a million things to talk about over a coffee or even better, not needing to say anything at all. Nothing is forced, there is no desperation to secure this friendship or confirm its realness because it is real and always will be. (Side note: Skype is a life saver that should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping people together despite oceans and continents and time differences between them).
It can be ironically lonely being surrounded by people, many of whom you can’t converse with beyond talking about food or the weather, or useless vocabulary you have picked up along the way like being able to give directions to a non existent post office or listing colours, or counting to 1000.
The expat community is very cliquey; we have the teachers, the muay thai guys, the Russians, the SEXpats, the divers, the yachties, the retirees, the forever backpackers… and that’s just in Phuket. You find yourself having to slot in and make do with the people in your default group or otherwise lead a somewhat solitary life. Many people make the move to a foreign country as an individual but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to spend their entire expat existence completely independent of others.
None of this is to say that real friendships can’t be made, or that wonderfully satisfying lives can’t be carved out for people – of course that is all possible but it takes a lot of dedication and for some of us there would always be something missing.
Maybe I’m just a big homebody at heart but there will always be a home shaped hole in my life no matter how much the sun shines on my expat life. Don’t get me wrong; I love living my expat life, but I find comfort in knowing it’s not forever, even if I have to make do at times until I back to the real thing.