Expat Experience


Central Park, NYC September 2009

After a particularly angst-ridden weekend and with some big decisions coming up here in Amsterdam, I reflected on what it means to be an expat.

Forgive me as we go a bit deeper than normal - maybe it's the rainy Sunday, the remnants of dark Belgian beer that is as heavy as lead, or the desire to know that others can relate and that I'm not the only one. (Lemme know).

There were a number of moments in the last 48 hours where I felt more like a foreigner than at almost any time in the past 8 months. Skin-crawling, head-spinning, chest-searing what-have-I-gotten-into-and-get-me-outta-here moments. Then it hit me: being an expat is a lot like those initial stages of falling in love.

The parallels are endless. The two experiences are alternately thrilling, terrifying, joy-inducing and nausea-inducing as you set foot upon new terrain.

  • Age and experience are part of a double-edged sword: you can become rigid and set in your ways as you grow older, diminishing your ability to be flexible and accommodating and truly open; at the same time, setbacks on the path have less of an impact - you learn to roll with the punches more and are able to hit the reset button more readily.
  • They can both be financially (half-kidding) and emotionally (no joke) expensive, if you make the wrong choices initially. Although neither is irreparable.
  • As both conditions extend from days to weeks to months and years, of course you see the cracks and the flaws (hopefully no warts). They've always been there, well before you arrived, but the early glow of newness and adventure has obscured them. You have fallen prey to your own expectations of that person or that place.
  • Time changes your perspective. Familiarity breeds both comfort and contempt. And, depending on the level of your affection for the person or place, you either roll with it and choose to focus on the positives or you jump ship in search of home or a new destination.
  • You sometimes stay in the same place too long thinking you can get used to it - but this may not happen. Are they warning signs you're ignoring, or simply a matter of getting to know this new being? It's almost impossible to tell the difference.
  • Your heart breaks at the same time that it swells, often within the same few minutes, the same few hours.
  • A thousand little indignities, real or perceived, bump up against your previously defined sense of self.
  • Speaking of sense of self, you lose part of it for a while - the familiar surroundings that have shaped you and been your mirror. You now have a new mirror and the way it reflects is definitely not the same.
  • You experience in a very raw way the fear and discomfort that come with putting yourself out there, but also the rewards that sometimes come from doing so.
  • Essentially, it's what you choose to focus on, day in and day out, that determines whether you can make it from the early stages to a more lasting situation.
I suppose this is all true of many situations in life, but I've never felt it so acutely as when I'm a foreigner - in a new land or a new relationship.