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The Disconnected Expat – Survival Guide

posted by saltybug.com 11/07/2016 6 Comments

I went for a walk the other day. I put the leash on Noodle-Bug and told him we were going on an adventure. He looked at me with excitement and wagged his little fluffy tail.

We walked down the driveway of our guarded, secure estate and took a left turn out onto the side of the C5, a main road. Out into the real world.

As we walked along Noodle-Bug jogged alongside me sniffing at anything he could. He looked around in excitement. Then we turned up a side street and started to walk on the road as trikes and cars zoomed past. He did not like that so much. When we got to the bridge to walk across Pasig River he had reached his limit. Little muddy paws suddenly stopped and he pressed against my leg, his little face looked so frightened. I picked Noodle-Bug up and carried him on my hip the way he likes. Little legs sticking out, securely tucked into my side. I could tickle his ears and whisper how I would never let anything happen to him.

I had thought that I just wanted to escape the confines of home to get some space. I had thought I just wanted to clear the headache I had awoken with that day, and I thought I wanted to finally get onto the road behind us and photograph it the way I kept saying I was going to do. It was when I got to that road and the cacophony of sound assaulted my senses; it was when I started navigating my way up, moving between parked and moving vehicles, dodging dog shit laying everywhere while holding onto my own terrified pup, that I became instantly aware of why I decided to take the walk. It became clear too that I had found my answer and it was ‘no’.

Three days ago I sat at my kitchen table surrounded by nine amazing women while the house was torn apart by nine children and four babies who took turns cooing and being passed around for cuddles. I felt ‘home’ again. I missed the ease of getting a group of friends together and letting the kids run wild and on this day I was able to replicate that. I even baked scones for the first time since moving here. Scones, with jam and cream. Just like home…and there it is again.

I went for that walk because to be perfectly honest, I was just looking for something to feel connected to.

I baked scones and invited a party of people to my home because I just wanted to replicate something a little like what I left behind. To feel like I really belonged somewhere.

Here is the thing. Time has passed, and with that distance has grown between where I came from and my sense of belonging. I have been feeling disconnected. The context of my life is now so removed from the home I left that conversations are no longer the same with my tribe back there. I feel disjointed, and I am tired now of explaining the ‘rules’ of my world, just to be understood. I miss being understood by the people who have been in my life the longest. And this is not anyone’s fault. It is just the way it is when you venture far from home for any extended period of time. You have to make the effort to learn a new way to keep those ties tight.

This is my home now, it really is. I have an amazing group of friend here, who, when I think of them leaving my life makes my chest constrict. I live in a city that I swear would be Sunnydale if this was Buffy, yet I stand at the volcano crater in Tagaytay, and I relax at a night market, and I peruse my favorite shops, and the thought that one day I won’t have this makes me feel like crying. Because this is only temporary. That is always in the back of my mind and for the longest time I felt it create a ridge, threatening the solidarity of my friendships here. I don’t feel that anymore but I do sit in social situations with other members of the community who I am not close to, yet affiliated with, and feel like I am that one piece of the jigsaw that hasn’t found its place. That walk I took last week was to see, if perhaps my place was in the local community. Perhaps that was where my jigsaw piece belonged.

People don’t write about this sort of thing. Not really. I have felt frustrated that people seem to write glossy ‘I love my expat life’ stories, which don’t prepare the new expat for reality, until I realised why that is. If we write about the hard stuff, we sound like wankers. If we write about how the distance between us and our home is so wide now we feel disconnected, we sound like ungrateful twats. If we talk about how we feel like we are standing on the edge looking in, and a thin membrane prevents us getting closer, prevents us feeling like we really fit in here, then we sound like an idiot. If we talk about the cultural challenges, well, we sound like monsters. If we speak of the frustration that builds so much we sometimes explode in fury, then we get called arrogant. People don’t write about it. So I will.

It has been a year and a half of living here and I feel very much like an old hand at this now. I know where things are, how to find out stuff, the best places to eat, to shop and which roads to take at which times of day. I drive like a local and don’t feel scared playing roulette with a jeepney. I am still learning the lay of the land in regards to having domestic help, but that seems to be getting better. This is my home now and I am perfectly happy being here with my family. What I struggle with is having a sense that I belong, a feeling of real connection.

Having a sense of belonging is feeling you are part of a community or group. It helps build confidence, give you a sense of purpose and enables you to do things like function normally day to day and set goals for yourself. It basically helps give you that sense of security that you are okay so you can be brave out in your world. A sense of belonging affects how you relate to your world, how you understand and live your values and enables decision making and the confidence to confront and make change in your life. Basically, it is essential to manage mental health and depression.

When you travel you take note of the cultural differences and you may laugh at them, feel perplexed by them and find some of them cute and endearing. When you have to live in that culture, so different from yours, you have to try and figure out how to reprogram your values, beliefs, norms and social customs to not just adjust, but to fit in as best you can. This transition can really turn things upside down. You begin to question a lot about yourself, because you need to, so you can adjust. You feel so homesick sometimes in the beginning, that the sight or sound of something from home makes you cry in the supermarket isle. All this time you are apart from your kin, and you are building new relationships from scratch so they lack the history that is integral to your sense of belonging. It takes time to deepen those connections.

As I sat at my table in my home the other day, surrounded by these women, listening to the loud happy noise that filled the space, I finally felt it coming back. I felt like home. I felt like I belonged and it was the best feeling I have had in the longest time.

There is a four stage theory to cultural adjustment by Gregory Trivonovitch. It is called the ‘Cultural Adjustment Stages’. This theory was created to understand the process immigrants go through when they leave their home country and move permanently to a new one. I in no way wish to compare myself to an immigrant because that would be so very wrong. I know this gig is temporary. I know I have a home to go back to when I want to. What I like about this model is that it is actually transferable across to the expat transition process, and it is very reflective of the stages of culture shock. The four stages with my take on them are:

Honeymoon Stage

This is where there is excitement, anticipation and people are inquisitive about their new world. Energy levels are high here and there is eagerness to get out and learn and meet people.

Hostility Stage

Frustration kicks in as cultural differences create confusion. People become more critical, less patient, nervous and fearful. This is the time depression and anxiety will appear. This can be a difficult stage to transition from and sometimes intervention may be needed.

Integration Stage

At this stage the person is more relaxed as they are adjusting to the new environment. Meeting people, building new relationships help here and there is more of an understanding of the culture, allowing for integration. In the expat world, it isn’t just the culture of the new country you have to adjust to; it is the culture of the expat community too. Essentially you are figuring out two worlds that are connected to a degree but at the same time, miles apart.

The Home Stage

Eventually some people may feel this home stage. They have settled in and see themselves as very much a part of this new world. They envision their future here and are happy not to leave. This is not a stage every expat gets to, and that is okay.

This model is meant to be cyclic in nature and the duration of each stage is really dependent on the individual and their ability to cope. Personality and temperament often play a big part in these transitions.

I am coming through these feelings and emotions I have been having. The gap is closing as my relationships here become richer, deeper and we laugh a lot, and loudly.

There is a lot of mental hard work that goes into these situations too, so here is my list of advice if you are in this situation, things that have helped me adjust. New in a world and feeling a bit like that jigsaw piece.

  • If you are here with a partner and/or children, remember that connection has always existed. They should be your anchor regardless of where you are living.
  • Reach out to the friends you have made and seek new ways of engaging. Dinner out with one friend so you can just talk. Invite someone to hang out for the day and show them your favorite places.
  • Reflect. Find space to think it all through. Process and understand your feelings, write about it and challenge assumptions and negative thoughts. Make a list of all the things that make you feel you are moving forwards in your transition. Write a list of your favourite things you would miss if you left.
  • If you feel isolated, join associations and get involved. One of the rules of expat life is, even if you don’t feel like it, say yes to invitations. You will meet one hundred people, out of those, you will meet maybe three to five amazing soul mates you will connect deeply with.
  • Don’t use ‘cultural differences’ as an excuse not to make friends with local people. At the end of the day we all have heart, we all bleed red, we love as intently, we laugh as loudly, we celebrate through food, ritual, tradition and family. We have more similarities than differences.
  • Your life back home is still there, it has just changed for a while but you haven’t. Not really. Reconfigure how you use your language, and help people understand. Remember too that some things are just the same. School runs, which I am sure suck as much as they do here. Figuring out what to cook for dinner. Getting your car serviced, getting fuel. You get the drift. Besides, the truest friendships last a lifetime.

Every day I am grateful for this opportunity to live in a foreign country. This is a gift, even on the hard days. I know that tomorrow will bring a new adventure, a new experience or maybe it will just be a lovely lazy day pottering around the house. Just like I used to do back in my homeland.

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Andrea Torti 13/07/2016 at 2:45 am

I think more witnesses of this kind are needed.

While building a new life can be exciting, people should never deny or overlook the difficulties it implies.

It’s not scaremongering – it’s realism, it’s personal experience.

saltybug.com 13/07/2016 at 1:09 pm

Thanks Andrea, I agree totally. I do a lot of research to prepare myself for new situations, and there is so much that could have been talked about in a way that is balanced, to prepare new expats for the realities of life, but there isn’t. Thank you for stopping by, and for your encouragement.

Marie 10/08/2016 at 4:43 am

I remember expat life well, it’s frustrating, exhausting, depleting and absolutely exhilerating at the same time. I miss it.

saltybug.com 13/08/2016 at 10:26 am

I know that I will miss the rollercoaster ride of expat life. Back home it is very easy, straight lines, plateaued. Here you just don’t know what to expect from day to day. While I am desperately homesick, I in no way want to hurry back home.

Beth Ferguson 02/07/2017 at 3:45 am

Are you still in the Philippines?
I’m actually a Philippine-born, US citizen. Moved to the US at 6 years of age, without my known family and into a new one that didn’t make me feel like family. Never felt at home, never felt connected. All the folks I grew up with (under the same roof) are all passed away now. It’s been over 40 years and I think I want to go home. I’m looking to have that feeling of ‘connection’ that you were talking about.

saltybug.com 02/07/2017 at 4:17 pm

Hi Beth, yes I am still here in Manila. I re-read my post before replying to you and you know I still feel a bit like that. Even two years on but my belief in what my ‘sense of place’ has changed. I no longer really believe that my sense of place is a physical location like I used to. I now believe it is where I feel the most peaceful, and that is wherever my family is. I am sorry you have spent your entire life feeling like you don’t belong. That must be such a challenge to overcome growing up. I wonder how you will go if you came back here, to find your roots. I wish you the very best on your journey and hope you find what you are looking for.


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