An Honest Look at my Expat Life

July 25, 2016
This year has brought me some reality checks. One of those is that I'm starting to see the darker side of expat life. I guess I was very fortunate in the sense that I spent my first five years living abroad not looking back at all. My life was pretty carefree life in general. Yes, sometimes I would miss my family and friends, but everyone was healthy, and we had time to catch up when I got home. Not being able to have regular visits with those close to me seemed like a small price to pay compared to all I had gained and achieved by living abroad. In France and Italy, I was learning the languages. While working in Korea, I was able to pay off my undergraduate debt and travel extensively. In China, I was loving my job as a teacher and was taking advantage of the perks that big city life has to offer. I've learned about various cultures, made so many international friends, and have had incredible experiences that I would have missed out on if I had just stayed at home in the States.

I know now that I am going through a trying time here in China because of health issues that are beyond my control, but I've just been thinking that this year hasn't been quite the same as past years. I'm not trying to say that I don't appreciate expat life anymore and that I want to immediately jump ship and go home, but I'm just saying that certain events and circumstances have taken a bit of a toll on me. Simply put, living abroad this year hasn't been as easy for me as it has been in the past.

My sisters and I always promised each other that if/when we had kids that we would be an active part of their lives. This stemmed largely from the fact that we barely know our own cousins. It wasn't due to any family drama or anything, but it was just because of the physical distance between us and them. My niece is about one and a half, and I was able to visit her twice before coming to China, but in the past year, we haven't been able to see each other. I was consoled by the fact that my whole immediate family would be able to be together again this summer, but now that isn't going to happen because of the emergency back surgery I had to have. If my niece saw me now, I doubt she would even be able to recognize me, and that's exactly the kind of "toll" I'm talking about. 

When I ended up hospitalized here in China, that was the scariest life event I've ever had to face. Most of the time I felt like I had no idea what was going on with my health. I had to fight hard, become an advocate for myself, and trust me, the ordeal isn't over yet. I'm still having to question the doctors about what I've been told regarding my condition. (More on this in a future post.) Lying there in that hospital for weeks on end, I began to wonder if I would ever be able to walk again or if my pain would ever go away. In these hard times, my family wasn't able to be physically present. Trust me, I am not blaming them, but I won't lie and say it was an easy situation to handle without them. I had to rely on my friends, other teachers, and sometimes even strangers to help me. While I'm beyond grateful for their help, it's just not quite the same as having a family member there. I couldn't help but feel the absence of someone who would be there for me unconditionally. I feel like my recovery would be going better now if I were able to be around loved ones rather than be here alone most of the time. Mentally, I felt like I needed their support and encouragement, and not having that really tested me.

Last week I found out that my grandmother passed away. Her funeral was yesterday, and I was unable to attend because I am dealing with an ongoing complication from the surgery. Even without the complication, I would likely still be unable not to fly home. I'm only supposed to sit up for 20 minutes at a time, so there's no way I could handle a 13 hour flight back to the States, plus layovers and transfers. It was just very upsetting to me that I didn't have a choice in the matter and could not attend my own grandma's funeral in order to grieve with my family. She was there for me so many times in my life, and in the end, I felt like I couldn't be there for her. On top of that, this particular grandma and I had a very special relationship. My sisters told me I was "the favorite," so to not be there was extra hard for me to handle this week on top of everything else. I just try to tell myself that if my grandma were aware of the situation, she would understand and would not want me to risk hurting myself so soon after my surgery. She always encouraged my travels and even told me she had a "shrine" for me in her house, which was a glass table that opened up, and on the inside she had placed the post cards and souvenirs I'd sent her from all over Europe and Asia. Take this and pair it with not being able to leave my apartment/not having friends come because they're all on holiday, and you'll come up with my lowest point as an expat.

Does this mean I wish I'd never come to China? No, because it's not like I could have predicted these unfortunate events. They would have been hard for me to handle in the States, too. I'm also not saying I'll just be done living abroad forever because that's not the case, either. These types of situations just make me think hard about some of the disadvantages of being an expat. Besides missing people from back home, my biggest problem in past years was probably something trivial like, "I miss cheese in Asia." (Okay, so that's not totally true. I did struggle to make friends at first when I lived in Italy.) Nevertheless, before all of this happened, the balance was tipped heavily in favor of me being abroad. However, to be able to stay here happily, I just need to know that the positives of living and working abroad still outweigh the negatives for me personally. If they ever cease to do so, that's when I know it will be time to leave. At this point, I would be lying if I said everything was rainbows and butterflies, and I'd say that I'm 50-50 on staying/leaving. I do acknowledge that this has been an exceptionally trying time for me, and have to believe that things are only going to get better. I've been put through the ringer, but I'd like to think that the worst is over.  I also am trying to remember what a mind blowingly awesome year I had up to the end of April. My next contract starts at the end of August, and I'm just going to have to take it from there and see how the year goes because the answer for this isn't just cut and dry. I'm starting to see the double edged sword for the first time. Something I am sure of is that whether I'm living abroad or at home, I'd like for travel to continue to be a huge part of my life. That will never change, although my taste for expat life might.

I've never truly struggled as an expat to the extent I'm struggling now. If you're an expat, what has been hard for you? How do you overcome it?
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