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Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Expat Life Explained


I was obviously joking when I told you not to live abroad. Living abroad is probably the second most amazing thing I have done in my life. Right after raising children. But while we’re talking about the problematic sides of multilingual living, I might as well mention one big problem all expats will face at some point.


Family & Home Away From Home


So you’re living abroad. You have found someone to spend your life with and that someone might be from the other side of the globe. Doesn’t matter, we’re all citizens of the globe, right?


You have settled far away from your place of birth. You are building your own family. You watch as your children grow up in another culture like fish in water. They don’t have to adapt, they have known nothing else. Your cultural heritage is a sideline for them, an interesting and quirky extra that they endure or enjoy, but at the core they are just like their friends, born and raised in a country that’s not yours.


You still feel young and invincible. You have learned a foreign language. You have adapted to a foreign culture. None of your old friends have done what you have done! Albeit being partly settled you still sometimes feel a bit like Columbus, exploring some strange new place. You have stimulating encounters and you make new friends.


You start a blog and you proudly tell your friends back home how that guy the other day wasn’t able to place your accent. You work on creating a link between your roots and your kids, something that allows them to connect with your background. Your life feels like this massive, exciting project.


Home Matters

And then, one day, you are talking with your mother on skype and you realise that she has aged. It’s not the wrinkles around her eyes. Those have always been there when she smiled. It’s in her voice. It’s the way she moves. It’s something she says or something she doesn’t say.


Skype is a great tool for expats but it is also cruel, visually exposing things over thousands of miles but not allowing you to reach back.


That night you are an emotional wreck.


How could you leave your parents alone? They need you, don’t they? Of course they won’t say but that makes it only worse… What on earth made you move away? What were you thinking!


Practical questions pop into your mind: Could you go back? What about your partner? Or your children? Would they be able to thrive like they do here? What would the sudden change do to them? Surely they would make new friends quickly and they’d be just fine. Maybe your parents could come live with your little family! Would that work? Would they want to? Pointless questions, really, for they cannot make you forget the worry and, yes, the guilt.


So are you still feeling like Columbus? Young, invincible?


You remember how your husband wasn’t with his mother when his father died very suddenly two years ago. You all went to see her, but after a short stay you had to go back home and leave her alone. It was terrible!


I guess it is part of a big project that sometimes feels too big. Every now and again, you encounter problems that make you think you should have never embarked on this journey in the first place. And sometimes you are just plain tired and want to be normal, like everybody else, and relax.


There is no easy way around this. You can’t throw it all away. You can’t go back in time and find yourself another husband. And you wouldn’t want to anyway! Your kids are the most precious things in the world and you wouldn’t want them to go away. Maybe your kids would have been amazing had you stayed in your country. Maybe. But the children you have now are amazing, you know that for sure. You wouldn’t want to swap.


And suddenly you can feel the little Columbus in you. He is still there, always has been. And maybe he is right: it is a great, big, exciting project you are living! With good stretches and steep hills, like all grand projects.

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

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The most comprehensive list of language learning resources

All I Want for Christmas is Perfectly Bilingual Children

Why OPOL has been harder than we thought.


Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsMedea   |  Thursday, 04 August 2011 at 8:03 pm

    This completely hits the nail on the head for me. I miss my parents but don’t want to get stuck at home.

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