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Blog,  Expat Life

Expat Limbo

Approaching the three-year mark of our Canadian posting it seems I’ve reached an impasse; I’m feeling lost and directionless. We’re applying to have our visa extended but have no solid plans beyond whatever extra time we’re granted.

 

CUTTING OUT THE CLUTTER

Three years of living in limbo has been both liberating and hard. We’ve pared our life down to bare essentials. No phone and TV means fewer meaningless distractions and a greater appreciation of and closer bond with my family. Life with no curtains has been interesting – on the upside our rooms get lots of natural light. I often think of my dishwasher back home and how, as a family of five, we’d really reap the benefits of it now, but given the choice by our landlords of a new dishwasher or washing machine, I went with the latter – grey never has and never will be the new white.

With our shipping manifest a permanent fixture in the back of my mind, learning to forgo non-essentials like “things for the house” or the latest gadget fad has shown me an alternative to mindless consumerism and how refreshing it is just to step back from it and say “No thanks – I’m out.” It was two years before we gave in and bought a lawnmower, finally retiring the push mower we got when someone left it out for garbage removal.

But before you picture me as a beacon of Zen living, you need to know there’s one area I’ve really struggled with. Following the wrench from our newly renovated house in Southeast England to pursue this Canadian post, the yearning for a home that’s my own never left, and has remained my biggest obstacle to happiness.

 

A PLACE TO CALL YOUR OWN

I only have to go to someone else’s house and hear their plans for the deck, or whatever home improvement project they’re currently working on and I feel hollow inside. We designed and oversaw our entire renovation, right down to the switches, sockets and which way the doors hung, so routine housework and general maintenance became a labor of love, like caring for your own child. It’s a stark contrast to our current rental situation where housework is just a chore, the surrounding walls are no longer a source of aesthetic pleasure (quite the opposite!) and any alterations or improvements are not mine to make.

It’s frustrating – I understand the futility of attachment to material things, especially as an expat, but I have to admit that, as far as a living space is concerned, the need to put my stamp on my surroundings is a big part of who I am.

So what do I do? Am I the only expat who wants it all: the excitement of travel and new horizons AND a place to call home?

 

“THROW OFF THE BOWLINES”

A couple of weeks ago I was surprised to discover the disappointment I felt when a posting to the Middle East failed to materialize. It’s not that I don’t enjoy living in Canada; I do. I realized I’d welcomed the idea because it was a distraction from what’s missing in my life here, and what better distraction than the crazy expat rollercoaster of transplanting ourselves into another country? Perhaps that’s why so many people become serial expats. I wrote a long time ago about Living with Less and about the dream-home I left behind to embrace new opportunities overseas. To those of you who remember them it might seem like I’m going back over old ground, but these recent events showed me the home issue is still one I struggle with.

Life as an expat teaches you a lot about yourself, it’s given me many insights into my understanding of Belonging and Identity – perhaps my dilemma comes from a more personal place.

 

I’ve proved to myself I can “throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 

 

I’ve never, for one minute, regretted entering expat life, but something keeps coming back to me: a wise man once said, “The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love and something to hope for.” I can’t hope for anything at the moment because the future is a blank canvas and that’s what I’m finding hard.

So I’m throwing open this question to the expat community: How do you balance the temporary expat existence with the need for permanence in your life? Did you have similar struggles? How did you come to terms with them? Throw me a bone here, leave a comment and tell me, do I just need to get over myself?

 

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25 Comments

  • Lous Lake Views

    Sorry to hear your having a tough time. I can’t offer you any advice as my move was intended to be permanent from the start. What I can say, however, is that after we put in our visa application we knew there would be a four year wait for someone else to decide our future for us. It was a very unsettling time and we struggled with living day to day and whilst being unsure of our future, it was both liberating and unnerving and at times I felt totally out of control. I empathise with your situation and certainly don’t think you need to ‘get over yourself’ I hope someone can give you some advice to help you find peace.

    • Aisha

      It is a strange feeling isn’t it, when your future is in the hands of a faceless entity. You’re right about the liberating and unnerving – I keep swinging between the two like a pendulum.

  • Susanna Perkins

    That’s really the $64,000 question, isn’t it? The blessing and the curse of being liberated from the trappings of life. Our situation’s not comparable — we sold or gave away virtually everything we owned before moving to Panama, and would love nothing better than to sell the house we still own in Florida. That said, I struggle not so much with the material aspects of our expat life as I do with the lack of certainty.

    In our new life, we’ve got no ties. We’re renting a house, but we could pack up and go without much if anything in the way of repercussions if we wanted to. On the one hand, it feels liberating. On the other hand, I worry that perhaps we’re not making all the friendships we could make or developing ties to the community because, after all, we may not be here very long. I yearn for community, yet I’m hesitant to really embrace it because it would be such a wrench when we leave.

    No answers for you, unless you count the reassurance that I’m wrestling with somewhat similar issues.

    • Aisha

      As I typed I thought it must sound very “first world problem-y”, after all, we chose to do this, no one forced us and we’re enjoying things that weren’t open to us previously, but it all comes at a price – it’s deciding when the price becomes too steep that’s the difficult part. Expat life is one dunk in the deep end of the decision-making pool!

  • Judy

    I quite understand your restlessness, I too felt that way but it took me longer than 3 years, perhaps because we moved so frequently. In the end though I felt I had my suitcase permanently parked by the door and I resented the constant “camping out,” living without pictures on the walls and managing without things because we’d only give away when we left. Even though we’ve been back 4 years I’m only just now daring to consider buying a food processor. I’ve managed without small appliances for so long that I still question whether I really need one.

    • Aisha

      Life without TV is one thing I’d be cautious of relinquishing, though I know the temptation would be enormous. Was your eventual resentment of ‘camping out’ part of the reason for repatriation Judy? I’m trying to gauge if I’m just going through a low point about this issue or if it’s something that will increasingly wear me down as time goes on. I hadn’t expected to still feel this strongly about it after 3 years. Perhaps we just need to look for another rental – particularly in light of our recent noisy neighbour issues…

  • linda@adventuresinexpatland.com

    While the uncertainty of the expat side of the equation certainly informs your thinking, I believe there is much to mine on the other side of the equation: ‘something to do, something to love, something to hope for’. I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty and continual change, pushing past to focus on what’s really at issue.

    • Aisha

      It’s that fine line between listening to your true feelings and ignoring them in pursuit of a “higher aim” that troubles me. I’m terrible at showing compassion for myself and my feelings. Perhaps the answer is acknowledging my feelings… and choosing to focus on the positives anyway. I like the idea of pushing past the difficulties, reminds me of running and pushing past the fatigue.

  • Jack Scott

    I wish I could offer you wise words of comfort and inspiration. Our time in Turkey was never going to be forever and by travelling back to London every three months or so we never broke the ties that bind (nor did we wish to). I know this is a bit of a cliché but I really believe happiness is a state of mind, not a state of place. Roots don’t have to be deep but they do have to be healthy. I guess I would urge you not to be so hard on yourself and learn to roll with the punches. Sorry if this sounds like a load of old tosh lifted from the pages of the Reader’s Digest.

    • Aisha

      Oh Jack! Even if it is, how could I be ungrateful when you put it so humbly? Sounds like you’ve got me pegged anyway, “I would urge you not to be so hard on yourself” That’s me to a T. The more I speak to you all the more it seems like a trough in the wave pattern of expat existence. I’ll just grit my teeth and ride it to the next peak 🙂 (And cliche or not, I also think happiness comes from the inside)

  • Allegra Stein

    This post is amazing. I’ve been doing so much thinking and work around identity, who we are, what to do with those internal conflicts you’re coming up against — the love of change vs. the craving of stability. Sometimes just knowing that there is that inner battle even if there isn’t a clear answer is enough to bring some measure of peace.

    When it comes to that decorating/alterations stuff, I’m reminded of a story I heard long back about the zen of building a wall just to tear it down and start again. It’s in the process not the outcome. It’s not easy, but there is a lot of truth to not letting what may or may not happen keep you from acting NOW in a way that feels best, even if that means buying a throw pillow which you connect with today that you may not be able to pack up next month. Sometimes it’s those small, immediate acts that can trigger a deeper sense of comfort and stability.

    • Aisha

      Thanks for the advice and for stopping by 🙂 Identity and Belonging are two concepts I’ve tussled with for most of my life – in the areas of expat life, mixed-race marriage and mental health I always seem to be facing my peers across an invisible line instead of existing as one of their number. The dichotomy between human beings as social animals and the western drive for individualism and self-expression has me going round in circles!
      I think there’s some sense to the suggestion of accepting the feelings and working within my restrictions to find a way to best acknowledge them. Sometimes it’s not what you do, but the fact that you choose to do something that counts.

  • Charlotte

    This really resonated with me. Being deprived of ‘stuff’ that you love isn’t just about materialism; it compounds that feeling of identity loss that can be really overwhelming as an expat. Concentrating on those particular aspects of your personality that are a good fit with your new country, and thinking about passions/interests that can flourish in your new environment, helps with that sense of belonging, I find. Admittedly, caving in to material desires once in a while (where funds allow) can help a bit, too! You’re certainly not alone in juggling wanderlust with an urge to put down roots, and I hope you find a strategy that works for you.

    • Aisha

      Hey Charlotte, great to see you here! How’ve you settled in? Can’t believe in three months you’ll have been here a year. Thanks for making me feel better about my foibles 🙂 It helps to know others are similarly conflicted; I guess it’s human nature to be stressing over ultimately irrelevant things while life continues regardless. I need to cut myself some slack I think…

  • Melissa

    I’ve been in this state of being for a while now and it is difficult. I thought that it was because of my immigration situation but that is sorted and the feeling is still there. I’ve been here 5 years and it just does not feel like home. I’ve loved living in London and at the same time would readily leave it. I’m not sure if the answer is returning home or going somewhere else. See this is my usual thought process and then I just stop thinking about it because I don’t know what the answer is yet. Not very helpful I know.

    • Aisha

      That’s EXACTLY it! Sometimes I think, “Maybe there is no answer.” But I know in my gut that this sense of something being missing is an indication of an imbalance somewhere. I’ll just have to wait and see what effect future events in my life have on it and go from there. Times like this I get very fatalistic and just throw my hands in the air and leave it up to fate. Que sera sera.
      Glad to hear your immigration issues are resolved.

  • Russell

    The day I felt truly settled was the day we bought a house – both here in Australia and also before in Canada. Then you start work on the house, your neighbours see you as a permanent fixture committed to the area, you feel like you have a home and you feel safe, settled. Never a true expat relocating every few years, I can’t shed light on how others handle the feeling but it does sound like you’d fancy another move abroad and maybe that’s not a bad thing, nomad that you are!

    • Aisha

      Settled domesticity doesn’t sit too well with expat life does it? I think expatriating exposes us to a lifetime of dilemma – it splits our world and it can never be whole again. Having been exposed to different countries, different lifestyles, when we’re in one we crave another and on and on. I’m starting to believe it’s just the way it is… You’re right about the home though; nothing like nesting to make you feel rooted.

  • Rosalind Keith

    I know I am very late to come to this discussion but I’ve just discovered your blog so forgive me. First let me say I’ve enjoyed reading each old entry so far.   They have made me smile and reconnect to my roots. I am a veteran expat from Canada. I’ve lived most of the last 18 years outside of Canada. 

    I’ve learned to make friends quickly and pick a few people from each place to keep in my heart and in my life. It helps to learn to accept the uncertainty of the length of each stay. Jump right in and make your temporary residence your home. I admit I haven’t always been great at that.   This  last move to Hong Kong got off to a slow start because I still felt the pain of finally decorating the living room in our house in Chicago. The day my husband helped me hang the drapes was the day he announced to me that he wanted to quit his job because he was so unhappy which would mean a move from Chicago because his career was calling.  There actually was something cleansing about getting rid of all the belongings we’d accumulated to fill the huge house in anticipation of the cramped spaces of Hong Kong.

    When we got to the momentous anniversary of four years at the same address here in Hong Kong I finally threw myself into making it more of our home. Yes the walls are still landlord white but we now have curtains in our bedroom and new pictures on the wall.  I still haven’t broken down and purchased a kitchen aid mixer despite how much I miss the one I left behind.

    I don’t know how long we’ll stay once our last baby flies the coop next year but I do know that no matter where we end up I will make the residence my home in some way. There is comfort in coming home to a sense of permanence even when it doesn’t exist in your mind.

    • Aisha

      Hi Rosalind, lovely to have you here – I’m glad I’ve helped you reconnect with your old home.
      In your last sentence you perfectly encapsulated what I can’t seem to get my husband to understand. I read it to him, just to make myself feel better, and because I still hope that one day he’ll encounter the sentiment in a form he can relate to. It’s the small, seemingly pointless things things that sometimes tip the scales towards the bearable.
      Your veteran expat status was evident in the wise advice you left – learning to ‘accept the uncertainty of the length of each stay’ is something I master one day only for it to slip through my fingers on another. Thanks for sharing your experiences here, it’s always uplifting to hear from a pro!

  • Micheline Robinson

    Firstly, thank you for your blog. I came across it searching for more information on the state of limbo as I have done an art series on “Uprooting” and wanted to expand my thoughts on the whole process. Your blog struck a chord…I have been through similar struggles. The hardest element being the physical distance from family, especially grandparents for my children. I think I have balanced the temporary expat existence with the need for permanence through acceptance that our life isn’t going to be one of settling in one area alone but one of travel and discovery. This is my 6th move abroad and across country and although by the fifth I was hoping and wishing for permanence, now that this one has happened, I have had to accept and adapt. Permanence will perhaps be something we will experience in old age. I try to focus on the benefits of our existence…like you wrote, a closer bond with the family and the discovery of new cultures, new landscapes…like Einstein said ” The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page” .

    • Aisha Ashraf

      Sounds like you’ve done the only thing we can to ensure we thrive in this kind of situation… you’ve adjusted your perception, proving yourself a truly adaptive expat. The hardest part is getting over the stumbling blocks in our own mind. I hope you’re happy in your new location and I love that quote, but wasn’t it from St Augustine?

  • Roving Jay

    I’ve started from scratch multiple times. It’s was so freeing to get rid of my material possessions. But each time I settle in a new place, those possessions start to possess me again, and before you know it, you’re cramming tea towels in the drawer where the coffee filters should go, because there’s nowhere left to put anything!

    I just spent 5 months on temporary assignment in London, and it was fabulous being in a serviced apartment, with not belongings except my clothes. Now that I’m back in my expat home… I’m on a mission to get rid of stuff again…

    I think there’s some gene that makes us want to nest, and make a house a home… I’d like to have that gene removed please!! 🙂

    Jay

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