“I don’t exist when you don’t see me; I don’t exist when you’re not here.”
Or so sang the singer in a song I used to like - away back when. Those lyrics have been threading through my mind these last few weeks as I spent some time managing the horse ranch and trying to maintain some control of my work which sat 8000 miles and 14 time zones across the sea. While the man singing the song was of course talking about his SO, I think those words speak clearly to the life of an expatriate. When you live in two places, it eventually feels like you live nowhere at all.
While your family clearly doesn’t forget you, you certainly fall off the Friend Radar. You run into people in your home country and you can see their tubes firing as they try to remember the last time they saw you. You talk about insignificant things because if you’ve been gone long enough, the ongoing changes have mounted to the point where you may as well start anew in getting acquainted. The flip side – your friends in the foreign country - just go on doing what they’re doing and you fall behind there as well. While this latter thing can be insignificant if you’ve gone home for a week, forget it if you leave for a month, you disappear. I suppose this speaks to the notion of what makes a true friend and at what point friends cross the line to almost becoming a sort of family. Those transitions are formed of years of support and contact and the creation of shared values and experiences. The friends you make living in a foreign country are born of different stuff – being stuck up the same creek if you will. They may very well end up crossing the “blood barrier”, but only if they come with the bigger package of being a lot like you to begin with. And most don’t.
The result is that as an expat you live in sort of a shadow world - you’re never sure where you are or why you’re there. Sure, I went home to cover for My Lovely Wife as she went off on the first of her biannual trips to cater to hundreds of ungrateful horse owners. That part is clear, the raison d'être if you will. Having done this for years it’s an easy routine for me to fall back into – feed horses, ride bikes, cover work throughout the day and evening, make some dinner, feed horses, and walk the dog. It’s no different now than it was in 1994, I know the routine and I like it. But hovering off on the horizon is another house, another tangible job, a tough place to live and responsibilities that need to be tended. Try as I might to believe I’m home and back to being “me”, the other Chinese-speaking, elevator riding me is there, pushed in the background itching to move into the primary slot. You get this battle of dualities and wonder which one is going to win. It’s not an unusual day when you talk to yourself and answer in a foreign language. Your anchor chain has stretching and your boat is floating back and forth alternately grounding on one of two sandbars.
I’m now five years into this vagabond and life and the more I do it the more I think my edges get frayed. The Concrete Me is now the Sand Me – I’m still a solid life form in my commitments, my passions, and the people I love. But I’m also a shape shifter, being what I need to be depending on where I am. It’s an odd line to walk and I can see with better clarity the story of some of the people I have met along the way. Like a middle-aged Aussie I met sitting in an expat bar in Shanghai, slowly getting stoned and flirting with the girls which he told me were his reason for heading out of the house every evening. He’d been there for more than 20 years, and this was now his life. He made me think that a lot of people head out into the world on an assignment like mine and eventually the anchor chain stops stretching and simply breaks – you lose the connection that made you “you” in the home world and you permanently change into the expat “you”. Some might do it to escape. Others might do it out of preference. But I’ll bet that many do it without even knowing it – they wake up one morning and realize that they no longer have a place back in the world, their world is now simply where they are.
For many it’s perhaps a hard thing to avoid and for others likely impossible. There are many enticements to living abroad not least the fact that it can put you into a perpetual state of personal development which can be intoxicating if you’re the kind of person that likes to continuously expand their horizons. It’s also a wonderful thing to wake up every morning and see something totally alien to what you know and have grown comfortable with. It keeps your mind sharp and it makes you think. I come to know that it takes powerful magnets to keep you focused – a supporting partner, wonderful children, things you like to do that can’t be done well in the new environment – to enable you to stay grounded and to know that when this phase is done, you have something that you want to return to. Lacking those (like my middle-aged friend courting his snarly-haired twenty-something Chinese girlfriend in the Kai Fa Qu Starbucks) it looks to me like an expat assignment can be a one-way ticket to another life. The key thing about that though is that you must make sure it’s a ticket that you want punched.
So I spend my remaining time in this phase of my life sitting in lounges, waiting for flights and observing my fellow travelers. It’s interesting enough, but I’m ready for a break. Between the teeming masses, the poor food, the stress and the entire anonymity of it all, I don’t think in the long haul it’s the life for me. I guess at this point on the road I’m traveling feeding horses, riding bikes, making some dinner and walking the dog just simply feels a whole lot more attractive than living in a place where those things can’t be done well. Particularly when trying to do them alone. I guess the thing I’ve finally learned is that putting yourself through the gristmill helps you to know who you are, what you like and the value of the things that are important. A tall price but from my current vantage, one that’s been worth paying. In short, it’s time for me to ground my boat on the proper shoal.