Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ex-Pat Exodus

I guess I have lived here long enough now for me to be moving into the 'old timer' category as we embark on our 3rd year here (5th overseas), but more importantly for people to be leaving & for me, suddenly, to be the one left behind.

I wasn't in Sri Lanka long enough for it to begin happening there really. So this is a New Experience for me.

I remember a friend back home in Oxford saying that it was actually quite hard to be the one left behind doing the 'same old, same old', whilst her friends were 'moving on' to exciting things & new pastures. At the time of course I didn't see it like that. I didn't want to 'move on'. I saw her as the lucky one, still cocooned in her community, with friends close by, still in the town, house, job she loved. Unlike me.

Now I begin to understand, not actually because I envy people moving on to 'more exciting' things, or feel that I want to myself; more that I am left behind as friends move on to pastures new. I have begun to feel that old insecurity & lack of confidence again which come from being in a new place, having to start all over again, make friends, put down roots, learn the ropes. It has some of the characteristics of the 'transition' phase of entering a new culture again. Except I haven't even gone anywhere this time.

In this case it's the vulnerability of relying on a few friends in a small community & the wearying nature of having to rally oneself & 'get out there' & make the effort once again to make new friends, & engage with new people in the struggle to establish a new network. Just when I was hoping to rest on my laurels & nestle into something akin to a comfort zone. Bam, my friends up sticks & decide to move.

First there was an Albanian friend who left in Oct, having accrued enough 'points' to enable him to work in Canada. Then at Christmas there was a couple who we knew well. I helped her with the Mangava card project & I now oversee it, (which is a big challenge for my Albanian). In June our bachelor P.E teacher friend leaves, & the family with whom we do most, whose children get on so well with ours, may now be leaving in June too (after 6 ½ yrs here) pending a potential job offer back in the U.K.

That's all 4 of the guys my husband mountain bikes with, & it's both my main girl friends here.

It's at times like this, though, that I feel most sorry for ex pats, married to Albanians. (NOT because they have no 'get out clause' like me, although I DO think that too sometimes, on bad days)

But because this is their home & yet they usually do, inevitably gravitate towards other foreigners, particularly those from their 'homeland'. Others I know deliberately keep a distance to some extent & try & integrate more fully into the Albanian community knowing the inevitability of the foreign friends' departure at some point & the pain that goes with it. I couldn't cope with that. I know you can enjoy those friends 'for the moment' but I'm the sort of person who enjoys, & has, close, long term, 20 yr old friendships. There is something irreplaceable about the familiarity, acceptance & 'pick up where you left off' nature of old friends. I miss it.

I guess I'm also quite picky & I have found it hard adapting to 'circumstantial' friends. Somehow it seems a bit false & a bit pointless hanging out with people because you need a social network even though you have little in common. I do try & be welcoming, have people for meals etc even though it's a draining process, but it's the soul mates, kindred spirits, old, old friends I miss. On the plus side I have made unexpected friendships & gained valuable lessons from these experiences.

I have been reading 'Third Culture Kids', that seminal work by Dave Pollack. Leave taking & expressing grief, are all part of a 'global nomad's life experience. Pollack states that for TCKs, 'The collection of significant losses & separations before the end of adolescence is often more than most people experience in a lifetime'. He says that Third Culture Kids (TCKs) can develop a pattern of fear of intimacy, or protecting themselves from further pain & from further goodbyes by not allowing people to get very close. This often continues into adulthood (ATCKs) & can affect all relationships & marriages too. Of course, on the plus side, they are very good at getting into friendships very quickly & are confident socially because they have had so much practice & had to get stuck in to make friends. I see this positive trait in my children already. I just hope they can avoid the negative ones, which let's face it are quite significant & potentially impacting. For me I just find, increasingly, that it all feels like such a huge effort & one I know I will have to repeat again & again & again, as long as we are living this lifestyle. And I'm fed up with it, yet at the same time, I hate loneliness too & need to feel I belong to a social network. So I guess I will keep trying.

At least reading the book (which is equally applicable to adults, like me, leading highly mobile lives) makes me realise I'm normal &helps identify the stages of Involvement, Leaving, Transition, Entering, Re-involvement. & helps me recognise the typical reactions that go with these stages. It really is helpful to know one isn't utterly pathetic, or even merely hormonal (for a change) but that I am exhibiting normal psychological phenomena. Hooray for them.

Many people spend most of their lives in the 'Involvement stage' where life is 'normal', we are comfortable, we fit in, we recognize we are an intimate part of our community, we are familiar with & follow traditions & local customs, we are confident of our valued membership of & position in this society. We are probably focused, primarily, on the present & our immediate relationships, rather than worrying about the past or the future. It is also a comfortable stage for those around us because they know our reputation, history, talents, tastes, interests & our place in the social network.

You may not even realise half of this, because it's so normal. Until you leave, move somewhere new, or even to another country.

Meanwhile though I still have my cyber community to enjoy. This has been a lifeline to me & has provided invaluable support & people to talk to, especially those in similar situations who have time to write & chat, unlike many of our busy friends back home. And some have become virtually, real friends, people whom I hope to meet up with at the Cybermummy conference in London in July. So thank you to those that read my blog, have offered encouragement, made kind comments & emailed too. it means a lot.

I wonder if anyone has written about the positive & negative impacts of cyberpals on the integration of an ex pat into her new 'real' community..........?


Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

So excited to hear that you are hoping to go to CyberMummy as well. Can't wait to meet you. Lots of the expat British Mummies are making noises about going.

Sorry to hear that so many close friends are going to be leaving. That is really difficult, and terribly tiring. It just doesn't give you any breathing space, to have to constantly be making new friends.

Does the book say anything about going 'home' again? I'm looking forward to getting back to Oxford, but also a bit worried about possible culture shocks in reverse.

The cyber community has made a massive difference to me. Really huge. Someone ought to write something on it - let me know if you see anything!

Potty Mummy said...

I agree; someone SHOULD write something about it because it's been a life-saver for me in the last few weeks. Somehow it makes the shock of having moved just a little bit less immediate. And thanks for the pointer on the book; I'll be ordering that to pick up in the UK on our next trip home. (And finally, looking forward to meeting you in July!)

Heather said...

My online friends are often the only ones i talk to that are over three and only have two legs.

i don't know here I would be without you all.

Tanya said...

Despite being an ATCK I have always been shy. Sometimes I really have to force myself to 'get out there' and do all the meet and greets that are necessary (especially when your kids are teenagers and the obligatory school drop off/ pick up meet and greets dont happen anymore)when moving to a new country. I am, however (as an ATCK) more comfortable in myself living outside of my 'home' country as having spent the first 10 years of my life in Asia dont really feel like I fit in in NZ when Im at 'home'. When an expated Kiwi I am not expected to fit in to my new home which suits me much better.
On the other hand I am now a parent of TCKs both outgoing, confident and happy and funnily enough even with moving every two or three years I would also say 'settled' which I think is because they see family as 'home' as opposed to a certain house or country (although they are proud Kiwis too). The younger one in particular LOVES to travel and meet new people and is amazing at regular communication via MSN chat at keeping up with old friends. Plus he and his friends (both boys and girls) seem very quick to get pretty tight and intimate and dont seem to have the same clique issues schools at home have. In fact its all quite the opposite, they enjoy eachothers differences and seem comfortable with their own.
It helps that nowadays people know about the whole TCK phenomenon. They know their feelings about being 'global wanderers', 'accompanied minors', 'airport kids' etc etc whatever they may be are 'normal'- in my day I was just a teenager who was acting up.

nappy valley girl said...

I've heard about TCKs before and will now definitely buy it. Sounds very interesting (although the only thing I will say is that, having grown up abroad, I keep in touch with more friends from my childhood than my husband, who grew up in the same house all his life and went to day school...).

The cyber community has definitley been a godsend for me, too. Not just blogging, although the blogging community has been a fantastic support, but Facebook to keep in touch with my friends from home - I don't know what I would have done without it.

Wifeoverseas said...

It is always much easier to be the one going than the one left behind. Whether it is at the end of a holiday, for a work trip, or a weekend away. I imagine the psychology behind it is to do with control. The one leaving is making the choice and taking the action. The one staying behind can do nothing.

Sarah said...

Just found your blog while searching for information about Albania-which I know almost nothing. We will be there, hopefully for a few weeks in the summer. I wouldn't worry too much about TWC- I moved once a year until age ten- I am happily married +3.
looking forward to reading more about Albania through your eyes

Expat mum said...

I'm not a global nomad as I moved here then stayed, but I hate making friends with other expats (not really) because very few of them stay. Having said that, since Americans are quite a transient lot, I have made some really good American friends only to have them move thousnds of miles away.

A woman I met a few years ago, who has had an amazing life moving around the world, advised me never to regret making friends with anyone, which I thought was a great attitude, and indeed, you never know when you're going to meet them again.

Iota said...

Well, there's a book waiting for someone to write.

I used to think, from time to time, that blogging meant that I made less effort to integrate locally. I don't think that any more. I think integrating is a slow process, and there's only so many hours a day you can be out there, meeting people, getting involved, etc. And you're more likely to do it with gusto and enthusiasm, if you're feeling ok in yourself. So if blogging helps towards you feeling ok, then I think it probably helps towards the integration process.

I like Expat Mum's comment. It's true. You never look back and regret making friends with someone.

Almost American said...

I do wonder sometimes how different my expat experience might have been if the internet had been around when I first arrived here 25 years ago. If stronger connections back to the UK would have brought me back there? If the homesickness and culture shock would have been worse or easier to deal with?

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

Brit: yes I am really loooking forward to the confeence & meeting u too:o) . Yes the book talks about're-entry' it is a great book, really helpful. reverse culture shjock,a cc to my clinical pyschologist friend is stil v under rated & misunderstood etc.
PM: look 4wd to meeting u too, tho I cam imagien u at leats now, havign read a copy of RED in Sains when home at Christmas!
Heather: Thnx for visitng & readign & commenting. yes it is a great community & a lifeline
Tanya. Thnx for yr encouraging comments! It's true to say I tend to be anxious abt stuff. it's also true tehe are HUGE positives to being a TCK espec as u mention in terms of tolerance, world view, flexibitly, adaptability etc. They do also ten dto be able to get into deeper friendships quicker, knowing that they need to make friends quickly etc. it's also true that so much more i sritten about the ATCK/TCk phenomenon now. MAke slife a lot easier

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

NVG: Yes do get it, it's a great book, really enlightening. I find FB invaluable too.
Sarah: That's encouraging to hear! There are many positves I know, & it gives kids a rich experience
Wife overseas. That's it, I'm a control freak I know!
Expat Mum: I like yr friend's comment, what a great way of looking at things.
Iota: I guess my worry is i do too much of it, or have done in both new countries I've arrive din. & it can be a retreat or a choice to engage in cyber space wch is easier rather than engage locally in 'reallife'
Almost American: I gues sit forced you to 'get out there' and get on with life. I agree wth Iota that one can't be 'out tehe' all the time, but the computer/interent/email/Fb can be a retreat/escape & rpevent one from intergating or moving on fully, carrying on living life 'back home' t agreate ror lesser extent