“Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
An expat life - or, a life lived away from a core group of family and friends who have been raised in one place for the majority of their childhood, can be described in many ways. Exciting, exhilarating, scary, privileged, exhausting, scary, unsettling, eye-opening, isolating, stressful, overwhelming, depressing, stimulating, dangerous, thrilling.
To attempt to sum it up into one word is impossible. (Is life-changing one word?)
Living overseas changes your life - and it may not always seem like it’s for the better. However, I do believe that through adversity comes strength and in the deepest depths of loneliness and fear that will wash over you, one always emerges stronger. So - whilst not everyone has an amazing time, there’s something to be learnt about life or oneself through the process - and for that, we can always be grateful.
Not only does the experience itself change your life; it changes the very trajectory of your life. That is, the opportunities that arise, the experiences shape you and what you believe is possible, the people you meet. The influences leapfrog your thinking into another sphere when you are stimulated by different cultures, sights and smells, people, perspectives, experiences, struggles. You simply develop a different lens through which you see life. The exposure to this on it’s own can become very isolating indeed.
Many of the things I’ve seen and experienced can never be explained, and thus never understood. Except, perhaps, by other expats. Empathy for those who are (or have been) expats or have multicultural experience is hard. Scrap that - empathy is hard in any case. Even more so for those who’ve had experiences so wildly different from yours.
Not only in their uniqueness in terms of the geography and it happening to me in those moments, those places and with those people… But in their impact to me - and my mindset, behaviour, insecurities, view of the world, way I handle relationships, deal with my emotions. These experiences have left me extremely vulnerable and yet magnificently equipped. I can be fearless - not scared to dream big, but my appetite for risk restricts me. Paradox much?
Repatriation - connection with those you left behind
Those repatriating back ‘home’ may be upset that they’re not understood by those they left behind. Your life continued - so did their lives. Their context is different, and points of reference are on a different scale. If you’re anything like me, your ability to relate to life in your home country becomes harder as life passes by. I get frustrated by all the things that led me to leave, that some friends don’t share my wanderlust tendencies, and FOMO (fear of missing out) to explore every opportunity. Then I’m overcome with envy. That they could be happy where I could not, that they have roots.
Depending on the reasons for repatriation - moving back to Australia, the US, the UK - anywhere - the experience fills many with a combination of dread, excitement, nostalgia and fear. Similar emotions to moving abroad, but with so much added complexity.
Moving back home is all about connection, says Margot Andersen of INSYNC Networking Group. Many repats feels disconnected - I’ve been following conversations in a few online communities, in particular one called - I Am A Triangle, (founded by expat Naomi Hattaway). Expat members all cite people in their home country “not getting” them, feeling “disconnected’ from family and friends”, “struggling with old friendships”, being “misunderstood by my old circle”, “we regret coming back” - and so on.
Not that I ever intend on returning to the UK (as I don’t really consider it my home - I’ve created my own sense of home here in Australia) - but I can imagine the above and below realisations, writing them down, and sharing them, must go some way to helping me to connect with my friends - or at least be better understood.
After a lifetime of so many friends from different corners of the world (still in all of those corners) - along with family, and those I’ve met in Australia - the place I’d never even visited before emigrating to and now consider my home. This letter is to you.
A letter to friends and family
You’ve all told me I’m one of a kind - you’ve never met anyone like me. I’m unique, unforgettable. And yes, I know it’s not always in a good way!
If you were all to describe me - you’d probably use any combination of the following (depending on how you know me): loud, funny, obnoxious, brash, sensitive, caring, passionate, emotional, over-emotional, intelligent, articulate, cocky, clever, smart, sensitive, worldly, chatty, outgoing, intense, driven, loyal, open, annoying, rude, brave, resourceful, competitive, blunt, unforgiving, organised, opinionated, picky, honest, uncompromising, resilient, determined, logical, irrational, adaptable, wise, stupid, vulnerable, mysterious, stubborn, controlling, prude, adventurous, intuitive, trusting, suspicious, perfectionist.
Lots are contradictory traits - many from my Scorpio personality no doubt, but I attribute most to my upbringing and experiences. I’m still working stuff out - having to make fast friends forced me to be trusting and open, but getting burned or hurt often would leave me suspicious, teaching me that I needed to be hold back more - not be so open, loyal and giving so quickly. This built resilience but the same time growing up as an expat kid exercised this muscle a silly amount - premature goodbyes (or none at all), friendships always cut short. My portfolio of childhood friends was, out of necessity, a case of quantity over quality. All in all - forming bonds has been difficult.
I have many friends - many of them close. Not many of them overlap. I also haven’t ever had a fixed circle of friends. How I envied the ‘uni girls summer weekends’ or ‘school girls’ jaunts’ to wherever. I don’t know why it never happened. I ended up travelling far and wide on my own, or later with Ian, to visit friends and family in San Francisco to Beijing, Hong Kong to Athens, Berlin, New York, Houston, Singapore, you get the drift. Guess I’m just a loner and introvert at heart.
Ian was always embarrassed by me - my habit of chatting ‘to randoms’ when I recognise an accent, a behaviour. Testing out my Spanish on a waiter, teasing an Uber driver to ‘shwaya shwaya’ when I discover they’re Lebanese, (shwaya shwaya means slow down in Arabic), or bargaining in shops for a discount. Then surprised by my not being fazed when needing to drive on the other side of the road.
I can also be crushingly self-conscious. This will surprise all of you. And yet, it’s all the facade - the ‘Armadillo’ I’ve come to call myself. I’ve a very tough exterior, and only a few know that I’m actually ridiculously insecure, extremely sensitive, and have battled almost all of my life with a lack of self confidence.
My sense of humour, loudness, making myself known: also stems from the new kid thing. ‘Be funny before anyone else can make any judgement about you’ - ‘if nothing else at least they won’t mess with you because you’ll be able to retort - not be scared to defend yourself in the event of an attack’ I’d think to myself. This is all with the benefit of hindsight, you understand. This many times has only served to alienate me - put up an even bigger fence, make me less approachable. The irony is not lost on me.
I often joke about my ‘high recognition needs’ - sadly, it’s true. The need for validation, perhaps stems from culture and lack of it growing up. A British father who didn’t really express emotion, and a Singaporean mother - who I joke had mild Tiger Mother tendencies. I’ve constantly had to adapt to new environments and the need to know that I fit in, I’m being liked. It doesn’t get easier with time, sadly.
On top of all of this, I’ve been exposed to quite a lot in my crazy international life. This has shaped my opinions, approach, and view of the world.
The experiences I’d had to the age of 12 can only be described as eclectic, along with all of the adjectives in the first paragraph of this post. Whilst I’d never watched Grange Hill, or played piano, I learnt how to ride a horse at a stables by the pyramids in Cairo and went skidooing on frozen lakes in Canada.
Our time in Egypt was so fun, and yet scary - not least because at times it was downright dangerous. There were riots, dead bodies on the streets, government imposed curfews where the military would take control. One evening, my parents went out for a dinner to entertain some clients. Their first choice of venue was fully booked - thank goodness. For this riot happened in that exact hotel that very night - and the group ended up dining somewhere else. The hotel was attacked - people died there that night.
The building we lived in had two 24-hour armed guards. So was my school. It wasn’t certain that we could get basics like flour, sugar, butter, meats in normal shops. Because we were expats, we could sometimes get them on the black market. We had drivers - more for security than anything else. An expat lady who lived in a house nearby got murdered, the guard must’ve fallen asleep in the scorching heat.
Cairo was a sharp contrast from Canada, where we lived in Newfoundland. We went ice-fishing, and eating lobster was a regular occurrence. I went to a local school, I learnt to ice-skate. Many of you won’t know - I’m a really good ice-skater, I can even go backwards!
Before that, Nova Scotia - still in Canada. My mother hated it, so we moved to Newfie. Prior to that is a blur as I was sub-8 years old - but Trinidad, Ivory Coast, Brazil, Malta, Taiwan, Egypt and UK for short stints - all featured in my childhood for periods ranging from 3 months to 2 years. With annual visits back to the UK, Singapore and other travels in between. Hotels were regularly ‘home’.
We moved back to the UK in 1987 when I was 12, nearly 13 - with permed hair, an American accent and begged my parents to send me to boarding to school. I was so upset we had to leave Cairo - the adventure was over. Moving to the UK was like being picked up after the school dance. I was being wrenched away. I hated it, I missed my fun friends. Instead I was plonked in classroom with a bunch of kids who didn’t even know where Singapore - my birth country - was.
I had stiff school uniforms for winter and summer. Then for winter and summer sports. Then a cravat depending on my house, whether I had house colours or other ‘standing’ within the school hierarchy. This from wearing whatever I wanted to school - mostly shorts and a t-shirt. Living in Norfolk, I travelled to Ely 6 days a week on the train then had to walk up a steep hill. You know how I whinge at the sight of a hill. I didn’t board as it would have been too costly for brother and I - I envied the boarders at school. For 6th form I went to boarding school - finally!
I didn’t settle in too badly, considering. I was ‘ok’ academically - though I did struggle to adapt to some subjects like religious studies and history. Then there was sport - hockey in the mud versus swimming and baseball. I’d no idea how to play hockey or netball.
All of this rich web of experience can be isolating in more ways than one. Not just the loneliness that I’d experience when starting afresh. It’s something much deeper - an isolation from often being misunderstood because it’s not often I share the above, and how it’s impacted me.
Above all, I’ve realised it’s shaped me more than I’ve ever realised. I have a very different lens, I’m unique, and no one can take away this lived experience. I do struggle with some people not ‘getting’ the perspective and understanding that I have of the world. A sense that I will never be understood.
How to navigate and cope with this is something I’m still working out. How to manage the frustration, articulate in a way that people can understand and ultimately - how to impact and help those on the same journey.
Born in: Singapore
Passports: UK, Australia
Birthright citizenships: British, Singapore
Countries lived in: 14
Countries visited: 37
Number of international moves: 18
Number of schools: 12
Number of times repatriated: 2.5
Countries worked in: 4