Turn and turn about; the expat dance

>> Monday, 18 April 2011


It turns out that one of the biggest advantages of being an expat - the opportunity to make deep and meaningful friendships in a much shorter time frame than you would ever do in your home environment - is also one of the biggest disadvantages.

It's all very well being thrown together with a group of amusing, warm, outgoing, outward-looking individuals, many of whom are similarly at sea in this world of serial expat-ness and likewise wondering if they will ever manage to make it back into the work-place of their home town when they eventually get there, but it's another thing entirely when they start to up and leave in large numbers.

It happens every year of course, in Expat-ville's the world over. Do the maths; most serial expats (of which I am not one) do postings lasting 2 or 3 years. Occasionally these postings are extended to 5 years, but more often than not, just around the time a family is getting used to their surroundings and starting to feel like locals, it's time to repack the containers and be on their way. As a result, Boy #1's grade last year lost around 30% of it's pupils, and is set to lose somewhere around that number again this June.

This is one of those hardships that are ignored by people who speak dismissively of 'expat brats'. Sure, these children are often ridiculously privileged. Some of them have never seen their own parents drive a car in their country of residence, they are overly-sophisticated in many ways, and the thought of spending a school break just kicking around in their (temporary) home country instead of jetting off to their country of origin never even occurs to them. But look back at your own childhood, and whilst you may have made one or two new friends from time to time throughout your primary school life, I suspect that the same faces appeared year after year every September, often in the same class. Here, however, and as I understand it in many expat schools, even when children stay put classes are deliberately mixed up at the beginning of every school year. As a result, this school year Boy #1 was in the same class as only 2 of his friends from the previous one, and if we stay for another year (as is increasingly likely), that pattern will probably repeat.

On the plus side (and as the school rationalises), this does mean that children become very good at making new friendships. Which is lucky, given that most of them need to do this every 3 years or so in any case. On the downside, it also means an uneasy settling in period each September and that as a mum there's no comfort to be had in knowing which are the kids to invite back for tea and which to avoid at all costs because they will wreck your home and never say please or thank you (amazingly, not a skill that is universally taught).

It also means, from a purely selfish and metaphorical point of view, that good friends are leaving and that my 'class' is being mixed up too. And that makes me a little sad.


Elsie Button 18 April 2011 at 19:01  

gosh. this post (and of course all of your others) is exactly why i like the whole blogging thing - such an insight...

Pig in the Kitchen 18 April 2011 at 20:42  

Yuk, I hate this side of expat life. My eldest has had friends move on every year. She seems very matter of fact about it, but I do great juddering sobbing in the playground as yet ANOTHER family leaves and i wonder for the millionth time, 'am i fucking up my kids' lives? (or just my own...)!' There's lots of high jinks being an expat, but plenty of sad lows... Nice piece potty M!

Expat mum 18 April 2011 at 20:48  

The really seriously serial expats though ( not me) actually meet up every decade or so. I have friends who've been doing it for over 20 years and they often find themselves all back in Thailand. It's like a little club!
And none of them are at all sad.

Iota 18 April 2011 at 23:02  

Always getting to know new people and saying goodbye to friends is tiring. No wonder expats need their vacations and trips home.

MsCaroline 19 April 2011 at 03:29  

Hmmm, what a great topic. I grew up as an expat and had never thought about this. I just did it, and so did everyone else. (@Pig in the Kitchen: based on my experiences, the answer is, "no, you're not fxcking them up" although some people who know me might disagree...) My own kids have moved cross-country (not out of country yet) only 3 times, which seems tremendously stable to me.
This is such an interesting question, especially from my point of view. In my mind, the natural order of things is for people to leave in June.

The Expatresse 19 April 2011 at 06:36  

When we have been the ones doing the moving, we have pointed out to our kids how many of their friends are, too. Thankfully we have the Internet and various "social media" to make keeping in touch easier than when I started being a nomad in the late 1980s.

I, too, ask if I am fucking up my kids' lives. But I think in the end we are not. Yes, there are times when I yearn for roots (and not having to get to know another new gynecologist . . . ugh). But in the end, the good out weighs the bad. I hope.

Keren David 19 April 2011 at 07:59  

This was the worst side of expat life for me. Some children - extroverts, who thrive on making lots of relatively superficial friendships - it's stimulating and exciting. For others who prefer deeper slower relationships, it is really difficult. We were expats in Amsterdam for eight years, so saw three of these two-year cycles. Not easy. Thanks for writing about it.

Dawn/LittleGreenFingers 19 April 2011 at 08:58  

This seems to be the very definition of motherhood - you spend the entire post worrying about the effect on children - not even just your own but other people's - and only at the end do you even mention the fact you lose friends too.

Must be really tough.

Muddling Along 19 April 2011 at 14:41  

I'd forgotten about this aspect of expat life, not only do you never feel you can fully unpack and settle but also friendships become transitory and yet the relationships with people back home also change and strain and move

Paradise Lost In Translation 19 April 2011 at 21:36  

Yup, it sucks, I find i thard, & it is tiring, starting all over, again & again. The TCK bible (book on 3rd Culture kids) mentions all the positives people have said here, b t the down side can be an inability to form deep or meaningful friendships or relationships, out of self preservation, fear of losing friends you have got close to, putting up barriers. these children ar eghenerally v outgoing, gregarious or find it easy to socialsie & make ffriends, but they can not allow people to get close to them sometimes. Also avoidance of conflict resolution because they know they or others will be moving on so they don't 'need' to deal with an issue.

About Last Weekend 20 April 2011 at 00:28  

This makes me think a lot about my own life as have sort of been an expat for 20 years, living as a Kiwi in London for 15 years and now eight years in California. Those skills, making friends and being flexible will stand your kids in brilliant stead for the rest of their lives. Must say we Kiwis really stuck together in London but now I only have one Kiwi friend in Oakland

Potty Mummy 20 April 2011 at 16:17  

EB, thankyou.

Pig, glad you liked it and interesting that it struck a chord. I certainly never expected this many comments!

EPM,I know, I needn't lose touch with them. It's just I'm new to all this and will be sad not to have them just down the road!

Iota, no wonder indeed!

MsC, and probably it will be the natural order for my boys too. Just never thought about this before it happened

Expatresse, I agree, I think the good does outweigh the bad. It's just that this is something that never occurs to you when you're initially considering this lifestyle.

Keren, and thanks for the comment!

Dawn, that wasn't my intention (as so often with blogging, I set out to write a completely different post and this is just what came out!)

MaM, strange, isn't it? Certainly not where I expected to be at this time of my life.

Paradise, I know of that book (although don't have it) too and of the issues you mention. Am just hoping they won't affect my two - though if we keep this up, I know they probably will.

ALW, so you're assimilating, then? Good to know you feel at home. Russia though, for most expats here, is always transitory - hence the post. Wish it wasn't but have to say I don't blame the people moving on; life here is interesting but 3 years or so would be enough...

lulu's missives 21 April 2011 at 14:30  

For me, it is also the 'leaving behind' of the new 'good' friends and then not being able to maintain the friendship. Sometimes it feels a bit like 'out of sight, out of mind'.
I get a sense of being a nomad.

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