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Home for the holidays? An expat looks at loneliness and isolation

 This past Christmas Amber and I didn’t fly home to visit friends and family back in America, and none of our friends or family from America flew out visit us. Instead, we all just celebrated the holidays on our own and put the photos on Facebook for any one who cared to see later.

Some people couldn’t imagine spending a holiday like that. I knew people in the military who would lived overseas and would fly back to America every Christmas regardless of the unfair ticket prices, the hassle of holiday travel or the fact that they would burn four days of leave in transit. They didn’t factor those problems into deciding whether or not the trip would be worth it because it was a given that they would go home for the holidays. The idea of not doing that never occurred to them.

At the time I saw those people as weak. The only reason some of them were stationed overseas was because the military forced them to deploy there. Now that they were forced out of their comfort zone they were still too codependent on their traditional support structures to leave the nest completely and experience the amazing opportunities life had presented them with. So they went home every chance they got and winched about it whenever they couldn’t.

There was some validity to my vain perspective, but there was a downside to my sense of geographical liberation. Case in point, I spent my last Christmas in Germany with 4 other guys about the same age as me. We bought a keg, put it in the snow on the balcony and spent Christmas Night drinking and playing video games all night. As awesome as that was I felt like we were all a little bummed we didn’t have a warm, clean, well lighted place to spend the holidays where everybody knows your name. And the closest thing we had to that cozy, home fire feeling was in fact found in bars.

If you’re going to leave your foreign country only to end up spending your holidays drinking and reminiscing about where you came from then you’d probably be better off staying where you’re at. If you do spend your expat holidays winching then that’s ultimately you’re fault, because holidays can be a great opportunity to make the most of your expat experience…as I’ve come to learn.

The first Christmas Amber and I spent in New Zealand we celebrated with a large Fijian family. It was cultural, educational and inebriating. Our first Thanksgiving in New Zealand (which they don’t celebrate here) we found an American expat meetup group on the internet that was throwing a huge, free dinner and social mixer event. So we went and met a lot of Libertarians…which surprised me, and I still can’t explain.

This past Christmas Amber and I took a month and a half long road trip down to the bottom of New Zealand and back up to Auckland. Amber worked with a teacher whose parents lived on the South Island. So we all met up there for Christmas. The family we stayed with took us in, gave us a tour of the local area and showed us a good time all around.

One night we were all sitting around the dining room table drinking wine or scotch or beer, and the mother leaned over the table and asked Amber and I with a meaningful tone of voice, “So where do you call home?”  with extra emphasis on the word, “home.”

The thing about that is, I’ve never lived in the same town for more than three consecutive years…in my entire life. Amber bounced around quite a bit as well. We met in Hawaii, thousands of miles from where either of us were raised. It’s not that we were orphans. We have families, and it’s not that we hate everyone in our families, though there are a few members we don’t talk to anymore, and each of them typically has someone else who they don’t talk to. Amber and I have a few tight bonds with a few family members, but there’s too much bad blood on all the branches in general for either of our families to be able to have big family reunions without somebody stabbing someone else with BBQ utensil.

Since we hadn’t been raised with deep roots it wasn’t out of character for us to be spending our holidays in a foreign country with strangers.  Nor was it out of character for Amber’s teaching friend to be spending her holiday with her parents in her home town, which we had to be a little envious of. It’s really awkward sitting around someone else’s Christmas tree Christmas morning watching a group of strangers share gifts and express how much they care for each other and how well they know each other.

I explained to our dinner hosts in a few words why Amber and I don’t have a place in America that we call “home.” Then they asked the next logical question, “So do you consider New Zealand your home now?” The thing about that is, a place becomes your home slowly over time. Personally, for me, I’ve moved so many times and had so many two-year-friends in the military that I don’t get attached to places or even people very quickly anymore. I love it in New Zealand just like I loved a lot of places I’ve lived, but after two years I still don’t feel completely rooted. Of course, a lot of people wouldn’t feel too emotionally invested in a place after only two years, but some people would…especially the kind of people who form strong social bonds quickly.

In time I’ll come to feel like New Zealand is my home, and I’ll come to value friendships I’ve made here as important as family, and I’m looking forward to it because it’s going to be awesome, but there’s another long term down-side to the great adventure I’m taking that would-be expats should be aware of.

My nieces are growing up in photographs. Every time I talk to my brothers I have less and less in common with them to talk about. Every year it becomes more and more the case that the only thing I have in common with my original friends and family is the past.

That’s just how long distance relationships go. You don’t want to admit it to yourself, much less them, and for a while you pretend like it isn’t happening. You keep in touch on Skype and by E-mail. Maybe you even write a blog to help maintain a connection, but at the end of the day you may as well be living on different planets. And on each planet life goes on. If you’re the type to spend Christmas drinking alone listening to emo music the thought might occur to you that as far as your old life is concerned you might as well be dead.

And without being dramatic, there’s a little truth to that. Your old family and friends are getting on with their lives without you just as surely as you get on with your life any time one of your relatives dies.

But that doesn’t mean expatriating has to be a form of suicide nor does it mean you’re abandoning anyone. Life is meant to be lived. Nests are meant to be left. How much does it honour the people who raised you if you spend your life hiding from life’s challenges and never step out of your comfort zone? If you want to play devil’s advocate you could ask how much you owe it to the people who care about you to maintain an active role their lives. We could argue all day about that, and if you become an expat you’ll probably end up arguing with yourself about it eventually.

In the end this is an issue every expat has to work out for themselves. If you think you might have trouble bringing closure to that issue then you might consider finding a therapist to talk after you immigrate. That doesn’t make you weak. That makes you resourceful. I’d probably do it myself if I could afford to.  Short of that, I recommend lots of introspection and socialization to keep away the existential blues. And remember that expatriating is like anything else in life; it’s what you make of it.


2 Responses

  1. Interesting, melancholy post. I grew up in Michigan and have lived overseas (Japan, then New Zealand) for almost 15 years now. I haven’t been back to the States in 6 years, but my partner and I are going to visit in a couple months. It’ll be interesting to see how much things and people have changed. We’ve got such a great life in NZ that I have no regrets, though. I wouldn’t trade my life for any other path. Best of luck to you in your NZ life.

    • I’ve lived in New Zealand for 2 years now, but before that I spent 7 years outside of mainland America. So this post was the culmination of 9 years of separation. I couldn’t imagine staying in one place for the rest of my life anymore, but I felt it was worth mentioning that there are costs to the benefits of world traveling.

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