the band-aid rip: what it means to be an expat

At the school my children attend here in England many families have confirmed the inevitable- whether they’re staying in London or moving on to the next adventure. It’s about this time of year when parents greet each other in the school yard that the same question is posed over and over again: “So, are you going or staying?” Each family receives a packet in the mail inquiring as to whether you plan to re-register your child(ren) for the next academic year. I imagine a school bureaucrat, processing the response letters received into two different piles: “remaining” or “departing” with automated indifference. I then contrast that indifference to the depth of emotions that reverberate throughout the entire expat community– regardless of which of those two piles their family’s dossier is placed…

Exciting as it may appear, or ready as a family is to move on, or even as accustomed as a family is to the constant change of residence, expat exoduses are, at best, bittersweet but more often than not, simply painful. I often say that being an expat is a double-edged sword. One may use that sword to trailblaze in far-away lands that are perceived as exciting — where you meet and befriend people you may not have otherwise come across had you stayed in the town of your provenance.  Alas, in the expat world, departures and good-byes are never a question of IF, only WHEN and unless you have an infallible heart of titanium, that same sword cuts an emotional wound every single time.

I’ve just returned from Tenerife, the Canary Islands where two close girlfriends, Tara and Karina and our families spent the week together. We met here in London almost four years ago but Karina has since moved back to the States. The friendship was intense, to put it mildly. That’s the thing about friendships formed in expat circles. In my experience, they can never be anything less than intense.

I recall a conversation I had when my children first attended the French American School of NY in Westchester County. By virtue of the fact that it is an international school, the community is also intensely expat. I believe the school population represents something like 97 nationalities. I was with my kids one day in the playground when a very friendly German woman and I got to chatting. Her family had lived all over – their last residence being Nairobi, Kenya. Later that evening she called me and did a very “expatty” thing– she proposed an immediate relationship.

“Hello Catherine? This is Ursula. We met today in the playground at school. Since neither of us really know how long we’ll be here in New York, I’d like to skip all the niceties of dating (I’m paraphrasing here). I like you. I think you like me. Let’s be friends!” And so began our friendship.

It’s not necessarily… no, scratch that…it’s not AT ALL like that when you enter an established community in North America where people have lived all their lives and have made their friends and long-ago sealed their inner circles. I learned this the hard way when my family repatriated back to the States from England in 2005. I thought I could absolutely “hold my own” moving home. Obviously I didn’t get the repatriation memo. We moved to Fairfield County in Connecticut—home to some of “THE best schools in the country”.

But I was a fish out of water – especially vis-à-vis my parenting. The other parents were friendly enough to be sure. One of the first things I discovered was that people with school-aged kids in American public schools are very proprietary about where they’ve sent them. Everyone wants you, as the newbie, to list all the reasons (i.e. hear you repeat all the same reasons they themselves made) why you chose their beloved school district. Conversely, people with kids in private school are made to feel defensive or even cagey about their reasons for choosing a private education over their community’s “excellent” public school offerings. Or they want to know if your child is athletically capable of helping their community soccer/baseball, etc. team win the league trophy. After that, they’re “just not that into you”.

I was popular enough, or so I’d believed, when I’d lived in London the first time around with my three small children (my youngest was born here). I had a great set of girlfriends whom I socialized with on a regular basis – girls nights out at least every other week (Mondays or Tuesdays), dinner parties once a month with husbands (Wednesdays or Thursdays). Fridays and weekends were an unspoken “off limits” in London- that’s when my friends went off to their country houses. Sundays however, were post-rugby Sunday roasts where the noise of all the children was overcome by the banter of their parents on the 3rd round of afternoon gin & tonics.

I went into shell shock when I moved back to the States as a 30-something year old mother to discover that no, in my experience, my American-based counterparts (at least where I lived) don’t generally go out mid-week when they have diaper-clad or boosterseat-aged children at home. When I proposed to a friendly-enough CT mom that we get together for Monday night cocktails, she looked at me as if I were from another planet. I discovered that life as a parent in America is extremely child-centric and that other people really do expect you to take sincere interest in the fact that their Little Logan made honor roll AND got a trophy for it… in Kindergarten no less.

I wrote languishing emails to my London girlfriends lamenting my existence in Stepford Suburbia and my inability to make like-minded friends. I missed sidewalks and meeting up in the school playground for afterschool chats (the school my son attended had a drop-off driving lane where parents are expected to stay in the car, collect one’s child and proceed home without further ado, thank you very much). I missed “tea-dates” where when you collected your child, you were expected to stay for a glass of wine.

Most of all, I’ll admit, I missed swearing. American women don’t cuss like English women—it’s considered uncouth and untoward. Swearing in Great Britain, however, transcends all classes. My mother was visiting me in London and came down the stairs to find my very posh girlfriend announce, “I’m hosting a sit-down dinner tonight for fourteen barristers.      F—k me!”

Needless to say, I lasted all of 3.5 seconds with the Perfectly Pleasant set in Connecticut (okay so it was more like a pitiable five months). I sat in traffic one day as I was driving home from my son’s soccer championship(!!) game where no one would talk to me (except for one woman but she had bad shoes) and I asked for a sign from God as to whether I should stay in CT or move closer to NY where I was sure to find a sidewalk and women who wouldn’t bristle at the word “shit.”

And just then I heard the loud snorting of something right outside my minivan (if I was going to do American suburbia, I was going to do it right!). A HUGE hog (as in pig…yes, pig) had apparently escaped from goodness knows where and was negotiating his way through the traffic. I watched that immense swine in awe as he lumbered through the long line of cars and when the shock of his cameo had worn off, I rolled down my window and shouted to the heavens “Thank you!!”. Then and there I called my husband to let him know we were moving back to an international community.

In retrospect that initial phone call from Ursula asking me to be fast friends seems as natural as ever to me. Friendships in expats communities are formed quickly because when you’re away from home, your friends become family. You’re forced to list people you’ve only just met as your emergency contacts and you rely on them to help you settle in, show you the ropes and introduce you to like-minded people. You’re obliged to compress your assessment of others as to whether they’ll fit your own friendship criteria (the ability to swear without judgement and good shoes are obviously important to me). You have no choice but to strip down all the layers (politics, religion, parenting, socializing, family values, etc.) in an accelerated timeframe (you may only have a few years together, afterall) to decide if you can indeed make this person “family”.

One may question whether these friendships are superficial because they’re not based on a long history. I say generally no. I admit I don’t always get it right. I’m no longer close with Ursula. But by and large, in expat circles, the friendships formed are genuine and life-long.

While I won’t dare avow that life in the expat bubble is difficult and not without its priveleges, I will say it has its “bumps”. You’ve lived through the battle of navigating unfamiliar territory together in a foreign country– opening a bank account, acquiring a cell phone, wading through the bureaucracy of obtaining a driver’s license (and once you get that license, you wave it around like a badge of honor to anyone who is not legally blind- which says something about the process because the accompanying photos make everyone look like a terrorist). You’ve shared carpools to soccer and ballet practices where your children are the only “foreigners” or spent weekends together at ice hockey tournaments in backwater towns you’d otherwise never visit, let alone knew even existed.

You’ve celebrated your children’s birthdays, your own benchmark birthdays and wedding anniversaries together where normally your real family might have attended. You’ve broken bread together at Thanksgiving and toasted to each other’s health and happiness several New Years in a row. More than a shoulder to cry, you’ve become legal guardians to your friends’ children for an undetermined time period when a family member who lives oceans away falls gravely ill or passes. You’ve turned the page of another chapter when close friends whom you’ve deemed “family-away-from-home” leave time and time again.

We women especially, as mothers of our children and the wives of our “masters-of-the-universe” husbands, must take it on the chin more than anyone else in the family—if only because we have to put on the face of strength as we close our “pop-up picture book” lives only to open it again and again somewhere else. We take a deep breath and then exhale in an even deeper sigh as we comfort ourselves and our children who also have to see off their best friend(s) (again!) and explain that “it is what it is and just think of all the places around the planet where you will have a friend!”

The pain must be dealt with like the rip of a band-aid. Whether or not you tear if off in one quick motion or peel it away slowly and deliberately, the sting is there. I’ve often questioned whether I should have put my kids in a local British school where at least their classmates are more likely to stay put and the chances of my children’s hearts (and mine) are less apt to be broken.

By that same token though, I’ve come across British women who are hard-pressed to befriend expats simply because eventually, all expats move on. My (British) Fulham-based girlfriends say the only reason they’ve forgiven me for leaving the first time is because I’ve come back. A Parisian girlfriend shut our friendship down several months before my departure from France. She said it was her way of coping with the pain of separation.

I get it. Now, in my forties, I’ve become just as hardened. I’ve closed ranks – not to be elitist, simply to self protect. I find I now align myself primarily with “lifers”- expats who are here for the long, long haul. Hypocrisy, irony… the lines are too blurred for me to distinguish between them.

Geographical distance and its steadfast partner, time, collaborate and this inevitably and always translates into healing because no matter how close you were, no matter how much you love those friends who have left or who are left behind, life gets in the way.

That’s not to say that you can’t pick up from where you left off when you reunite—that’s a clichéd given with life-long friends—expat or not. The great thing is, there are always holiday reunions in places like London or Paris or La Jolla or New York or Tenerife to look forward to and it really does feel like you’re back with “real” family. And you are.


112 responses to “the band-aid rip: what it means to be an expat”

  1. Although my expat experience was short lived, I can identify with a great deal of what you wrote. It’s a very scary place to be when you’re new at it. Without the generosity and kindness of the “lifers”, I would have been a very lonely house wife. Thank you my loves!

    • Hmmm interesting article but being an expat myself in a different country and being from England I really believe that the experience she talks about isn’t so much the expat community being so fantastic but the London expat community being fantastic steming from, I believe the London way of life and English mothers….. Just saying…..

  2. Thank you for writing this blog! I know exactly where you are coming from. It gets harder and harder to say goodbye especially this year as I’m saying goodbye to alot of friends I met 4 years ago when we were all newbies together at TASIS 🙁 I too have thought of putting kids into a British school just so they can grow up with kids who aren’t moving on but that’s not us as a family ..we are an international family for always. Lets have more G & T’s dear Catherine! hugs x

  3. Catherine, this is just perfect. Thanks so much for sharing. Your insight is so on-point! Please tell NP how much Greer still misses her and we say EXACTLY what you say to your kids. Stay strong, dear lady! xoxo,

    • Recognise it all. Thanks. 1 thought though, are you children still young (under 13)? I am guessing, because teenagers don’t accept “it is what it is” anymore. That’s my experience at least, They start really questioning why they should be part of this life style and keep losing real life friends to become virtual friends.

      • I have older teens (14 & 17) and they do accept the lifestyle without problems, same thing for most of my friends’ teens. But we’ve always made an effort to stay in touch and visit at least a few of their friends, some on a regular basis and others on an occasional basis. Next week our school in Paris is hosting a sports tournament, coincidentally several of my kids’ friends from Munich are coming so we are hosting them for the duration of the tournament. I can see how teenagers who have always lived in the same place might not want to move but the decision is not theirs to make.

  4. Totally and utterly spot on! Amazingly articulate and so loving, as ever. Thanks dear Catherine. Love you x

  5. You have really said it all. We are moving back to the US for the second time. Unfortunately we will move again to an area where there are few if any expats. It is very difficult moving into a school district where most of the kids have been their entire lives. That is so hard for the kids. The last time was very difficult for my high school daughter but we had great neighbors that helped a lot. I hope we find that again. I will really miss all of our new friends and old ones too! Thank you!

  6. Having been an ex-pat for over 8 years, I get where you’re coming from. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece.

  7. You are an excellent writer. After moving 7 times in 9 years, I can relate. Even though we are on the same continent as home, there are many days that Texas feels like a foreign country too. Keep writing . I love it.

  8. This is so spot on I can’t stop reading it! Having also lived (and loved) a few expat assignments, I’m staring down the barrel of change after 9 (!!) years in one place. One part of me wants a “normal” life again, wants my children to actually know what it is like to live in the USA, while the other part so clearly wants to embark on the next adventure. I’ve already started laying the groundwork in the possible next place and of course, there is no such thing as an ungenerous expat circle, so I feel like I already have fast-track friends waiting!

  9. Thank you thank you for this. I can’t wait to post it myself – I am an expat and am always hardpressed to make my friends at home understand. Some friends and family members think I’m ridiculous to put it mildly, but you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  10. Thank you so much! This is so true – both the nature of ‘intense dating’ among expat women and the strange qualities of American parenting circles. Here I thought it was just ME! Much appreciated.

  11. Your thoughts are so on target for ex-pats. I already and thinking about our departure date and our new home — how long will we be there, will we fit in, when do I pack it all up again to head overseas?

  12. Just received this post from a friend of a friend on FB. Thanks for putting into words what it means to be an expat. So easy to share with our friends and families what our lives are like. We left America as a young married couple 16 years ago and now struggle with the thought of going home to give our three third world culture kids a chance of a normal life. What is normal?? Your experience tells me tells me to stay abroad.

    • Thanks Catherine, for posting this on your FB, it is beautifully written and really hit home tonight! As we are thinking about heading back to the states, my biggest fear is that I will see the “pig in the road” about five minutes after I set foot into the community we would call home! Not exactly the most worldly of places.

      On another note, I would say, having your kid in a “local” school does not necessarily solve any of the expat issues, there can just be a whole other set of problems. My son is still referred to as foreign and his “different” accent is pointed out regularly, even after four years of being in the school. I also really struggled to “fit” in, but kept trying, as I thought the local school would be the best place for my son. We were supposedly here long term and i wanted him to form “stable” friendships! Now I believe, if we move on to another expat assignment, the international school is the place to be, most everyone is in the same boat! Like the lady said, friendships are cemented early and last long-there is a mutual understanding of the situation at hand!

  13. What I never thought would happen was that my kids stayed on in a country we lived as expats. That was the hardest part so far for me. Being an expats with “no” kids is so much different and so much harder now.

  14. You put into words how most of us feel. I moved to the UK a year ago then had to go back to the US for my VISA while I was gone friends I made in my small village took care of my youngest son. Told me how he was doing. and when I came home took me back without hesitation as if I had never left.

  15. Perfect summary of my last 15 years spent in 6 countries on 4 continents. Everything except for how I choose my friends… I am still far from “self-protecting” preference for those staying longer;-)

  16. Really interesting article. I’m an Australian living in the UK. I like living here a lot, but also find it very hard as I don’t know any other expats locally – we don’t live in a major city. My partner is British and we don’t have kids, so I don’t have that group of Australians around me either. We have lots of local friends, but I do feel the odd one out frequently. It’s been a really interesting experience here and my own personal growth from it has been huge. One of the things I find most interesting is that as an Australian it’s easy to think that living in the UK will not be that different to Australia given that our cultures are fairly similar (rather than me as an Australian living in Gambia or Nigeria for example). If I lived somewhere with a very different culture I’d more expect the difference and mentally and emotionally prepare for it, but by being in the UK I found that the culture clash catches me out by surprise often – and so you are never quite sure where you stand or how you fit in – It’s like shifting sands.

  17. This sums up how we all feel. Thank you for reassuring so many on the fact that we are not alone in feeling low at times. Our expat eras are like chapters in a book. Hard to know where the story will go but knowing it will be a f***g gripping read at the end ! (Sorry, I’m British!)

  18. And because of you I do get together with girlfriends during the week for cocktails while “master of the universe” husband takes care of the diaper changes. And I laugh at the mom who can’t stop talking about how talented her 5 year old is.

  19. Awesome Read. So I am an expat of 14 years. From Australia – live Hong Kong. We frequently visit family & friends back in Oz. We have had the best opportunities to travel the world with our kids and made the most of these opportunities. They are no strangers to everything foreign. Every child they go to school with is from somewhere different – multitude of languages,cultures etc and they all manage to make it work so effortlessly. . Even the school cafeteria has country theme meals!! Hardest part will be moving back to Oz and having to re-educate my kids on the parochial way of life. We still get asked the most bizarre questions from family and friends regarding, food and hygiene – mostly because they have never been to where we currently live so really cannot visualize to grasp an understanding. I used to resent this stupidness – BUT – I am now facing the prospect that after such a long time away from birth country – my kids are probably going to be the ones asking the same questions to other Aussies and be treated by our fellow countrymen with the same level of stupidness that we have viewed them!

  20. Soooo true – felt as though I had written it! Was interested to read you lived in Fairfield County – me too, New Canaan and can relate however I am British and was an expat there!!! Just did a year in Buenos Aires which I hated – a strange feeling to have not enjoyed a country but found that I could not make all the friends and then leave them within 2 years so kept myself a bit to myself – big mistake as the ‘girls’ there were fabulous. Now living in Switzerland so after almost 15 years on the road am getting closer to home 🙂 Good luck!

  21. I feel your pain, daughter. Do you feel mine? I am your MAMA. I extend my hand, and I can’t touch you, I can’t hold your babies. You are untouchable, being so far away. You don’t know when I laugh, you don’t know when I cry, you don’t know when I am in pain. I could connect the Pacific Ocean with La Manche with stream of my tears. Do you feel my pain?….

    • Love your piece, but oh, your mama’s post is a knife in the heart! 5 countries, 15 years, 7 with children. Now with (non-American) husband and 3 kids, facing a crossroads… weighing up 3 more years in a new country. My own Mama called me today weeping, with a humble cry for us to come home. My babies (eldest 11) are growing up. My niece and nephew are growing up. The pain for all of us is crushing. Catherine, everything you wrote about expat and American life resonated. And Eugenya, you have named the deep unmentionable – though we skype several times a week and spend long, intense periods together each year or so, acts that I tell myself make us closer than local extended families – the truth is that I – and my children – don’t experience each others’ day to day spirit, joy and pain. We are not there. When we are together, it’s always trying to make the most of the visit, it’s always a high, we gloss over much that is the grit of family. So how do we measure and scale this heartbreaking grief against everything else that shapes our choices? I love our expat life, I love how my children are interested and interesting, the amazing friends we’ve made,and our adventurous life. But oh, at such a cost.

  22. I lived in NY state, just at the edge with Fairfield Country, CT – and I know exactly what you mean – I used to call it Stepford Suburbia too! (Or Stepfordland :-))

    And having been an expat for the past 17 years, I know what you mean about expat friendships. I have made some really wonderful friends while on my expat adventures, and so has my older daughter. The tough part is missing them when you move on to the next spot!

  23. This is so true for me too! Coming from Toronto to a smaller city in northern California was a difficult transition. Cultural differences in suburbia were definitely a challenge and attitudes towards free time, socializing and friendships are a real contrast to my old life. I’ve hung on to my old dear friends back home and finally made a few new ones but it took a lot longer than the instant friendships I had with other expats here.

  24. I just moved to a new “chapter” 3 weeks ago!! I must say, after 3, this was the hardest goodbye…I left in Tokyo a “real” family! The best experience so far!!
    But “…think of all the places around the planet where you will have a friend!”
    Lucky me, a good expat friend lives here…
    Great article!!!

  25. Yet another fabulous piece! You really nailed it! And this couldn’t have come at a better time- I’m just about gearing up to plan farewells for some great friends and this piece encapsulated my emotions so precisely. It’s so hard to lose friends- you think it would be easy to say goodbyes to people you’ve known for only a couple of years but it isn’t! Not when you see them at least four times a week and depend on them so selfishly for your emotional stability! With husbands travelling so frequently, your friends become your rock and when a piece of that rock is broken off, your stability is shaken to the core.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful gift of writing!

  26. As a child of expat parents, I really get what you are saying. I make friends for life very fast, have school, work and social friends in many lands (and will accumulate more before I die). Some people in some societies find that weird. Luckily there are more of us around in every passing year, and more like-minded locals too. Me and my sister are professional expats, loving the frisson of alienation and the fascinating opposite in small, tight, fast communities who find ourselves in the same situation. Life is good, the world is diverse and people are almost always better than you might reasonably expect!

  27. Awesome post. I have been abroad for 13 years now. After a stint in Japan, I decided to go home, but I lasted 3 weeks before I saw that “pig” on the road. Thanks for sharing. It’s a fu**ing masterpiece.

  28. Spot on!! I moved back to NYC from Tokyo and still went through some of the same shock! Many companies give you class before you move to a destination but what they really should do is give you class on how to move home.

  29. This was just an excellent article in so many ways!

    I have been an expat for 12 years now, originally from Canada, but have moved to the US, England, Hollland, and now India. You have touched on some of the things like intense friendships, people who just do not get you when you move back, to the band aid effect. That was just a brilliant analogy.
    I am doing a talk to a group of women in May about life in India and being an expat and I hope you do not mind if I give some of your thoughts and ideas as a reference.
    Thank you for sharing!

  30. Hi! It’s been already 11 years since we started our expat adventure. I thank you for writing this paper and expressing my feelings in such an accurate “façon”!
    Now we’re beginning the process of moving to another country, our 4th, and we have 3 new languages and new good friends on our backpacks. It’s complicated, but it is indeed worth it. As my 10 yr old says: are we moving again? that is sooo cool!!!!!! and he is right! it is so cool that not moving would be bizarre! Amazingly, we have developed a taste for moving. Never more than 3 years in a place. Now, that we’re almost done with our 4th in Paris we start to feel very “earthly” here; plus, I have lost my accent (something rare when you started to speak French as an adult), and quite frankly, that is not good at all, so to speak. So, Brasil, here we go! from cold Winter to never ending Summer.
    Have fun everybody! and enjoy your lives as much as you can. <3 you all!

  31. Hi Catherine,
    I loved your article, so well-written, true and funny. I challenge you to write about the part that comes after the ex-pat mom thing. Where for various reasons you continue to live in a country, where you will always be a foreigner. I am Danish and live in Brazil where I raised my now 26 year old son. Still blond and Nordic, speaking with an unmistakeable accent, I am frequently asked how I like Brazil, how long is my vacation, and so on. It gets old, as does the part when you have a disagreement with a local person over something, and they all to soon suggest you go home where you came from. At this point, Brazil is very much my home, a place that I love and appreciate.
    PS saw the note from your mom – a fine writer also

  32. You touched a chord . I can totally identify with this . As I am getting ready to makeour next move to another destination , this was a good read . thank you for putting up this article

  33. I’m a “lifer” (17 years and counting)! I second all your sentiments, especially how hard it was to move back and find everyone so closed and horrifyingly “kid-centric”! Luckily I found some “keepers” when we finally made a “home-base” after 13 years out and now my summer “march” always includes visits to the “keepers” and I cherish the thought of “having” to move back!

  34. 18 years of expat life and counting. Your picture of the lifestyle is so true. I will say though, as one of those school administrators counting the “remaining” or “departing” families – we do care. Every remaining family is a happiness of a continued relationship to be continued. Every departing family is a wistful sigh – perhaps we’ll meet again at some future school, but probably we’ll just miss “Ju Eun on the basketball team” and “Nnamdi from the Choir”. Families make a school, and as much of a joy as a new family brings to the community, a hole is left by a family who moves on.

  35. What a fabulous story. We were an expat family too. We llived in Geneva Switzerland for 2 years. I made the best friends of my life there. They still are. We’ve been back in the states now for 3 years and we have visited 3 times. Home is not home anymore. I still miss Switzerland everyday. Thanks for the great story.

  36. great article! you have just put words, with actually too little swearing 😉 to what many feel.
    keep writting!
    Chica Strauszer

  37. Great essay!! I couldn’t have written it any better. It’s all so true, especially the friendship part. We went native with the kids though and sent them to the local schools. Our 3rd grader is in her 4th school in her 4th different language. She is a real trooper and never complained. Thank god for skype and facebook though. It made the separation from our friends a lot more bearable to be able to skype and chat. Especially for the kids.

  38. What a great blog posting! So glad I discovered it! I have been back in the states 6 years after 15 years overseas – 12 years in England. I almost got on NPR today because they were discussing the English tradition of drinking tea in times of trouble. Then I talked to an old friend who I met in Germany 22 years ago (the first of three countries I lived in). You described the friendship making process so well! We are still like family to this day even though we live in different states. I ended up being one of those “lifers” in England and my children attended English schools the entire time I lived there. By the time my family left, there were hardly any Americans left. The return to the states was hard in the “making friends department” and my closest friend where I live now also lived in England – a different city and time than I did, but we share the expat experience. I always say I have many close friends, they just happen to live all over the world!!

  39. Did I read this right: You shut down a possible friendship because the woman had bad shoes? What does that even mean?

  40. As many have said, this is an excellent article that rally captures some of the ups and downs of expat life. I have been a foreign service expat for 15 years and loved every minute of it. However the assumptions behind your statement that women have it rough following our “master of the universe” husbands seem straight from the 1950’s. I’m the foreign service officer in my family and the thousands of women who work overseas share so many of your experiences but are discounted in your description.

    • I agree. I’m also a woman expat with husband and kids in tow, and I was enjoying the read until I got to this bit. I then felt completely alienated as I realised, this doesn’t apply to me.

      • Like many of the descriptive terms I employ, “Masters of the Universe” is one in particular that I use facetiously (and often!). It’s me poking fun at how some expats view themselves.

  41. I read you letter and being an ex expat I could totally understand where you are coming from. Living the expat life style is a love hate relationship, my common phrase to my husband when people would leave was “I hate this f..king lifestyle” and he would say “who’s leaving now.”
    After being away for 17 years, 3 countries and 4 children later I am finally living back in my home country. I am loving it but my 3 of my children are finding it tough.
    Good luck to all those starting off or moving on this summer. Enjoy each day and accept the bad days as life will get better.

  42. Oh my goodness, you have so eloquently explained what I have been trying to tell my friends and family for the last eight years….thank you!!

  43. Although I haven’t got children and therefore some of this doesn’t relate to my expat experiences , I heartily agree with you on the importance of new friendships and support networks of other expats in coping with everyday life .The whole raft of emotions that occur as you psych yourself up for the comings and goings as you move around the world are something that only another expat wife truly understands.
    I definitely think your “band aid ” analogy is good . My expat friendships have enriched my life considerably and yes travelling to meet back up with your ” sisters from another mother ” around the world is great fun ! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  44. Yup, hit the nail on the head with this one (13 years in France makes me one of the “lifers” I believe). When everyone from your initial “newbie” group has moved away, it’s hard to keep making new friends every year; each group of incoming newbies forms its own little circles and the “lifers” are often not included in these groups. Perhaps there’s a topic here to explore?

    • Anna, you have my problem in the reverse! I’m a newbie but don’t have a newbie group; I don’t know why to be honest. I’m in London. The lifers or those with a few years under their belts don’t want to deal with a new person, as is my impression. Yes, this is a good topic to explore! I posted my comments a few minutes ago and then saw yours. Thanks for sharing!

  45. Adult TCKs (Third Culture Kids), another way to look at the ex-pat phenomenon, stories abound on the web, definitely a vibrant community of people, especially women. I really liked your piece.

  46. Brilliant! 2 1/2 years in, I’m no longer a Newbie but not yet a lifer, we have a camp of our own as the 3 year’er drop away one by one. I told a friend who co-ordinates the Newcomers for the local British Women’s Ass, that I might have to contemplate coming friend shopping soon….oh the thought of the endless coffee drinking and press play on the ‘where, when, what’ recorded message. At least the Newbie desperation has long since waned and I have perfected a rapid bin/pursue friendship strategy.

    Will be tuning in again for some more fun stories…..

  47. This lady has written some excellent books and speaks very well on the same subject and how both adults and children can cope best, not with being an expat but with the larger challenge of “repatriation” to your own country!

  48. @Siri, oh so true I can see the GO HOME in they eyes of nearly every Romanian here. I had good and bad times in every country we lived in but this is had core now. NO Expats here 🙁

    • @Angie: What a funny coincidence. I spent 3 weeks in Romania last year. I prepped by reading and found a fun woman, Eleonora von Schaumburg-Lippe, who writes Bucharest City Tales there – about being an expat. You should look her up! I can imagine how difficult it must be to live there – the language alone is impossible – but the country is beautiful.

      • Funny. Yes I have read her stories, she lived in Bucharest. We are in Constanta, not so beautiful and no Expats at all.

  49. Prepping for my first repatriation, having sent home 3 different sets of friends who are family…..and fearing exactly what you describe, that phenomenon of being an outsider once back in the US. -sigh- Yes, this strikes a chord, for sure. Beautiful….heartbreaking…honest. Thanks for writing it.

  50. This post was fantastic! Thank you for sharing it. We are currently living in Shanghai, China after having a stint in Hong Kong. We left the U.S. when our oldest was 6, our youngest was 18 months old. We are now staring down the barrel of the inevitable question. Are we staying or are we going? Trying to remain patient while waiting for someone behind their desk in Germany to determine our fate and those of our children. I’ve swung on both sides of the pendulum with making friends. Save myself the heartbreak or risk bonding with someone truly wonderful and then having to say goodbye. I’m now worried about the potential of going home and trying to fit in to our ‘old’ lives. What’s the saying… ‘you can truly never go back home’? What have we done to ourselves! I have a feeling that I will forever struggle with missing home but at the same time wonder what other life is out there waiting for us to explore. We are part of an elite group, we will always be ex-pats. That will be our bond with one another around the globe. There is no way to encapsulate the experience for someone who has not lived it. Again, thank you for putting all of this into words!

  51. I enjoyed reading this essay. I am eight months into our first expat assignment in the London area. I am having a very hard time making those close “friends-for-life” aka “family” that you talk about. I’m finding the Moms at my childrens school to be extremely cliquey. Those women who have been here a year or longer don’t want to get to know the new person. I stand around outside the lower school to get my kids and everyone is chatting in their little groups. I feel like such an outsider. I do visit with some of them, but it is very “surface” and pretty much ends with “well, have a nice weekend”. I very much miss my friends back in CA where I came from who actually did like to drink wine on weeknights and couldn’t care less about their kids’ sports achievements. So it is hard.

  52. I can absolutely relate with you, once you start a life as an expat the comeback hits you hard and more likely will make you bounce back out. I did it, I went back to my country just to come to the realization that I no longer belong there, I actually feel I do not belong anywhere anymore! I love being an expat with all of the strings that come attached with it, I must say the only thing I do not like it is to have to move to fast from one place to the next, but apart from that I am in this for the long run.
    As I was looking at my FB friends list I realized that about 85% of my friends come from al over the world, the other 15% are family and friends from when I was a high school/ college student. I have been to so many places, meet so many people, share so many beautiful memories with them that even if I only got to spend 1 year with some of them, I love them for bringing joy to my life.

  53. Not only do I empathise but I seem to personally know several of your commentators! I guess that shouldn’t surprise me as both a TCK parent and an international school administrator (we don’t do the pile sorting without the odd sigh of regret or even the odd tear btw – just about the only thing in your piece you got wrong!)

    A couple of schools ago in a Mexican city that shall remain unnamed I had to deal with social exclusion issues – local parents were refusing to let their kids be friends with the ex-pat kids on account of how when the ex-pats left their own kids would be devastated. It’s a thorny issue. Thanks for giving it air time here.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback, Richard. I’d like to clarify my statement. I believe that our school is big enough that we do have a back-office where pure admin is processed– hence the term “bureaucrat”. If school administration (teachers, principals, headmasters/mistresses, assistants, librarians, receptionists, even the security gaurds!!, etc.) don’t sigh with regret or shed the occasional tear when some of their pupils, students and corresponding families leave, they’re probably in the wrong profession.

    • How nice to “see” you, Richard Harrold! We are heading back to CA this July and this article really hit home. Hope all is well with you, Richard. It was great getting to know you our first year in Paris.

  54. I’m really smiling … though we did not have our children with us on our 3 country, 12 yrs. of being expats, many of our friends did. We heard the school stories and often were the ‘family’ and fill-in caregivers and even ‘Christian homework helper’ for friends that were not so inclined. The lifelong friendships are cherished and the eventual wall of being sooooo selective of who we befriended became apparent. Expats don’t care who you work for, where you come from, they care about you because you care about them!! My favorite part of your posting is about the missing the swearing … honestly, I don’t drink (I don’t need to drink to dance on the table!!) but I do cuss like a sailor. We have just repatriated back to the U.S. and I have had more than a few ‘looks’ to my habit of SHIT and then when our grown children hear the F word from their Momma it is quite a snicker. I try my best to behave in front on the grandchildren but really, American women, lighten up! Live, don’t judge and make some friends who also laugh, cry and have good and bad days. Love this!! TOPIC: Expat botox parties, affairs with drivers and tragic sudden deaths overseas…I’m sure you have stories. I know I do.

    • Jan- I’d originally made it a policy not to respond but your comments made me laugh out loud and I had to thank you for this statement, “I try my best to behave in front on the grandchildren but really, American women, lighten up! Live, don’t judge and make some friends who also laugh, cry and have good and bad days.” Brilliant. Thank you. As to the topics you propose- I had to examine your email address to see if you weren’t one of my girlfriends posing as a stranger because you know DARN well I ABSOLUTELY have a story on every single subject you’ve proposed. Stay tuned…

      • Glad I could provide a laugh for your day, can’t wait to read about ‘topics’ … Actually, I love that I stumbled on this blog of yours. I have written three books in my mind: 1) “Expat wives” (this was prior to all the reality ‘wives’ shows on TV). 2) “I pay men to play with me” (the houseboy, the driver, the caddie, the tennis ‘marker’/coach, the golf teacher…all for $$) While in India and living where very few expats lived and the Indian women didn’t really take to me, these men befriended me, but all at a cost. And, the 3rd unrelated book is about my stint as a ‘corrections nurse’ in a prison, I’ll keep that title to myself for now. Interesting stuff! Keep writing, you’re great.

  55. I love this! As a foreigner (non-expat), married to a local, with kids in the international school, the goodbyes get harder and harder each year. “What do you mean you’re leaving? You weren’t supposed to leave! You’re a lifer/married to a local/local contract like me!”

  56. I could have written this article myself. You nailed our experiences exactly! Thank you for making me feel less of a freak 🙂

  57. Great essay. Thank you for sharing it.
    I would love to hear how you deal with “newbies” now that you are a long-term, settled expat. Ive been living in Germany for over 10 years and, like you, I tend to be more closed to short-term stayers “expats”. I also find myself impatient at all the complaining recently. What sort of experience do you have?

  58. This brought me back, back, back. We lived overseas for 4 1/2 years in Singapore and Prague, and I can relate to everything you said. Friends become family, we jump in for every experience, and there is no snobby competition on who’s kids are the smartest, most athletic, etc. Everyone accepts one another. When we moved back to the States and I tried to set up a coffee for all the moms in my sons class so I could meet a few of them, people were scratching their heads and saying they were busy. They all had their friends already and saw no reason to expand their horizons. It’s much, much better now, but we can’t wait to go back overseas when the kids are grown!

  59. Haha so true…seen it been there got the T shirt…25 years……pretty sure you can blog pages full about visitors……….ahhhh you can do a blog about the last phase..empty nest and which country to return too…Is there a way back” home” ?…maybe to early for you….but keep in mind…you get there soon enough…keep up the good work….lots of good things from a life like this…

  60. Forty five years an expat. My parents dragged me around the world then I continued then pattern. What you have written about is timeless. My mum still has ex-pat ‘family’ after 45 years and I have another of my own. I yearn to go home but not sure home is something tangible. Write about that. Thanks x

  61. As an expat I completely agree with what you have said. However, although I understand your reasons (because I have done it myself in the past), it is sad that people ‘close ranks’. As I am currently trying to settle into a new location, there are far too many who have closed ranks, and very few genuine welcoming smiles willing to establish new friendships. It is making for a tough relocation. I encourage all you expats to look around you at the next school pick up, and go and say a genuine hello to the new mum standing by herself looking a little lonely. Something so small could make a massive difference to that person who is trying their best to be a ‘tower of strength’.

    • I agree – a bit of empathy is required from the expats that close ranks – you don’t have to think too far back to be in their situation – a bit of compassion wouldn’t go astray.

      Also there has been no mention of how hard it is to go home b/c u r not that elite expat anymore with hired help – u r just like everyone else – an adjustment for sure.

  62. It was pretty hard not to cry while reading this. Perhaps because the wound is very fresh from losing my third set of friends while living as an expat in Hong Kong for 13 years. Those stings never wear off for me and I still travel to visit those friends that left 10 years ago – my children and I just pick up where we left off, despite the obvious changes. We relive the times we had together that they too cannot share with people that have not lived in an expat situation. They are far from superficial for me. They were, and still are a total replacement for my family who often have a lack of understanding or empathy for my situation. I can totally relate to the comment above, and just like the new kid on the block, it’s also hard to make and find new friends when you’re old ones leave. In my case, I just can’t be bothered anymore, but I also know that it is essential to make the effort.

  63. Every word rang true!

    I’m on my 22nd year of being an expat. In fact, I’m packing up house next week moving a family of 5, and two dogs, from one foreign country to another. You know those moving summers – with temporary housing on one end, or the other – or both! That’s my reality, again, from next week!

    And I’m sure many of us have experienced the temporary separations when the working spouse starts up in new location, while trailing spouse stays behind to pack up the house, and let the kids finish up the school year? By the time we get down in July it will be 7 months apart….this time. It was closer to 9 months four years ago when we moved here.

    Last night (a Wednesday!) an English friend and I had a laugh over a glass of wine about your description of being asked in for a glass of wine when picking up from a play date. Not done in the US!

    Having spent 4 years “back home” after 13 years in Asia and Europe, I found it difficult to get used to the local social customs. In my hometown in the US, no one has time to get together. Dinners with “close” friends are booked weeks, or months, in advance. Everything is so formal and competitive!

    So for now, we’re staying out. But I’m sure one day we’ll return, and I’ll feel like a foreigner living in my home country.

    For now, back to the pre-move clear out!

  64. All of what you have written is true. The only thing I miss is the perspective of an expat woman who is also actually working. Both my husband and I have international careers and we have 2 children. Because we work with head quarters in different time zones and can work flexible hours, we have never had to have a nanny and we are spending loads of time with the children. This is one of the things I love about our life. But what I can do without is the hostility of expat women who don’t work and who are trailing spouses. I know that it is frustrating for many of them that they gave up work (of course, many trailing spouses are well educated and had their own careers before the expact life beckoned). But I have never understood why they feel the need to justify staying at home to me. Or why they feel they have to let me know that they feel sorry for my kids because they have a working mom (uhm…. you have a nanny, we take care of the kids ourselves so who are you to judge us…..). Or they feel sorry for my husband because he ‘has to take care of the kids on top of his work’. That kind of stuff. This is our 4th country and it was all deja vu.

    • I can sympathise with this, having been in a similar situation myself. My job gave us this brilliant expat lifestyle, yet fellow women feel sorry for me? I’m so over that.

  65. 6 months into our 2nd posting I can relate to so much of what you say. First posting to London with no kids, second to India with 3… I think it takes a certain personality to say ‘yes’ to an expat posting. So many people only talk about the upside and say that everything is wonderful. Sometimes that’s what you have to say to stay positive for your kids and to give things a chance to work out. It’s great to read and see others say out loud that day-to-day living, whether it’s remote 3rd world or London or New York or Sydney, it’s just not home. Having a maid and a driver be really hard work, but the friendships that are made under expat circumstances become the bonds of friendships that cannot be undone by geography. Facebook is a f***ing lifesaver!

  66. I’m not that much expat as you but I’m an expat since birth and have so many stings that I can’t count them anymore. You hit the nail on the head, as someone else said already before me. Especially the continuous ups and downs (what would be better for me, for my kids, for our family) and this period of the year, where many families leave (again…) is hard. But it’s so worth living! I don’t know how it is to live in my passport country or to “go back” somewhere I lived before. We must move on and it’s a lifelong adventure. I really like what you say about friendships: we make so many friends, some friendships fade even before we leave (not everyone can deal with good-byes or farewells…) and others will stay forewer. – I’m glad I found your blog! 😉

  67. It couldn’t be described any better … Thanks for writing down what most of your Expat-Lady-Fellows feel and expirience all over the globe!

  68. I was an ex-pat only briefly but your experiences seem to have mirrored mine. I feel closer to the friends I met in Chile (even though we were only there for 1 year) than I do to my acquaintances in Arizona (haven’t met any real friends here, and we’ve been here almost a year). Thank goodness for Facebook and email. They don’t totally remove the pain of change and separation but they make it a little easier because you can at least easily stay in contact with ex-pat friends. Thanks for your blog. Now I’m going to write an email to an ex-pat friend and tell her how much I miss her… 🙂

  69. Moving from Saudi Arabia to a large city in the southern US in 1985 was the hardest move of the 17 we’ve had. I have always been interested in what people know, where they’ve been, what they saw there, etc., etc., etc. Nobody even wanted to know or hear about any of our experiences, although I sought their advice and counsel about living in NC. So many people said, after meeting us, “Let’s get together!” I often replied, “Great. When?” They were flummoxed that I took their invitations seriously. I wanted to get together. I wanted to know more about my neighbors. We invited all our neighbors to our home many times. Very few reciprocated. During hurricane Hugo, when we were left without electricity for many days, we all got together to cook on barbecues whatever had thawed the most. Meals ranged from hot dogs to lobster every night. Our house was the “shower house” because we had a gas hot water heater. We were happy to have people come and shower. Few stayed to visit once clean. Once the electricity came back on, people’s doors shut and that was it. I yearned to know things to make my life easier and my assimilation more complete. We were there about four years, and I did make friends because of who I am. Not because people were reaching out to me. Then, yes, we were transferred. Again. So much is given up via moves, in-country or out. Peace has to be made with decisions made all the time.

    You don’t have to live in a foreign country to be an expat.

  70. Thanks so much for sharing this. It made me laugh, cry, reminisce, and reflect on my family’s last 8 years in the expat world. Five countries, 7 address changes, two pregnancies, one new baby, many friendships and even more cocktails later have forever altered me. Although, I often miss the heart of the Southern US culture that formed me and will do anything in my power to get back at least once a year for BBQ, biscuits and Sweet tea, I have found a new and true definition of home. Love, peace, happiness and security, lies inside you; in your heart. God only knows how much longer we will ride this expat train but I hope that this insight is what my 3 children will take from their experiences as international vagabonds.
    PS I would never judge someone solely based on her shoes!….Not until I’ve seen her handbag 🙂

  71. Beautifully written and SOO true… I will be quoting you (and giving you credit) in my own journals…. We have been expats for 19 of the last 25 years, but are the ‘lifers’ who have pretty much stayed and have the painful role of always being left behind by our ‘friends who became family’ over and over again… bittersweet, so bittersweet….

    • This was her experience and her opinion. It obviously rings true for many, as you can see by all the comments. Why would you, or your friend, feel the need to dissect it? If this has not been your experience, good for you. But why attack her article bit by bit. That is just plain annoying.

  72. After 15 years living in China and repatriating back to California this year…I am a foreigner in my own state..and it SUCKED. The transition brought me to my knees – humbled me – made me realize how much I changed – how broad my perspective had become – and how much I don’t like strip malls – and how much I missed my family. Not only am I 45, single, without kids, ride a motorcycle, own and run my business still in China, commute across the pacific ocean…I swear, drink, sometimes smoke, enjoy a date with a hot man once in a while and I like my many martinis. Crikey…apparently I am odd, rough, brazen and since I am single…the wives are watching for my advances towards their pot bellied husbands. Thank you for writing this article…I fit into much better in my international community and have come to love Napa, CA where I now live. I get the best of both worlds….neighbors into my business, slow pace of life, happy dog being walked by their owners, blue skies all the time…and then I hang up my apron and clogs to wear my power suit, stiletto heels, and play into the wee hours in the morning in Asia. I have always been Californian…I just grew beyond its boarders.

  73. Brilliant. Dead on. I MISS being a expat. I MISS my friends/the lifestyle/Paris (in that order). Well written. Thank you!

  74. Thank you for writing this – it really rings true to me. We’ve been doing “this” for 25 years and our next post is near Oxford, England. The thought of having to make friends, yet again, makes me feel weary this time and subtracts from the joy I expect a few years in England can afford. I know when we move back to Ohio after retirement I will miss the companionship of other expats, though, as many people who have lived their whole lives in one spot can be hard to relate to at times.

  75. I enjoyed reading this article. So many echoes of my own thoughts.

    We were expats in 2 countries for 6 years, back in the States for 6, then back out for 8 years now. There is so much in what you say that I have experienced. I have left and been left.

    However, I would advise not to be “hardened.” In our first country, a woman who had been there a while when we arrived befriended me. She said she had cut herself off and felt too isolated. She told me she decided, “That’s no way to live.”

    In our second country, I met a wonderful woman who was a lifer. She said she had stopped making friends with expats because “they come and I learn to love them, then they leave and break my heart.” After a few conversations, she said that we had so much in common. So for me, she made an exception. All of our lives were the richer for it.

    One of them is gone now–we were re-posted in time for me to be with her a bit before she died. Yes, there is hurt with parting, but it makes the reunions e-mails, letters, postcards, and Facebook posts so much more joyful. It is not a perfect life, but it is a good and fascinating life. And we swear when it’s necessary.

    • Susan,
      Your response is profoundly kind. Thank you. I’m so sorry for your loss and I do agree with your friend. I too have always said, “If you haven’t loved, you haven’t lived.” Thanks for reminding me.
      Please know that your reflection and advice will not go amiss. Thank you for extending it to me.
      Yours ever, Catherine

  76. Hi Catherine,

    If you ever find yourself back in Fairfield County, look me up! I’m preparing to move to New Canaan after 4 years abroad in São Paulo. I really enjoyed reading your article, and your most recent one about the appearance of expat privilege. My friends in the U.S. think I’m living it up down here with a nanny and guards for the house. Does it make a difference that I’ve seen shootings and blood in the streets? That only sobers them up for a few minutes, then it’s the envious moaning, “But you never have to cook!” Wow.

    Anyway, back we go to “normal life” although not many would say that Fairfield County is normal. I have friends all over the world and we are all living different kinds of lives. What seems normal to one is perplexing/fascinating to the rest of us.

    I’m looking forward to reading your blog regularly. Maybe it will help me with my transition!


  77. I had your blog forwarded by one of my ‘sisters’ from when I was an expat living in the US (we are now back home in Australia). She is now onto her third move and thankfully now settled, she has a bit of a rough time initially settling in.

    You have absolutely hit the nail on the head with what you have written.
    I miss every one of my expat ‘sisters’ every single day. When we do get together (which is far and few times over the last 9 years that we’ve been back in Oz) it’s like we only moved yesterday, we seem to pick up from where we left off.

    I miss the impromptu get togethers, the excitement of seeing each others kids growing up – thank goodness for FB.

    I secretly long for being an expat again, but ‘DH’ is feeling settled… I long the stimulation, the interaction, I need the excitement, I miss learning new cultures and meeting new people… making those connections, not just for me but also for my children. I have one with a US passport and one that’s never been out of OZ!

    I will have a wine for you this afternoon and GnT for you tonight, I will celebrate for you and my expat ‘sisters’ that I miss more than I miss my own parents that live interstate! Our bond were made more solid than I could have imagined they will always be my life long sisters, no matter where they are!

    Well done, Thank you! (I may have shed a tear or two reading your blog and again writing my response)

    • P- I have been meaning to respond to you for ages. Thank you so much for kind, kind your message. I forwarded it onto my own close girlfriends who have moved onto the next adventure so were just as touched by your words. I thought about you the other day and I toasted to you and your girlfriends as well. Funny how the smallest outreach makes the world seem that much smaller. Thank you!
      Kindest back, Catherine

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