This week marked a day of significance for me and my family. The anniversary of a day that changed the course of our lives in ways both good and bad. It’s always that way, the good and the bad, right? So yes, at the start of January in 2008, my husband and I left our suburban home in the SF Bay Area and moved to India. That means we have been living outside of the United States for ten years. A decade. A large chunk of my life. I remember being at the airport in San Francisco, surrounded by suitcases, cats in carriers, and family. The youngest daughter was coming with us to India, our first expat destination, but the rest of the family were staying, including my then 16 year old son who I wasn’t quite ready to let go of, a tough decision that I’ve never quite recuperated from. But we felt the move was the right thing to do and so, through excitement and tears we waved goodbye and started our journey.
Landing in India was overwhelming, the airport was a loud, chaotic, unorganized confusion to me. I remember getting to our temporary housing in the middle of the night. It was spare and lit by florescent bulbs that made it feel cold and grey. While unpacking and getting settled I kept finding little sea shells in the corners and counters of the apartment. India was so fantastical, so exotic, what did these shells mean? Surely they were some sort of a blessing or offering? A good luck charm or something? I tucked one into my pocket and asked our relocation agent about it. He looked at me funny and said it was probably just some shells that the housekeeper had found and didn’t think they should throw away. I didn’t believe him and was convinced they held some deeper meaning. How could shells be so specifically placed, as if with intention, and not hold meaning? Yes, later I realized that they looked very like the shells that are cheaply strung and placed over your neck when you arrive at the coastal resorts of India, but at the time I was convinced that these shells had deep significance.
Living in India required me to get used to all sorts of things. I got used to living in a bigger house than I had ever lived in before. I got used to having a driver to chauffeur us from place to place. I got used to having a housekeeper who cleaned our marble floors daily and cooked delicious Indian food for us. I got used to a gardener who “mowed” the lawn with a glorified pair of scissors. I also got used to meeting and associating with other expatriates from all over the world. We would stand next to each other at events, smiling through our confusion as we were photographed by the local paparazzi - feeling amused the next day when our staff pointed out the photos on “Page 3” - the local society pages. It was wild and a bit exciting, but like I said, both good and bad.
But I met some amazing people from all walks of life while in India. The start of many deep friendships - people I still stay in contact with to this day. One friendship even led to my eldest daughter meeting her future husband!
Following our time in India we went on to live in the Philippines, China and of course now in Poland. Each place has presented us with amazing opportunities and challenges. Learning to navigate these new and different cultures is never easy and managing it has taught me much. It’s not just learning some of the local language so that I can convince shopkeepers and employees not to run away from me, it’s also learning things like where to find light bulbs? Where can I get post-it notes? Where can I find cheese and wine and peanut butter? Things that were once basic necessities can be non-existent or remarkably different in other countries.
So, this expat life. How has it changed me? I think a direct result of living outside of your home country is that it opens up your mind to other ways of understanding the world. I have learned to reserve judgment, to listen first, to speak softly (loud Americans are definitely a thing) and to strive to learn from the perspectives of others. Living as an expat has allowed me to see many different countries and cultures. Traveling extensively, often with my camera on my shoulder, is something that has opened the door to situations that my suburban self might have balked at. But, I’ve never been one to shy away from new experiences, and so I have embraced the discomfort and have become a different, more global, person.
I know that this sojourn won’t last forever. At some point we will head back to the US and start a new life there. It both terrifies and excites me. Will my new self be able to settle back in to a life I no longer know? Will I get itchy feet and need to travel often to make me feel sane? I really don’t know. But I do know that this new person I’ve become is one I feel comfortable with. I have learned, as we moved from place to place, how to remake myself and how to adjust to different surroundings. Whatever the future brings, thanks to this expat life of mine, I know that I can call on a sense of humor and a tolerance for any discomfort that life might throw my way. And if I find any small shells hiding in the corners I will tuck them into my pocket for good luck.
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