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Before you move abroad there are orientation meetings and cross-cultural trainings and seminars and books to read and lists to check off and personality tests to pass and character examinations.
When you decide it is time to repatriate back to the “home country” there are debriefs and readjustment seminars and repatriating coaches and Third Culture Kid conferences and if there aren’t, there probably should be, more personality tests to pass because the person coming back is not the same person who left.
But when you stay … stay … and stay … there’s, um, well … there’s life. Daily cross-cultural, personality transforming, character challenging, mundane life.
The honeymoon stage of being an expatriate and the down-in-the-dumps stage of culture shock have passed. The dreaming of a new thing and planning for the next adventure and anxiety, grief, and hope of moving on haven’t yet arrived. There’s just … today. And the next day. And the next. And all around those of us who stay are those of us who come and go and come and go and the list of people we’ve known and loved (or hated) over the years grows oh. so. long.
And the heart of a stayer can grow oh. so. cold. Immune to the excitement of the newbie, hardened to the sorrow of saying goodbye. And, even more insidious, indifferent to the peaceful pleasure of staying.
At one point, I was a comer. One day in the future, I will be a leaver. But for the past twelve years, I have been a stayer. And I’ve passed through all the feelings: joy at new friends, sorrow at goodbyes, anger at goodbyes, self-righteous judgment of newbies, carelessness about my current circumstances, delight in my situation. It isn’t easy to stay well and to stay healthy emotionally, while staying.
- Love the ones you’re with. Most likely, you are not the only long-term stayer where you live. You might not have a lot of options and the people around you might not be people you’d naturally gravitate toward in another situation. Fine. Love them well anyway. Think of them like family, people you are committed to through thick and thin. People who remember your kids when they were in diapers, families with children you have loved from preschool until university. These long-term relationships are invaluable. We need people to reminisce with, to hold shared memories with, people who know us well enough that they can call out our weaknesses and recognize our strengths.
- Keep exploring. Keep learning. You’ve been here a long time, you actually know things now, not like you “knew” things when you first arrived. But don’t let that stymie your learning. There is always a new restaurant, a new vocabulary word, a new campsite, a new experience. Stay curious, stay engaged. Go deep.
- Be you. Maybe you thought that when you moved abroad you would have to give up what you love. Give up running, baking, dancing, photography, playing piano. You couldn’t fit the saxophone in your luggage. The city is too conservative for female runners. There are no dance studios. But if you intend to stay well, for more than a year or two, you must find a way to continue doing what you find life-giving. Of course, you’ll have to be flexible. Run in longer clothes, run on a treadmill, run in a group. Start a dance studio, dance in your kitchen. Learn new recipes with local ingredients. You can still be you, you just have to adjust and be creative. But it is imperative that you find ways to engage the inner, authentic parts of who you are.
- Be honest about the hard things. It is hard to say goodbye and hello and goodbye and hello. It is hard to know a culture well enough that you see darkness, to have friendships that are strong enough that you are let into brokenness. It’s hard to admit to your own brokenness and loneliness and struggles. But have a trusted few, or even one, with whom you can be utterly honest. But, part b) be wise about who you share those hard things with. Newbies might not be ready for your emotional dump. A peripheral, though staying, friend might not be able to handle it either. Be thoughtful, don’t throw your pearls to swine.
- Say hello well. Be open to the newbies. You just might find a stayer. Or, you might find someone who goes out again in two years but those two years of friendship might be the saving grace you need. Invite people to dinner or to the beach, be willing to answer questions if someone seeks your hard-earned expertise, be open to the fresh ideas of a newbie. There are treasures here, too.
- Say goodbye well. The pain of being left is often masked by the sorrow and excitement of those who are leaving. Let yourself be sad for a while. Don’t make empty promises of keeping in touch. I cannot keep in touch with all those who have left, not in a regular, meaningful way. And I shouldn’t. I need to engage and be where I am. So throw the going-away party, enjoy the inherited leftovers, buy something at the leaving sale, take photos, honor your friendship, and then let them go. But remember people by telling stories, keep in touch through your memories and shared legacy.
- Help your kids say goodbye well. Don’t let them ignore the goodbye but don’t force something either, or expect all your children to respond the same way. Give them words to express what they feel. Help them honor the friendship. My kids make photo pages of the friends who have left. They give the photo pages to the friend but they make copies and keep one for themselves.
- Say “hey there” well. Become friends with locals. They are less likely to leave and more likely to usher you into the local culture. They are people who knew you when you couldn’t even say, “hey there.” And if they have stuck by you all these years, that is a friendship to cherish.
What other tips would you offer stayers? What has helped you stay well?