Thursday, January 6, 2011

A tale of two cities

A week or so before Christmas, I received advice-seeking instant messages from my two expat friends - coincidentally both named Jon.

Spanish Jon is one of those friends that you just expect to be a superstar. He grew up in Brooklyn and is an architect with a Master's degree from Harvard School of Design. Only the best students get into that programme, and it produces famous architects like Philip Johnson. Spanish Jon met his girlfriend, Ana, while studying abroad in Denmark and after finishing his masters degree he moved to Spain to help her take over her father's architecture studio. I visited them in 2008, while Jon was in the middle of completing even more studies; apparently all of his US qualifications were null and void in Spain, as it's part of the EU, and he had to basically retrain all over again. That's some bureaucratic bullshit. Anyway, Spanish Jon was IM'ing me with bad news: he didn't pass his exam, and therefore couldn't practice architecture in Spain. I didn't get the full story from him as he was understandably upset. I couldn't believe that of all people, my good friend who is SO SMART and SO TALENTED could be in such a situation.

A half hour later, I got an IM from French Jon. French Jon met his girlfriend Alix while she was interning in his office in New York, and after 2 years of long distance that included him flying to France nearly every month he finally quit his job and applied to graduate school in Paris so they could be together. Fast-forward to now and he is in a sustainable development masters program at HEC, the most prestigious business school in Europe, and he and Alix are engaged to be married (SO looking forward to their wedding in August!). French Jon's message was much more expat-related: the impending holidays, commercialism, disconnect from family and friends, and general isolation were getting to him and he really was questioning WHY WE DO THIS.

I have been in both places. I have been at the point, all too often, of utter frustration when the realization that I've moved from being a big fish in a small pond to the smallest of plankton in a big sea where no one cares whether I survive, let alone thrive. I've also had too many moments of desperation, wondering why I'm putting myself through this exercise of establishing my identity in a country that isn't mine. Both are easy extremes to swing to at any point when you realize your expectations for life aren't quite matching up to reality.

What did I say to the Jons? Well, there isn't much you can say, is there? I can offer a shoulder to cry on and talk through options (like with Spanish Jon), and I can offer perspective and reminders of the wonderful things about expat life (like with French Jon). But at the end of the day, the expat experience is what you make of it and though there are some fundamental truths that we all encounter (banks! cell phones! flights home! bureaucracy!) we each have our own story. Sometimes it's hard to remember that and encourage our own individual growth while we're so desperate to assimilate. Not in the way you might have back in your homeland, but how you could grow now: it's not worth it to ponder what you "might have done" if you were back in your old life, or "who you might have been" because even if you went back tomorrow, you'd still be different from the person you were when you left. You'd be better.

Recently I encountered this very helpful article on Expat Women about the expat's hierarchy of needs. She is totally right. The top self-actualization point really is all about striving for that deeper meaning and confidence in what you're doing living all the way across the world. After the glow of the first year wears off, and austerity measures and tube fare rises kick in, it is so easy to ask "why". Coming up with an answer that fulfills you, though, is the tricky part. I think I'm at stage 4 - I still haven't figured out, after 2.5 years, what's in it for me. I think an underlying New Year's resolution is for me to come to terms with just how being an expat fits into my persona. I want to be Danielle, not Danielle the American or Danielle who comes from New York. Expat, for me, should be a footnote, not body text, in the story of my life - and it's my responsibility to write it that way.


  1. Thank you! I totally needed this on a day like today. The rain and lack of sun is making me wonder why we took on this great adventure and blah, blah, blah. But the truth of the matter is I can't let a bit of rain ruin my parade. I have to march on and make the best of it.

  2. footnote, not body text - so true! something we should all strive for, I think

  3. There must be something in the water as my blogroll is alit with similar posts. Thanks for the insight and honesty. Being that I'm only 9ish months into our time here, we're still figuring it out, but it feels more and more "us" everyday. And we like who we are becoming - strong, independent, adventurers.

  4. Hi there,

    I am a Graphic Designer and third year degree student based in Bristol, UK. I have spent some years travelling and living abroad in USA, Australia, Asia and Canada and so decided to focus my final self-directed design work on ‘Expats and Living Abroad’.

    I am currently inviting expats to participate in my project by answering a short online questionnaire on my blog: The results of the survey as well as interviews which I plan to carry out with expats will form the basis for my study over the next 6 months. Interested parties can sign up to receive updates on the project and can even be part of a review panel for design solutions I propose.

    If you would like to take part or think this may be of interest to your readers I would be really grateful if you could add it to your website or suggest where I could post an entry about it.

    Many thanks, best regards
    Sam Barber