Expat Life: Sometimes It's Hard



I was just trying to write a blog post prompt about a great or inspiring road trip (it is a fun idea from one of many in the SITS Girls March blog post prompts) and hit a wall of homesick sads, because most of my favourite road trips happened on the long winding roads of New England. Childhood memories of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia come back, long sunny drives to the Cape when I was in high school, the college road trip when I drove all the way down the East Coast to Florida with my b.f.f.'s K. and A.

Sometimes, even after 15 years (this May marks 15 years since I moved to Scotland), maybe especially after 15 years, being an expat is just hard. I try not to think about it too much, but it is an aspect of life as a stranger in a strange land that is ongoing, that one has to learn to cope with, and hopefully alleviate with trips to the homeland, with making new memories in your new home, with day to day life.

I think some people are able to fully adapt to a new country, and not dwell too much. I don’t know. I knew so many people in New York especially who were from other places originally: Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, South Africa, and yes, the U.K. And sometimes they would talk about their homelands but I guess I didn’t really appreciate how hard it must have been. I read plenty of expat memoirs, from Bill Bryson to David Sedaris, and find humour and comfort. But some days, some weeks, are harder than others.

One of my old high school friends was in Florida this week with her family, next month the aforementioned b.f.f.'s will be down at Disney. My cousin B. will also be down in Florida next month to visit her parents, my aunt and uncle who go down in the winter who I also never see. Oh yeah, and my best friend from college and her family will also be there, which I just found out yesterday. And something about a bunch of people who I rarely get to see converging in one spot, not far from where my Mom lives, I guess naturally would make me really want to be there, too. Of course, it's not rocket science.

But it was/is a very sudden, desperate type feeling of missing out on shared memories. And of course they are like "Hey, come on over!" Like it's as easy as that. The people you leave behind mostly expect you to do the legwork in maintaining the friendship, they don't understand why I don't come home more often, they still ask me when I am moving "home".

And then later this year in August my cousin A. is getting married, in Mass., and my Mom’s side of the family, which is large and thus rarely all together, will all be there, and there is some pressure on me to go, and I really want to go, I haven’t been to New England in I don’t know how long, 6 or 7 years now I guess. I haven’t met numerous family offspring or my friend K’s little boy. I am just feeling out of the loop.

We can afford to go, it’s just a weird time in the city where I live, everyone is losing their jobs because the main industry here is dying, everything feels super uncertain. So it feels really selfish to expect to go to America twice in one year. Ok so we could cut out the Florida trip, which is our only proper relaxing vacation, which makes me feel like a jerk/selfish again. But then I get mad and think “So what, I live most of my life not being able to see my old friends or family, I deserve to be selfish sometimes.”

I know this is all very first world problems, sorry. But the homesickness ties in so deeply to the travelling, the desire is so strong and upsetting me right now I can’t even write a stupid blog post about road trips! 

The tricky thing about living in a place like Britain, is you are surrounded by pastiches of American culture, of course American film and television are everywhere, but lately there are all of these faux down home ”Southern” type restaurants opening where I live, it’s the latest trend in hipster cuisine. And for me it just feels like Epcot’s Disney-fied version of Europe. 

There is always something that’s slightly amiss. And the familiarity feels momentarily good, but then something about the imitation startles you and you feel like you are in The Truman Show or something. It happened the last time I went to a “Southern” restaurant. They served this disgusting organic weird sarsaparilla thing and called it root beer, and poof!, the illusion disappears and you remember how far you are from home. It’s not the same as going to McDonald's or whatever, it’s the attempt at “authentic” American that always misses a note and makes you pine for the real thing.

And even though this celebration of Americana is everywhere, it doesn’t change the fact that you are, and always will be, an outsider. Sure, you forget about it some days, a little. Most people are nice, it’s not like there aren’t any Americans where I live (I hear them in supermarkets, occasionally, demanding organic produce and gluten free things! ;-0) so it's sort of an odd thing. We're a tiny minority, so mostly we don't encounter each other in social settings.

Brits may embrace our food and our pop culture, but there is in truth, often an inbuilt disdain, a presumption you are a stereotype they have already formed. For whatever reason, despite Breaking Bad and Foo Fighters and other things they like, a LOT of people here still have a predisposition to think we are all straight out of The Dukes Of Hazzard when they meet an American for the first time. I don’t know why. There is a real disconnect.

It doesn’t help that most of the documentaries about America they air here are about our absolute worst side: the KKK, religious and political extremists, etc. British documentarians in America are all about the Southern Bible Belt. Or weird Midwestern road trips, finding the wonderfully obscure at times, but rarely painting a portrait of anything familiar to my personal experience of America. For someone like me, an East Coast, vaguely cosmopolitan liberal type, it’s really f’ing hard at times. Not with my friends or people I already know, of course, but just generally, in society, always being on the defensive.

There is the underbelly of the “dark side” of British culture. It’s passive and quiet and excludes you without you even quite realizing it’s happening. It’s slightly different everywhere you go, but it’s always there. Shows like “The League Of Gentlemen”, dark and twisted as it was, have an element of truth when they poke fun at the way some people here can have of not being too friendly to outsiders. It's like that scene in “An American Werewolf in London” where the American boys get lost and stumble into the rural country pub (which yes, while full of werewolves, is also full of that same eerie quality, you know the one I mean, the Deliverance type fear). Which is ironic as British people LOVE Deliverance! 

When my husband opens his mouth in America, people flock around him as though he is a very exotic bird, mostly not understanding a word he says, but still, they are attracted to and fascinated by his unique-ness. He pretends not to like it, but how could you not lap that up? "Oh I Looooove your accent!", everywhere you go! When I open my mouth, my slightly transatlantic, vaguely lilting mouth now, sometimes I speak quietly enough that people think I’m Canadian, or even Irish. When they suss I’m American, thus begins a game of either “Hey I like Americans!” (we can be friends) or “Ugh I can’t stand you stupid Americans”, and me trying to figure out which box they have already put me in.

I don’t mean to be so negative, sorry, but this is the depths of expat loneliness and homesickness here. It’s really not so bad, chin up and Bridget Jones and Four Weddings and Harry Potter and all of that good stuff. I love so many things about Britain, I do. I have adapted in most of the ways that matter. I think my manners are better (I hope!). And my swearing vocabulary has really come on a treat! My b.s. detector is more acute than it ever was. I feel like I understand the world a little bit better for having lived in another country for so long. I have been to Paris and Amsterdam and Dublin, places I'm not sure I would have did I not live here. Posts like this one do merit an "All the Good Things I Have Learned Being an Expat" yang post.

But I can't today. When thoughts of road trips lead to memories of a time when I knew where I fit in in the world, just a little bit more. The bigger your world gets, the more complicated it feels. Expat blues, they creep up on you sometimes, no matter how long you've been away from home.



Me, on  a fake NYC stoop at Universal Orlando. #meta

10 comments

  1. I have never been out of the country, or even lived outside of NorCal so I've never experienced anything like you have! Homesickness sounds like a beast :/

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    1. I often think I don't have it as bad as someone else might in terms of homesickness, in that I moved around a lot as a kid (well, between states a few times anyway), and so don't have that permanent place that I think of as "home". So it's weird when it hits me all of a sudden, I don't know. Thanks for reading, Heather :-)

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  2. Sympathy. Brits are often very patroninsing and negative about the US. I miss England, although it is not far away.

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    1. Aw thanks Elinor, I'm sure as an English person you *cough* may have had similar issues in Scotland sometimes! ;-) I don't mean to slate Britain, I do embrace and appreciate so many things here, which I am reminded of when I go to the States of course! But there is a sort of uphill battle here sometimes it feels like being from the "wrong side of the pond" ;-)x

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  3. A lot of this struck a chord with me. My parents moved to the UK just before I was born and my extended family (beyond mum, dad, brothers) lives on 3 different continents. We somehow manage to still be a pretty close family but I feel an enormous sadness about never knowing what family are up to on a day-today basis, and that we almost never get to share the important moments in our lives together. I love my family dearly but the emotions I feel for them are tangled up in a deep sense of loss. I cannot even imagine how much harder it has been for my parents to spend their entire adult lives living on different continents from their siblings and, in my dad's case, parents.

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    1. Thanks Janet :-) It must be really hard for your family (and you!). I carry a lot of guilt, a lot of the feelings you mention of missing out on day to day life. I try not to dwell on it but it never really gets easier. I don't think anyone can really understand it until they have lived it. Anyhoo...thanks, I would love to read more about your family history, sounds interesting! :-)

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    2. Yes - my friends make all the right noises but considering they all live within spitting distance of not just their parents but their cousins, aunts, uncles, they really have no idea!

      Ah I keep trying/meaning to write something and it ends up with me getting emotional over my laptop! Maybe after this trip to South Africa (it's where my parents are from, and this weekend I am going with my mum for the first time ever! We've both been back plenty individually, but never together, so I can't wait for her to show me the places that are meaningful to her)...

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    3. Wow, that sounds amazing, can't wait to hear about your trip!

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  4. Oh man. I have never lived outside the U.S. but I have imagined it and sometimes it seems appealing and other times it seems so terrifying. I honestly don't know if I could do it.
    Big hugs.

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    1. Thanks Becky :-) I mean I have friends who live halfway or all the way across the country from their parents, a lot of people have to deal with separation as they get older. But the not being in your own country is another layer I think of homesickness. Sometime I wonder what it would be like to live in a really foreign land, one where they don't speak English/or as a first language. Though sometimes it feels like that here too lol! ;-0

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