What Really Happens When You Live As an Expat

British Passport, Canada, Thailand

British Passport, Canada, Thailand (Photo credit: dcgreer)

An experience doesn’t have to be perfectly unique to be worthy of sharing. – Chelsea Fagan

Came across a link to Thought Catalog today and read a post by an American expat, trying to quantify the experience of living aboard. She writes about “fear” and “longing” and the inevitability of finding ex-pats huddled together in bars discussing home and the leaving of it.

Maybe it’s a European expat thing because there are certainly enclaves and gathering holes a plenty for immigrants around the area of Alberta where I live. Ukrainians. Dutch. Scots. Brits. Quebecers. Hutterites. But I have yet to find Americans hanging out. Maybe it’s because we blend in so well despite our decidedly non-Canadian accents? You just don’t see American expat groups and among those of us who are making this or that part of Canada our home, there is a feeling of having narrowly escaped a lifetime of … it’s hard to put into words that don’t come off as elitist or lefty liberal or even Eduardo Saverin traitorous.

Much of the article rang no bells for me. I am not in Canada pursing an education, career or some “eat, pray, love” quasi-spiritual artist way quest. I came here the modern-day equivalent of a mail order bride of the virtual variety. And I am not even unique because I know at least one other widowed mom who crossed the border to marry a Canadian within roughly the same time frame as I did under circumstances that are more similar than not.

The only fear I can recall was that of not being allowed to cross over the border or be allowed to stay once I did. The Canadian government casts a less jaundiced eye on marital immigration than does the United States (so long as the bride isn’t from the Philipines) but the process for sponsoring a foreign born wife teems with tedious amounts of paperwork and barely intelligible rules, which no one who works for CIC (Canada Immigration and Customs) is eager to go on record explaining, confirming or denying. It blessedly doesn’t require a public bedding or stained sheets but more than once, we wondered if the photographic evidence of our union they demanded wasn’t just a thinly veiled request for porn.

I confess that I am still fairly nervous about the border. We’ve never had a problem with a crossing but with the United States ramping up to what amounts to entrance and exit checks and Canada unnerving quiet about what American paranoia it will or won’t enforce, I worry.

Maybe life in Paris or London or Abu Dhabi is just so off the charts unusual in its breadth and scope that Americans need to decompress in groups. Touch familiar bases. Talk about DWTS or Game of Thrones. Plot exit strategies if the GOP theocracy comes to full power in the fall.

Canada is just like home.

Except it’s not.

Rob assured me that living here would be just like living in Iowa.  Rural backwardness and all. Okay, maybe the shopping wasn’t as good. Alright, the shopping part would suck. But otherwise, it would be just the same. And a tad bit colder.

The western prairies are nothing like Iowa, and Canada is not the United States of America or even a wanna-be.

Even five years on, I am still struck near daily by the reality that I am an immigrant in a foreign country. And mostly, I don’t think about having left the U.S. as much as I think about how to get it to quit me. There is so much about being an American that clings like the haze around the perfume counters in department stores. No matter how cleverly you think you’ve avoided the sample girl, the scent follows.

The devil is in the definitions. The United States government sees me as an expat, an American living aboard, but I see myself as an immigrant. Someone who has chosen to leave my old life as an American to build a new life as a Canadian . Could this explain my lack of need to huddle and cuddle with other Americans?

I don’t miss America. Not really. Okay, maybe Target. Sure, they are coming here but won’t be the same. Nothing retail translates well into Canadian.

I miss my friends. Not that they have ever numbered many. I wish I had better access to certain members of my family. I wish I could spend a holiday in my hometown long enough to actually enjoy it rather than cramming reflective moments between taking care of my mother and working around the work schedules of family and friends.

Life has gone on without me. But life has always gone on without me.

Moving from one school to another and made and lost touch with countless co-workers. As I moved from this apartment to another couple to a house and then another, I met and discarded neighbors and city regions. Changing groceries, pharmacists, jogging routes, gyms and coffee shops. Every job or living arrangement entailed a certain amount of readjustments.

I met a husband. Buried a husband. Met another husband. Both came with family, friends, co-workers and accessories unique and not necessarily over-lapping.

Has emigrating been any more or less change than any other change I’ve experienced over the course of my life? Was it more of a growth experience than university? Taking my first teaching job? Marrying. Infertility treatments. Pregnancy. Giving birth. Navigating the underbelly of what passes for the safety net via Social Security and Medicaid. Divesting myself of twenty years, packing everything I still owned in a U-Haul and heading to the Great White North, which has to be a metaphor for the long winters because Canada is not as white as Americans think it is in terms of people, customs, cultures, languages, politics and spiritual diversity.

Every experience that is requires leaving something or someone behind to make room.

And in an age of social media on a planet that is always awake somewhere, leaving is a bit of a first world problem because it is a choice.

Have you left if you’ve only brought only a suitcase while the rest of your stuff waits for you in a storage locker somewhere or your parent’s basement?

Are you living or just visiting when you dine alone? If alone means trolling Facebook and texting with your friends on the other side of an ocean or international border.

What happens to you when you leave the land of your birth? Whatever you want. Intentions and the actions that back them up are what matter. Catching up on the latest gossip from the old country with people who possess a similar vowel inflection? Probably shouldn’t read too much into that. It’s the choice between being a tourist for employment or educational purposes and resolving to put down roots that counts.

What happens when you live as an expat? You eventually become an immigrant and then a citizen, or you go home.

 

3 responses to “What Really Happens When You Live As an Expat

  1. Pingback: Home Sweet Home …away from Home « Hocus Pocus

  2. Pingback: Making an Exit « gorp

  3. Pingback: In Another Country are You an Immigrant or an Expat? | anniegirl1138

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