Guilty Compromises and Quarter-Life Crises: Lessons in Living Overseas

When I turned 25 last year, I was proud to feel able to say I had reached my quarter-century having accomplished many things in both a personal and professional sense. Had you known me 10 years ago, you would never have imagined I’d be living and working halfway across the world right now. I was a very shy child. My best friend was my family’s Labrador, Tom, as was Milly, my spaniel, who was not actually a real dog but a bag I took everywhere with me. My siblings tell me I had an imaginary friend called Jinky who I’d talk to under the barn steps. Much of my time was spent wandering around our fields in a daydream or incessantly scribbling down pony stories in notebooks. Like many children, I was bullied for a few years, and my way of dealing with it by saying nothing, casing myself in a shell and trying to distract myself with my imagination, has contributed to my quiet voice and love of writing. As a teenager I didn’t really fit in with the catty group of girls I found myself in a friendship group with. While they loved shopping and make-up and got attention from boys, I did sports, felt more comfortable in scruffy hand-me-downs and believed my broken nose made me ugly.

Like with many people, my experiences of being mocked through school instilled in me a quiet ambition to aspire for greater things. I truly believed that something better was waiting down the line if I kept working hard, and I was determined that in later years I would look back on the past and be the one laughing at how insignificant the events and those people inside it all seemed. I still experience moments of Impostor Syndrome when I wonder how my shy young self grew up to be who and where I am. However, the question I am most often asked as an expat is: “Don’t you miss home and your family?”

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The answer is yes, of course I do, but I was fortunate in that my parents encouraged all of my siblings to travel and see the world. They presented time away from home as something to be excited rather than worried about. As a result, I never struggled with homesickness when I went on school trips overseas. The last time my whole family was together was in 2013. To some families this would seem indicative of a dysfunctional dynamic; for us it’s normal. We are adults in our 20s and 30s who have all fled the nest to go in different directions around the world, and we were brought up to understand that this is simply how life goes.

Even with an independent mindset however, this doesn’t mean living in a foreign country doesn’t have its extremely challenging personal moments. A lot of travel bloggers will glorify the expat life, presenting their lifestyle as a trouble-free haven to which we should all aspire – “I quit my 9-5 job for paradise”. What these people aren’t telling you is that difficult personal experiences follow you wherever you go. Everyone goes through complex emotional stages in life. Place yourself in a foreign country away from your family and there is a whole new dimension involved. Gone are those unconditional physical comforts and avenues for support. Gone is the certainty of what steps to take next (and in some cases, which steps you are entitled to take as a foreign resident). Under the impression that they should always be smiling because of living in a beautiful new country, I personally believe that a lot of expats struggle to identify when they are unhappy. I was one of them at the end of 2017.

This post is not intended to invite sympathy out of an implication that I have a difficult life, because I don’t at all. I debated sharing it for a while because some of the content seemed too personal and conceited. Then I realized that if I was to rewind back two years to when I started my visa application in the midst of a long-distance relationship, the experiences I’m about to share are things I wish I had been more prepared for. But of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and life is unpredictable. On the whole I don’t have many regrets, and I am a believer that things happen for a reason. If I could go back however, I would approach some things differently.

While my decision to move overseas was also largely based on a desire to leave England and experience working abroad, having a boyfriend in Canada inevitably had an integral influence on the type of experience I had in my first few months here. Realistically, both members knew we were no longer a good match and were simply staying together because of history. Regardless, I clung onto a failing relationship for a long time, and on reflection I know it was because I didn’t feel secure enough in my own life here to brave going it alone. Around this time I didn’t have a stable job, I didn’t have many of my own friends, and I didn’t live separately in my own apartment. I didn’t feel I had enough independence to become independent. All break-ups are hard, but it turns out that ending a long-term relationship while living away from home is really hard. In losing a boyfriend I had first met aged 19 on my first trip to Canada, I had also inevitably lost the strength of connection with what I had considered for a long time to be my second family. As much as a partner’s family members might insist on keeping in touch, realistically things can never fully be the same. Gone were the guaranteed Thanksgiving and Christmas invites, collections from the ferry or airport, and advice on Canadian systems and laws.

In spite of this huge change in my circumstances, I thought I was doing pretty well in the break-up’s aftermath. In a September blog post, I discussed how content I was with my Canadian life. Little did I realize how much this was more me trying to convince myself everything was great, underestimating how much my confidence had been unsettled. This was largely because I didn’t have family and close friends around who knew me well enough to understand and suggest how I was really doing. I also didn’t realize how much the break-up had affected me because I had been quickly distracted by an attraction to a new person who seemed to come along at a perfect time near the end of the relationship, when I had felt so much uncertainty about my future in a foreign country. Excited by the new attention and comforted by the prospect of immediate company, I let myself get caught up in a complicated romance without realizing that my current mindset was not in a strong place to form a new relationship. My emotionally needy self clashed with someone emotionally unavailable. The impact of the emotional collision was drawn out over a confusing period, and the final broken remnants left me questioning many things about myself and my ability to form fulfilling relationships in which my level of care would be reciprocated. Having always prided myself on being an independent person, I didn’t recognize the clingy person I had become. I had invested so much time and effort caring about someone, when really it was myself I needed to take care of. The soundtrack to my 2017 Christmas was Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’. Aided by a dose of SAD, I felt lonely, tired, pessimistic and unmotivated. Trying to understand my self-esteem was like trying to decipher a face through a cracked mirror.

Around the same time, I also went through that “quarter-life-crisis” stage common to people of my age. I was a few years into an unexpected career field, living away from home being a true “grown up”, and yet there was still a shy, indecisive person inside me who was scared by the prospect of a structured work life and unsure of where my life was going. We are constantly pressured to aspire for more – more money, more titles, more living space, more materialistic possessions – yet I didn’t feel ready or interested to follow that trend; I was drawn to the idea of a life where I could just take off whenever I felt like exploring a new place. To afford to travel, you need to work. But to have a worthwhile travel experience, you need time. And when you work full-time in a permanent role, time doesn’t come easily. When unemployed, we crave having a permanent job, and yet when we have it, we long for more freedom. The prospect of my future consisting of days spent at work seemed so confining. I was very grateful to have a job that I love, but my priorities and plans in life went through a period of feeling muddled. Billy Joel’s ‘River of Dreams’ was added to my soundtrack. (Evidently, rivers are pretty symbolic.)

I’d never planned to go home for Christmas 2017, and the same plan still stood even when I became single. Flights seemed too expensive, I wouldn’t have enough time there to make it worth the expense, I figured better to wait for a visit in the summertime, “it’s only Christmas”. Yet another underestimation of how difficult things would be. I put on a brave face to family because I didn’t want them to worry about me. I had a stubborn desire to prove that I was fine and could be a “big girl”.

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A last-minute decision to get away for a few days of solo travel time helped pick me up. Corny and cliche as it may sound, my trip to Kelowna helped restore my understanding of myself and rejuvenate my sense of purpose. Heading into 2018, I resolved to look forward. A single 25-year-old young professional in a foreign country – I had so much freedom to carve out the type of lifestyle I wanted. I realized this was an exciting time for me, not a sad one.

I started focusing even more on running and fitness, and even started swimming occasionally again – a sport I was not known to enjoy during my teenage days as a Modern Pentathlete. I got stricter with my diet after having let meals slip into lazy choices during December. I turned off the sad soul and acoustic blues – the Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Neil Young – and turned on more optimistic Motown and funk. I started making use of my creativity again and writing more guest posts for other bloggers.  I focused on quality and not quantity when it came to socializing with people. I won my first 5k race of the season with a better time than I’d expected. As my sense of self-worth rose again, I shook off my scepticism about male intentions and relationships, and let myself give a guy I’d been wondering about a chance that turned out to be worthwhile.

As the days get longer and the spring flowers start to bloom, I now feel like I’ve truly established my own life here in Canada. I feel truly content and independent. I’m blessed to have some fantastic people in my life, some fun hobbies, and some beautiful surroundings. I feel like I’m having the lifestyle and relationships that I wanted, and it feels great.

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So after everything that’s happened in the past few months, why do I sometimes feel bad saying that I’m happy?

Every so often, I’ll experience what I call ‘The Cycle of Guilt’. The guilt relates to being far away from home as my parents get older. Even if parents are fortunate to be in great health, the distance from family makes worries about the future that most children experience throughout their lives a little more pertinent when living overseas. A recent article on long-term expat experiences even suggested that a desire to look after parents often influences family members to return home, even if they struggle to readjust to their old lives themselves.  A thought of happiness I have will sometimes be followed by a voice of judgment. The voice tells me that I am being selfish and inconsiderate. It reminds me of the wonderful childhood my parents created for me and my siblings – one that wasn’t filled with many materialistic things, but with health, adventure and encouragement. How can I just get up and leave them when they did all this for me? How can I act so ungrateful?

On UK Mother’s Day in March, Victoria saw its warmest day of the year so far. I walked around in a t-shirt along the oceanfront and bought ice cream at the park. The sound of an English woman’s accent ordering an ice cream had me involuntarily spinning around to catch a glimpse of this familiar stranger, and the sight of an elderly lady on her own, fumbling with her purse and trying not to drop her walking stick, consumed me with a sudden feeling of guilt. I envisioned a similar (and very far away!) future scene featuring my own mum and, irrational as I knew it was, felt bad for having a lovely day over here rather than being at home with her.

One of the biggest challenges as an expat (or Canadian resident who has moved to the other side of this huge country!) is maintaining strong relations with people back home while investing in new ones in your current place of residence. Despite all the technological options for keeping in touch with people around the world, doing so still takes a lot of work. I will not deny that I am bad at scheduling Skypes with friends and family outside of Canada. It’s not because I’ve forgotten about or been forgotten by them, but because life gets in the way. With a Monday-to-Friday work schedule, the 8-hour time difference with the UK is very restrictive. A time might be planned on a weekend, only for something to come up and my priorities be cast into doubt. Do I miss out on a unique opportunity for an interesting outdoor or social activity, or catch up with a friend overseas I haven’t properly spoken to in a few weeks? While I’m very organized when it comes to sending cards for special occasions, I Skype my parents only every few months. The ending with my mum always seems to follow a “You hang up”-“No you hang up” pattern, and the end of every call is followed by a little cry before I snap myself out of it and get on with my day.

Although these cycles of guilt will be an inevitable occurrence while I am away, my rational self knows I should not punish myself with such feelings. I also know that as soon as they read this post, my parents will email me insisting I’m a silly billy who shouldn’t be worrying or feeling bad. Realistically, I know that my parents are happy for me. They want me to be happy, and they know that being here makes me happy. I’ve come to realize that the best parents don’t ask their children to stay close, but encourage them to go far. By trying to persuade children to stay nearby, it’s the parents that are actually being selfish. Had I stayed at home, I would not be feeling guilt over others, but I would be feeling discontent with myself. I’d be frustrated that I’d only wondered about a life overseas and not actually attempted to pursue the dream. Guilt is a natural antagonist of joy. More than guilt I feel pride in the things I’ve accomplished,  and the parents that helped me accomplish those things by “letting me go”. The past year has taught me the importance of not wasting time, of taking advantage of opportunities and trying to fill life with as many memorable experiences as possible. Life involves compromises, and time with family is a big one you have to make if you decide to move abroad. But awkward as it feels to say it, when you look at the bigger picture, the compromise is worth it.

In June I’m heading home for a couple weeks to visit family and friends. It will be my first trip back to England since December 2016. The time together will be brief, but I know I will greatly cherish every moment of it.

 

 

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One thought on “Guilty Compromises and Quarter-Life Crises: Lessons in Living Overseas

  1. As a 57 year old Mum who, on one hand wants my children to always be close, but on another hand wants them to become the person they want to be and live in the place they feel ‘right’ to live in … I love the frank honesty and wisdom of your writing Shan.

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