OK, I will admit it. Ever since we have gotten back from California, I have been in a funk. Was it the gorgeous scenery? The amazing sunny weather? Seeing how happy the kids were while spending time with family? All of the above?
It made me start thinking about what we are doing here in Colombia. We have accomplished all of our original goals – the girls are fluent in Spanish, they have learned to successfully navigate a foreign culture, we have traveled throughout the continent and have had our adventures. There are always more adventures to be had, of course, but I think the time comes in just about every expat experience when life in a foreign country loses its newness and starts to feel just like regular life. It becomes the new normal.
A good friend of mine who has lived in many countries over the past two decades recently said to me, “I think that four years is the maximum time in any country. At that point, you either have to commit to long term life there or go on to another adventure.”
This made me reflect. I have always been ahead of the curve. Am I starting to feel this after two years and 9 months in Colombia?
If I am honest with myself,I do actually feel that it is either time to commit to Colombia in a bigger way – find meaningful work here, not only with clients in the US, get involved in community service, somehow make more friends – or head back to our “real” life back in the US.
Life is good here. We are all happy, have lots of domestic help and enjoyable activities and yet for me, there is a sense of floating, of not having roots, of not belonging…. anywhere. Because therein lies the other reality of expat life – the sense that I don’t really belong in my host country. I look different, speak differently, dress differently, and most, importantly, think differently. My values and what I want from life are different. For a while, this is part of the adventure and excitement – the opportunity to experience something different, to learn something new. But with time, the newness fades. I am left with just the sense of not belonging. And also fear because my kids are growing up in a culture that is not mine or my husbands’. A culture that is extremely well-mannered, generous, relaxed and loving and yet also traumatized by many years of conflict. Human relationships are very complicated here. They are not at all straightforward. There is little trust among people who are not closely related. People often don’t say what they think, don’t do what they say, and as for timeliness, forget it. And then there is the classism and sexism and we are raising three girls! What will it mean for our future as a family if our kids grow up with these values? For their futures as individuals?
“Well, why don’t you just pack your bags and come back home?” you might be thinking. It’s not so simple. The other reality of expat life is that I don’t really feel completely at home in the US anymore. The extremely harried pace of life, the need to get somewhere and be “someone” to feel worthy, the overpacked schedules, parental obsession with their kids’ achievements – it’s like an assault to my senses now. I find it extremely stressful and quite unhealthy actually. And then there is the hypocrisy between our “American values” around honesty, self-determination and democracy and our actions around the world. Don’t even get me started on this one.
When I picture going back, I find myself very excited on the one hand to be with close friends (our family would still be far away since we would have to go back to the East Coast), to have easier relationships with people who are positive, open-minded, progressive, trust others and do what they say they will in the promised timeframe, to get back to a culture that I understand and whose values I support, for the most part. But then I picture the flipside – the stress, the scheduling, the high cost of living, the sense that our value comes from what we do and what we produce, the constant multi-tasking just to “get it all in” – and I think, “Am I really going to give up the fantastically relaxed and abundant life here in Colombia, to go back to that? I get to focus on my passions and spend lots of quality time with my family here. I need to just get out there and get more involved in Colombian life, make more friends or call my friends back in the US more when I feel like I don’t belong here.”
There is no simple answer. The hardest part is the responsibility I feel towards my children. They are very happy here and are learning a lot about life and the world but where are they better off in the longer picture? It’s very hard to tell.
For now, our plan is to go back to the US for six weeks this summer. This will mean pulling the kids out of school for three weeks since they are on the South American school calendar here and only get three weeks off in June and July. We will send them all to camps for much needed English language immersion and just see what it feels like to live in the US again. Maybe this will bring some clarity.
If any of you reading this have experience with expat living with children and especially, repatriation or staying on in the host country, I greatly welcome your feedback. Even if you don’t have the experience, I am still open to all feedback.