Ex-pat 007: An insight into ex-pat life.
I live a double life. One only an ex-pat will understand.
I am an English girl with an English family, used to pubs, shopping and short winter/long summer days, but I am also a traveller, writer photographer in the wilds of Africa where the sun sets on the equator at the same time every day of the year and the shopping really isn’t all that! I am a daughter of British parents, I am soon to be the wife of a man who was born here in East Africa. Where do I belong?
The longer you stay away from your country of origin the harder it becomes. The problem is the new place becomes home too. And after a few years it isn’t even the new place any more, it’s just home…
Except it’s not. You still have to apply for a visa. You are still very conscious that you are different in many fundamental ways, and family and friends back in your place of birth still need/want/expect to see you every now and again. That generally means taking your one big holiday a year in a country you’ve been to loads of times before. Don’t get me wrong, of course we all want to see those friends and family, but this is not a holiday!
Plus, most people who move out to another country do so because they want to see the world, to travel – so using half the year’s holiday on a trip ‘home’ every year can be a frustration… one we all choose to accommodate however because… well, what’s the alternative? We love those people. I’m not saying it’s a hardship, just an odd set up compared to most people’s lives.
Plus there is the fact that Africa is a bizarrely daunting prospect to many people so most are not keen to visit us. They have only seen in on the news or National Geographic – one handles starvation and war, the other man eaters! Plus there are injections to be had and the potential for malaria, and – ok – it isn’t a cheap trip. I’m telling you, it took me seven years to get my brother here!
Anyway, the upshot is we are forced to split our lives. Although the balance changes as life gets more entrenched in whatever country you choose you will be accommodating another culture, another calendar, and a set of family members and friends who simply can’t imagine your life out there.
My friends in Tanzania, aside from the East African ones, are from India, Australia, Holland, England, Denmark, Vietnam… ok I’ll stop, but I could go on. The varied lives intertwine with ease because we are all displaced. We know we chose this, and we reap the benefits of a wonderful life on this incredible continent, but we can also empathise with what it is to miss people, to feel lost. And I need that, not least because whenever I do travel back to the country I came from, I do so all ready to share – I bring warm, bright, visceral stories of Africa and I am all ready to spill them out, but in reality they seep from me like the receding tide disappearing into the sand because they are overwhelmed by the normality of ‘home’ life. I am welcomed back and absorbed back in.
Back in the UK, whenever I visit, I drive past a farm market; a local produce place with a little petting farm to entertain the kids in the form of goats, a donkey… an ostrich and a buffalo! Often I see them in the snow, or with a gentle icy frosting, breathing clouds of cold air and I think ‘I know how you feel’. They are part of the landscape yet they do not belong. That is true anywhere I go now, after 8 years away.
It is an odd thing to be an ex-pat anywhere in the world, but it’s a fascinating experience to work towards understanding the country we have come to and it unifies the ex-pat communities in away perhaps nothing else could. So can people earn a sense of belonging? Yes, I think so, to some extent at least. But will we ever be able to escape the double life? Probably not. I have many friends born in East Africa as third or even fourth generation Tanzanians, but even they must flit to India, Germany, Italy or Scotland to return to their roots every now and again. I think after a while, even if you returned permanently back to your country of origin you would simply have the same situation but in reverse and be popping to East Africa to visit people and places and get your fix. We’ve made our beds, now we must lie in them… all over the place, and always packing and unpacking a suitcase!
It’s even reflected in my semantics – when I am in England I refer to ‘heading home’ meaning Africa, when I am in Africa I talk endlessly about things ‘back home’.
As I’ve said, it’s a life we choose. It’s one that many people find hard to understand and one that many of us often struggle with, but we do also get the best of both worlds and mustn’t forget that.
Part of my reason for my recent silence, as many of you know, is that I’ve been in the UK and have barely paused for breath. Holiday? Not really! But it certainly served to highlight how fantastic it is to have people who have known you for years, as a child even, and who care so much about you that they will do things like travel miles, fit in with complex plans and give their time and energy to make sure you have time together and can catch up. These people – together with a family who never criticise the choice I made or make me feel guilty – make it all seem better (the shopping helps to!!). No seriously – thank you friends and family for accepting my double life and letting me pop in and out and never resenting it. My hen do and the subsequent meet ups have been so fantastic.
I hope this paints a little part of the picture for those of you who have never lived the ex-pat life, and for those who do (or have) I hope it rings some little bells of truth. As always please feel free to comment, it’s so good to see your comments every week.