Tales & images from life as me…

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.

Mel x

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10 responses

  1. Nina Hjortlund

    I hear you!

    Being an expat for years you always have the sense of being rootless even though you are at “home” in several countries. You don’t truly belong anywhere – or rather you do not only belong in one place but in many and a part of you will always be longing for that “other place” from time to time.
    Travelling is wonderful, expatting an experience, but you do leave a piece of you behind every time you move on!

    It is always wonderful to see family and friends – but as you say, it is always a balance between going on holiday or visiting family… With family not always being very understanding. Not out of malice but out of love 🙂

    Some family members or friends are always bound to question why you have chosen this life – living in a third world country which they have only seen snippets of on TV. You try to explain but for the most part you get blank stares in return describing, to them, an incomprehensible world. So far from their day-to-day lives as anything could be.

    Come visit – see how we live, who our friends are, share our joys and struggles – it means the world to most expats to get the chance to show the lives we’ve chosen to our friends and family! 🙂

    August 27, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    • Brilliantly put and an excellent point, thanks Nina. More visitors please!

      August 28, 2012 at 8:25 am

  2. Malaika

    And don’t forget the “offspring” that arise from expats (when you get to that stage Mel :)) who fit neither here, nor there, yet everywhere and where an international school is more home than anywhere else. Those who bulk at the question “where are you from” and instead want a breakdown of “do you mean where I was born? Where my father is from? Where my mother is from? What passport I hold? where I love the most? or where I lived the longest?” which all might have different answers which also differ from the question “when you are nostalgic and “homesick”, where do you miss?” (note, that is often the memories from the said international school :)). There’s a whole terminology based for this called the Third-Culture Kid (TCK) – where we take the cultures of our parents and our surroundings and create a third unique culture. Often you will see former international school kids or expat kids get along well and have an affinity with each other. I recognise a fellow TCK within an instant (usually because of the hesitation on the where are you from question :)), regardless of which continent or country their parents are from and which other “culture (s)” they have mixed up into their confusing crockpot of a culture.

    But after a while you get used to having many roots planted in many countries and you leave them in each of the countries you pass through in life, realising and accepting they make up a massive world tree which is a privilege. It’s ok to have multiple roots as long as it all leads to one stable trunk of a personality :).

    Just another thought to add to your musings Mel and to your expat journey! 🙂

    August 28, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    • Thanks Malaika, didn’t know about the TCK concept, but it makes good sense – that’s what I’m marrying! Love the roots/tree metaphor! Keep adding the thoughts. Thanks for reading.

      August 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      • Malaika

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_culture_kid Yup, that’s what you’re marrying. Welcome to the “TCK and associates” clan 🙂

        I spent all my anthropology courses in uni writing about and studying the concept in order to understand myself better (suffered total culture shock when I moved back to my “passport country” for uni and decided it was an unexplored culture that needed to be explored :)!). The person who originally coined the term (R. Useem) was very American focused but a lot of the traits cut across for all TCKs. Had some great discussions within my family of the consequence (of which there are good and bad) of being a TCK from parents who have also now lost touch with their own culture (my mum is hardly a Brit, my dad hardly Dutch – except when football or Olympics are concerned and then one suddenly sees the patriotism return!! interestingly :))….

        Identity – so important yet so intangible (is that a word?).

        August 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm

  3. Cathy

    Nice blog Mel, and totally agree with Malaika’s comments that being a TCK you do struggle to answer that question of “where are you from” having grown up in Asia, spent time in Europe and a life time in Africa only to recently return to Australia, the country for which I hold a passport yet have lived in only briefly, I have often pondered that very question and well today at least would answer that I still call Hong Kong my true home.

    As with most expats I struggle to adequately articulate the question of “what was it like to live there……” often I think the best answer any expat can give to that question is you had to be there and in the present day for friends & family to take up that offer of the bed in the spare room or the space on the couch to come and visit, even if it is only to appreciate how our warped sense of humour has developed.

    I would say that having been a life long expat I am now in the blessed position of having a truly global network of friends & family and as the years have past and technology has eased the tyranny of distance and my periodic letter writing ability we remain in touch and provide a touch stone support base to which I always turn.

    Even better when we do get the opportunity to catch up in person some where in the world the years of absence fall away and it really doesn’t matter where we are or where we have been – perhaps that is the best gift that being an expat gives you an understanding the world is truly a wonderful place made even more satisfying with the connections you make which transcend the physical location you may currently find yourself in…….

    August 29, 2012 at 8:29 am

    • Thanks Cathy, lovely to imagine you out there reading my random thoughts! Really interesting point too – it’s always so hard to explain what it’s like, and of course why we do it (although to any who does it makes perfect sense). Love your positivity about it all though, it’s so true. Hope all is well is Oz and you aren’t missing Africa too much x

      August 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm

  4. Hi Mel, great blog, it’s like you opened up my head and read my mind! I’ve been in the UK for 12 years, born in Australia and can’t stay away from Africa! I’m packing for Madagascar as I write this. I’ve hired my lens and can’t wait to photograph a lemur! Really enjoying your blogs and wish you well for the big day! Pauline (Rufiji River…)x

    August 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm

  5. Well said Mel. Yep, I feel the double life too & I have not been here nearly as long as you. When I am in Canada I refer to here as coming home and when here I refer to Canada as home. Would I change it for the world no? Can be a tricky balance but it is so nice that my friends and family back in Canada and around the world accept my adventurous and travelling ways. Important to stay in touch and visit back ‘home’ but yeah its tricky fitting in everyone and not too mention quite expensive to get back. We may not ever truly ‘fit’ in here partly due to our colour of our skin but I find Tanzanians and the people in general so friendly and welcoming.

    September 5, 2012 at 7:13 pm

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