Flying back to California after a visit home in December, my seatmate was a woman visiting her daughter and grandchildren over Christmas break. Like me, her daughter had lived abroad for many years and, like me, her daughter had recently bought an apartment “back home”. I asked my seatmate if her daughter was planning on moving home soon and her answer was one that resonated with me: “Oh, she’s been on her way home ever since she left. All these years, she has talked about moving. She still has stuff to unpack, she’s still talking about buying a nice comfy couch and getting rid of the temporary cheap one.” All I could do was smile in recognition — I knew exactly what my seatmate was talking about.

Thing is, living abroad often means a degree of uncertainty and unsettledness. Feeling in limbo, even during longer assignments, is not uncommon. The feeling strikes me especially at this time of year, when you are surrounded by new year’s resolutions and best-of lists — where to go, what to accomplish and what to be. During my first many years abroad, I felt very much like I lived in a kind of no man’s land. The idea of making longer term plans, or becoming too settled, wasn’t something I felt I could do.

When we first moved abroad, our deal was that we’d move back home after a couple of years. Making plans, big or small, seemed like something that could wait until we got back home and everything was normal and known again. Better to think about career choices when I am someplace where I speak the language, where I understand the culture a bit better. No reason to decorate the house if we’re moving in a year or two. This was my thinking for a long time. As for moving home — that didn’t happen, we stayed long past the two years we had initially agreed on.

The reason my seatmate’s story resonated so much was because, even after very many years abroad, and by all accounts feeling pretty settled, the idea of moving back home was still regularly tossed around in our house — and not just as a joke. That “maybe next year we move”-mentality has an impact on how you live life, how choices are made.

I wonder if part of the reason why the globally mobile population often feels so rootless is because everyday life tends to be a “catch up”. You are trying to overcome language barriers, learn about customs and cultural codes, as well as build a social and professional network — in short, you are trying to catch up to something resembling an everyday existence. Very little is given. Combine that with the inherent temporary nature of international assignment, and it’s easy to see that making longer term plans and feeling truly settled can be difficult.    

I recently bought an apartment back home. I’m not sure what it would be like to live there full time at this point. I’ve spent most of my adult life abroad, and even though I have kept close ties to family, I know there are many things that I haven’t kept up with. Living abroad has made me a bit of a hybrid, I feel comfortable in both places, but where I belong I don’t really know. And this is something you hear often from people who have lived abroad for a long time — a feeling of being comfortable in many places, but not quite belonging anywhere.

By: Felicia Shermis

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