Expat or “I just live here for now”

Ravi and I were having an interesting conversation over the 4th of July weekend, and several weeks later, I find myself still thinking about it.

Is there a difference between a “real expat” and someone who just lives in another country for a while?

Technically I’ve earned my expat badge…I’ve lived in a foreign country.  I’m not staying at a hotel, or with a host family; I live here. Elanor doesn’t go to the Singapore American School, she goes to a local school.  We shop at local stores, I can knock about Mustafa, I can hit a wet market, and while I’m not the biggest fan of hawker stands, I’ll dip into one if I’m hungry.  Yes, I have my Western Style comforts you’ll pry out of my cold dead hands (24/7 air con, western food, american tv) but I generally do what I consider a reasonable balancing act when it comes to living life in Singapore as opposed to just existing here.

I’ve written before that I worry that I’m a “bad expat.”  The conversation with Ravi, though, has me wondering if, at the end of the day, I’m really an expat at all, and what has changed.

Before we moved to Singapore, I had this idea that we would move here, then maybe onto another country and if we were ever lucky enough to end up in London, I’d never want to leave.  I would be a lifelong expat.  American as apple pie, but happily one continent or so removed from the day to day parts of being an American in the US.

A year into this whole expat thing…I’m not unhappy in Singapore, but I’ve begun to think with certitude that I would prefer our next move to be back to the US.

In the short run (the next year, minimum) Singapore is arguably the BEST place for us to be with the new baby on the way.  It’s true that I’d have help with a new baby in the US, if we were Boston based.  When Ellie was little Ravi, my parents, and my in-laws (and our friends) were an invaluable support system.  However, having a helper (and a school-aged child, which E would not be in the US) is going to help make the transition to two children so much easier, especially in the early weeks when the little girl and I are trying to sort out breastfeeding, no one is sleeping, and everything is just hard.  I have every confidence that I can parent two kids, but I’m not turning away the support the B gives me.

Maybe it’s that I’m struggling to come to terms with the unsettling reality that I will be having this baby on the opposite side of the earth from my family and friends (yes, I’ve decided to have the baby here).  Elanor wasn’t just born in Boston; she was born across the street from my undergraduate college dorm.  While Ravi and I didn’t grow up in Boston proper, our lives had been rooted in Boston for over 10 years.  The idea that my friends and family’s first contact with the new baby isn’t going to be in person, but instead over facebook, twitter, this blog, and skype is upsetting.  So the pull of “home” is stronger for me right now than it might otherwise be.

The baby is perhaps the driving force.  Elanor is old enough to have conversations with her grandparents and family members on skype.  She remembers them, and has a relationship with them.  I feel a lot of guilt that the baby won’t have that kind of firm family foundation that Elanor had.  Even if we ended up in a different part of the US, I’d be at most a 6-7 hour plane ride away, and not a 30 hour journey away.

Or maybe the truth is that while I’ve enjoyed this adventure, and I don’t regret doing it, I’m just ready to go home.

So…does that rescind my expat cred?  Or it is an understandable longing for home that’s far more tied into the pregnancy than I might credit it for being.  I guess we’ll see in a year or so, once we’re over the initial newbaby phase.

What do you think?  Is there a difference between “expats” and people who just live somewhere for now?  How is it different (or is it?) from moving to another part of the US and holding onto a “Bostonian” identity (such as team loyalty to the Sox?).

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9 Responses to Expat or “I just live here for now”

  1. Dawn says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the baby not having a “family foundation” of local relatives. A lot of people live far away from extended family and see them rarely or not at all. (When I was growing up, I saw my grandparents about once a year – and they were relatively close – one set in CT and the other in NJ.) The baby won’t be old enough to remember the people around her for several years so if you move back within that time frame, she’ll never know the difference. And even if you don’t, with E talking about them and interacting with them on skype, as well as several-times-a-year visits to the US to see them in person, the little one will get to know them in that way.

    It’s mostly important that your baby is surrounded by people who care about her, whether they’re blood relatives, helpers, or friends – and it certainly seems like she is.

    • Crystal says:

      Thanks, Dawn. You make a valid point.

      One of the hardest things I’ve struggled with in the transition from one to two children is the knowledge that babygirl and Elanor will never get the exact same (fillintheblank). E will always have gotten the lion’s share of one on one attention (her being in school 5x per week for 3.5 hours a day starting in Jan will help address that a little, though). There are already fewer pictures of babygirl, and while I had the energy to write E a weekly letter in utero, I’ve done very little of that for babygirl. I know from being a teacher that “fair” doesn’t mean everyone gets the same, but as an only child, I think a lot about the differences in E and babygirl’s experiences.

      Of course the flip side is that babygirl will always have a cooler answer when someone asks her “where were you born?,” a cooler birth certificate, and that they’ll both be richer in experience from having lived abroad. And they’re each getting a sister–something I would’ve given my left arm for.

      • Dawn says:

        Both older and younger siblings benefit from having/being siblings. Older siblings play somewhat of a teaching role to their younger siblings and as a result become more intelligent than if they had been an only child (this has been shown in studies – at least that older siblings tended to be smarter than the average kid, and the teaching thing was the hypothesized mechanism). Younger siblings benefit from the parents being experienced from having taken care of the first one. We’ve certainly made our share of mistakes with F that we won’t repeat with #2. In any case, every child is different and every child will benefit from the uniqueness of their particular circumstances. And I don’t know of anyone – older, younger, or only – who is upset because they don’t think there were enough kiddie pictures taken of them (especially ultrasound photos).

      • Dawn says:

        Oh, and by the way, I just saw this article saying that families with two daughters are the happiest! http://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/8429386/Want-to-be-happy-have-two-daughters.html

      • Crystal says:

        I’ve seen that article…I think we’ll be happier when they’re both on the outside of my body, though.

  2. bookjunkie says:

    It’s totally and completely understandable. I would be homesick too. Actually it’s one of the reasons why I don’t think I could make it abroad. Would miss family too much….not so much the country.

    • Crystal says:

      I tend to miss aspects of both. Friends and family are the huge, obvious one, of course. But there’s an ease in being in your home country, where you speak not just the language, but the slang, and you have a shared cultural background with most of the people you come into contact with on a daily basis. No one gets my sense of humor here, except other Americans, which can just be tiring.

      Which is, of course, not to say there aren’t things that I love more about Singapore than the US. The lack of snow when my friends are complaining about shoveling is quite satisfying. The zoo, the flowers, the lack of seasonal allergies are all awesome. I love the water based playgrounds that so delight E. I love living in shorts and flip flops. I love being separate from the day to day bullshit of American politics, and picking and choosing how involved I get in that. I love that my friends now include new cultures and I’m learning so many new things.

      But…going home doesn’t sound bad, either.

  3. Maria says:

    Your expat cred is there for life — you’re in the club now, and membership can’t be revoked. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay “in the field” forever. Sometimes the hardest part of being an expat is knowing when to pull the plug. If the US is where you belong, you’ll know.

    • Crystal says:

      Thanks, Maria. I have to be reminded that there isn’t an expat score card somewhere that I’m getting an “f” on.

      I think for certain that the US is where we’ll end up. Ravi has said he’d love to go home eventually, too.

      Hearing stories from you and other expats who have been there before me help a lot. Another friend, who’s married to a Swede said her homesickness kicked in around the end of year 2 and lasted through year 3…after which she felt almost more home in her secondary home than her original one.

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