… is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship (Wikipedia)
I have been an expat twice in my life, once at age 21, and now again at 42. The experiences differ greatly because of the reason for going abroad and the season of life in which the expat experiences have occurred.
Reasons for Being an Expat
I had been taking Spanish courses in high school and college, and as I approached my last year of college, I realized I was far from being as fluent as I wanted and needed to be. I needed to be fluent because I was going to be teaching in California’s central valley, and at the time most schools had bilingual Spanish programs. I wanted to be assured a job, and to be able to communicate effectively with the parents of my students. So I decided I needed to study for a year in a Spanish-speaking country. The program I chose to study through (a California State University program) had a choice of Mexico or Spain. I figured that since I lived in California, I could go to Mexico any time I wanted, so I took the opportunity to go to Spain.
As a college student, my reason was simple – have fun while learning Spanish. My goal was focused and narrow – go somewhere to learn the language by being immersed in it both in daily life and in college courses so as to be fluent at the end of the year-long experience. I met that goal, and had some incredible experiences along the way. I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it back to Spain, so I made sure to hop on every train and bus I could and see as much of Spain and Portugal as I could.
21 years later, my reason for moving to Thailand was simple, but totally different from the move of my youth. This time the reason was a fresh start for our family of 4 after a stressful couple of years. The goal was not nearly as focused nor narrow – it started with the broad idea to be overseas missionaries. When offered a second grade teaching position at an international Christian school in Bangkok, it became more focused, but still very wide in a sense because we came on faith that Jeff would find his niche here since I was the only one with a job offer.
Seasons of Life
As far as preparing for this move as a 21 year old, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. It is a great season of life in which to move abroad, and I highly recommend it for college students. I had some belongings, I packed them up and stored them at my grandma’s house (I had been living in a studio apartment near my college). I made sure I had an ATM card with which to access money from my American bank account, attended a going away party that my aunt and parents gave me, and boarded a plane with a suitcase and a huge duffle bag. Bye peeps, see you next summer!
Preparing for our move to Thailand last year was a whole lot more difficult. I attribute it to the season of life which I am now in compared to being a 21 year old college student. Last year on March 4 I was offered a teaching job in Bangkok, and we landed here in Bangkok on July 7th, with our alotted 8 bags of luggage. The preparations we made during that 4-month whirlwind are mind-boggling when I look back on them. They were mind-boggling WHILE we were in the midst of it, but we just took it a day at a time.
Reflections on the Two Expat Moves
When I decided to move to Spain as a 21 year old, I only had myself to worry about. Easy-peasy. But now, during this move across the pond, I had a family, 2 houses, 2 vehicles, a stable job (I’d had for 18 years!). I had roots set down in the town, friendships with depth from years of living life together, a familiar and supportive church family. Also, there was a growing women’s outdoor ministry I’d started 2 years prior, which was very rewarding to me. There were also debts, bills, & lots of lose ends I never had to think about to do my first expat stint years before when I was a single college student.
I was still practically a kid myself when I hopped on the plane to Spain, but now I had our own two kids and their feelings and emotions about such a life-changing move to take into consideration. I’d be lying if I said they were, or even yet are, totally on board with our decision for this “fresh start”. They know why we came – to serve in a missionary context both at the school and in whatever other capacity to which God calls us while we’re here. But, it doesn’t mean they own that for themselves; some days they seem to love it here, other days they talk constantly about going back to see friends and family in the states.
I wish after moving I could write a nice article entitled “5 Easy Steps to Moving Overseas”, but that’s not how our move went. Ours was a little more chaotic – selling things, organizing and storing what was left, selling one of our two homes (the one we were living in), sorting through classroom things deciding what to keep and what to give away, selling vehicles when you still need to be driving around in them, paperwork & deadlines (which neither Jeff nor I are very good at), and the most traumatic thing, finding the right home for our dog, the member of our family we could not bring with us.
A huge blessing in all of this would make Dave Ramsey so proud – selling one of our homes enabled us to pay off the debt our failed business venture had weighed us down with, and we left the country debt-free, minus the house we still own for which our renters cover the mortgage. This was super important, because when you are teaching in a missionary capacity, you don’t have a huge salary, so we could not have even moved here if we had the debt still hanging over our heads.
Everything with this move to Thailand was a step of faith, trusting in God day by day. I am grateful that through the busyness, we kept what was important at the forefront – we spent time with our family and friends. We had a lot of help from friends and some family who stepped up to help with various things, and we just continued to prioritize getting together for dinners and some outdoor adventures even though we were pressed for time to get things done.
When I lived in Spain, my days consisted of going to classes at the university, hanging out with my roommates (one Spanish, one Chinese, and one Italian) or California friends who were in the same study-abroad program that I am in, and traveling every chance I got by hopping on a bus or train. It felt like life back home, only better because I was visiting beautiful cathedrals and ancient castles. I do remember missing my parents during that year, but we kept in touch – I called them from the payphone down on the corner once a week, and they called me on our apartment phone sometimes, too (we could only receive calls on it, no outgoing calls).
Daily life here in Bangkok also feels like life back home in so many ways – I work, kids go to school, we do life together as a family just like we did in the states. There’s sports, there’s homework, there’s my amazing job, there’s creative hands-on opportunities for Jeff (he is currently building bamboo bikes!), and we have a community of friends here with whom we are building relationships. But being an expat in this season, with a family, feels like a much bigger responsibility than it did before.
Every decision we make has consequences, every action or inaction results in an effect of some sort on the future, whether immediate or farther out. We know that taking our kids away from family and friends and everything they ever knew to move them across the world for a few years will change them forever; right now they are third culture kids. We have faith that this experience will be positive for them. We have looked at our move here as an excellent opportunity for them to see how people live in other parts of the world and to show them how being obedient to serving God brings blessings. We make every effort to stay connected with family and friends, and do so through many avenues – Facebook, emails, What’s App free text messaging, and cheap calls with the Skype app.
Back to the broad goal of our fresh start as overseas missionaries – ultimately the goal is to thrive here, not just survive. Back in California the last few years we were only surviving, and we know that God desires more for his children. “Jesus came that we may have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10) So although being an expat in this season of life has been more difficult in many ways than being one at 21, it is a rewarding experience to be experiencing it as a family unit. As Tsh Oxenreider says in Notes From a Blue Bike, “Living well doesn’t mean not doing hard things.” What’s your hard thing right now? Are you merely surviving it, or are you thriving in it?