Expats who are happy in their choice will universally say that in spite of all of those challenges, their new life is totally worth it, because of the rewards that life in their new home brings: new friends and family, a wider range of life experience, or opportunities to pursue the cause that they are most passionate about.
The general consensus among content expats is that this lifestyle causes you to lose a lot, but the gains outweigh the losses.
I'm convinced that expats themselves are not the ones who experience the hardest part of the expat lifestyle.
No, as far as I'm concerned, the family and friends left behind by expats experience the far harder portion--and their loss is often not even acknowledged.
The face of a happy expat
The ones left behind by expats get none of the benefits in exchange for this loss. They only get to miss those who are now on the other side of the world. My grandma simply doesn't have me around anymore. I can't babysit my cousins when needed. I won't be attending my nephew's birthday parties or my siblings' college graduations.
And the average expat causes even more trouble for their loved ones left behind than simply that they're gone. Often expats leave a few beloved possessions behind--which require space in a loved one's attic. We usually need someone to act at our power of attorney, to accept our mail, and to help make sure all tax information and license paperwork is filed away as it should be from year to year. We need them to mail far-too-expensive packages containing bras or shoes or Benadryl when we can't find what we need in our chosen country. On the rare occasions when we do visit our home country, we're filling up guest bedrooms for days or weeks at a time, borrowing cars and flat irons because we no longer own electronics with the appropriate plugs, and asking for rides to and from airports.
When you're an expat, people call you brave. They say, "I could never do what you're doing," or "We're proud of you."
But I think we got the easiest portion.
In my own lifetime, I've been the expat, and I've been the one left behind. In my own experience, being left behind is far, far harder.
When you're left behind, you have to frequently remind yourself that the reason your far-away family doesn't visit isn't because they don't love you anymore--they do, they do! It's just that for many reasons, trips across the world aren't easy to take (the flight itself is physically demanding, the trip is exhorbitantly expensive, they may not be able to get enough time off of work to make the trip, etc.).
When you're left behind you have to alter your definition of what it means to be a "good" daughter/sister/mother/etc. Physical presence and picking up the phone at any time of day don't happen anymore, so relationships now take place in a world of emails and scheduled Skype calls and Facebook albums. Sometimes that feels weird, and wrong, but it's all you have, so you cling to it.
Us happy expats--those of us who are living abroad without the shadow of a doubt that it's exactly where we should be right now--we have it so easy. Sure, maybe we don't get to eat pizza, maybe reclaiming our apartments from mildew and mold and cockroaches and rats is a never-ending battle, but we get the benefit of building relationships and creating a new community for ourselves in a foreign land and working at the job that brought us here.
The left-behind family members of expats get nothing. They have exactly the same lifestyle they had before, only now it no longer includes us. They're merely left with a hole in their heart where a loved one should be--a hole that may occasionally sting a little extra when they see how much their beloved expats enjoy their new home, because, while they'd never say it, it might make them feel just a little better if their loved ones were homesick instead of jumping up and down for joy in their new country.
I want to say to all who we've left behind, and to others who have experienced being left behind by crazy vagabond relatives who chose not to stay where they were born:
Thank you. Thank you for letting us go, even when you really, really didn't want us to. Thanks for letting us have lives that look impossibly different from the ones you had imagined for us. Thanks for sending us holiday care packages when what you really want is to have us there on Christmas morning. Thanks for not holding it against us forever that we couldn't come to your wedding. Most people easily acknowledge the challenges of living abroad, but today I want to acknowledge you--all of you who stay at home. We need you. We need you there to mail us that new credit card before our old one expires, and we need you to tell us what's going on back "home"--though it may not feel like "home" to us any more, we still treasure that place, because you are there. The fact that we love our new life here does not mean we love you any less--we wish we could show our little world to you, but we'll settle for exchanging digital pictures. Thanks for handling this position of faraway family member, a position that I know you didn't want and were forced into, with such grace. It will be easier on all of us if you choose to believe us when we say that our move overseas is permanent, but if it takes you a couple years to accept it, I understand. Thanks so much for being tough enough to hold down the home-front in our absence. You are missed, every single day. Thanks for taking the time to show us that we are missed, too.