SOCIAL MEDIA

15 January 2015

For those Left Behind

Expats will often talk about the hardships common to the lifestyle: missing family and friends and familiar foods, struggling with language barriers, being bewildered by cultural differences, experiencing health problems due to a different diet or climate, etc.

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 end up losing a son, or a brother, a sister or an aunt or a best friend. They lose our presence in mundane, day to day life, and they lose our attendance at the highlights: births, graduations, weddings, funerals.

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.

30 comments :

  1. This made me tear up <3 <3 I know exactly what you're describing and although this experience is hard (for everyone....) it's worth it!

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  2. Ah, this made me feel a bit teary, Rachel. I've missed my little sister's 30th, both of my parent's 60ths, my grandad's 95th in the past couple of years. Each time I've felt this pang of guilt and sadness about missing out. And now i feel a bit guilty I haven't considered it from their perspective! Hehe.

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  3. What a wonderful post. I don't have personal experience with this but I can see how everything you wrote would be completely true. Though I bet the ones left behind don't mind those extra "troubles" you cause, as they are just more ways to get to stay a part of your lives.

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  4. I also think that being the expat is easier because youbhave this new exlerience to focus one while your loved one at home don't.

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  5. Yes. My sister will be leaving soon for a year of missionary work. She knows it is what she should be doing, but it is starting to hit her that the rest of us will keep on with our lives when she is gone. We are going to miss each other quite a bit.

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  6. I'm in tears. A brave and intelligent post. [I'll read it again when I'm less emotional]

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  7. This was brilliant, as a planned future expat I know it will be much harder on my family to let me go than it will for me to go live the life I've been meaning to do for years. Thank you for this post, beautifully written

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  8. This is so true and something I myself don't think about often enough. When I had to say goodbye to my family at the end of our recent trip seeing how upset we all were reminded me that I am not the only one who is going through changes.

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  9. This is great. My parents had to put up with my lifestyle of travelling for years and it was exactly as you stated. Also when you come back home you are often changed in so many ways that you need to get to know each other all over again.

    Well written and heartfelt.

    bisous
    Suzanne

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  10. Awww. This is a sweet post. I've never had a loved-one live abroad long term so I can't say I've experienced the same, but I imagine it's quite hard. Your friends and family are lucky to have you... =)

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  11. Lovely tribute to those who stay behind, Rachel. Missing someone can be very hard!

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  12. Thank you for sharing this! I never thought about how hard it would be to be an ex-pat. I live 13 hours away from family and think that's hard at times. We've missed lots of events because of our distance. Seeing family once or twice a year (if you're lucky) is never easy.

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  13. This is such a sweet post, Rachel. It is hard to be the one left behind, and I love how you acknowledged this. I'm sure your family and friends loved this and love being able to keep up with all your hi jinks even though you're miles apart.

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  14. Such a sweet post. I've never had an family member live abroad, but I don't live anywhere near my family (I am in Texas and they are in Illinois) so in a sense I get it. I can't be there for all the little things -- nor can they be here for everything. Definitely not the same, but in a senes, fairly similar!

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  15. Very, very, very beautiful and well written piece Rachel! I'm not an expat but my cousins and aunt moved to Dominican Republic when I was young and it was very hard to know I couldn't easily call and/or visit. It's definitely not easy but as long as the expats are happy with their decisions the family will support no matter what. A very well thought out post, I'm sure your family members (and Angel's) will appreciate your thoughts and words. Happy Friday! -Iva

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  16. this is powerfully written, rachel! i loved every bit of it and you're so right that it seems like those left behind struggle more. i've never been an expat but i have moved thousands of miles from my family. i miss them terrible but this made me realize that it's much harder for my parents because they aren't the ones exploring a few new part of the country, they just miss me. thanks for this!

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  17. I think we often forget that there is another side to the "glorious" expat life!

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  18. This is seriously amazing. It's so true - in my own life, I've found it incredibly difficult to be away from all my family and friends, unable to be there in person to support my mom having to deal with my dad's illness. But I know she has it far harder - because she is the one actually there, alone, struggling through daily life without a solid support system. But she also understands that we are where we are because we both felt God asking us to stay here (I feel that's changing/has changed but that's beside the point) and she's been 110% supportive...even with all the "I wish you could go to coffee with me today"s thrown in. Both sides are difficult, but I agree with you - the person left behind has it the hardest.

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  19. Tears! Beautifully written and gives me a whole new perspective.

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  20. Beautifully written! I've been on both sides of the coin as well and you did a fantastic job sharing your heart!

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  21. What a lovely post, your heart is so evident in your writing, and the fact that you have compassion for those who have been left behind says a lot about you.

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  22. Wonderful post! Thanks for shedding some light on the others, the ones left behind. I hadn't thought of some of these things until now.

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  23. This post is beautiful and resonates so closely with me. I'm not an expat, but the loved one on the other side. The missed Christmases, high school and college graduation and birthdays were difficult, but nothing compared to wondering if my own brother would be able to attend my wedding (he is!). This is a wonderful acknowledgement of the loved ones of world travelers!

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  24. This is such a beautiful post, and so, so true. You're definitely right that it doesn't often get addressed. My brother went to China for a couple years to work, and my mom worried about him for every day that he was gone. Technology's really made it easier in terms of communication, so that's a huge plus, but it's definitely difficult for both sides! <3

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  25. This is such an interesting way to look at the expat lifestyle, one that I've never heard someone talk about before.

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  26. That's an interesting way to think of it!

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  27. This is so well-written and so thoughtful. I live in a very international community and it astounds me that so many students come from all across the globe for 4 or more years just for college, sometimes planning on returning home and sometimes to stay in the USA for the rest of their lives -- I always thought that sounded like such a hard thing to do; but I never reflected on all of the thousands of families "missing someone" that my university represents around the world. It's amazing.

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  28. Hi Rachel, many people really wouldn't have given much thought on the other perspective, of those who were left behind but instead focus more on the star. I'm so glad that you address this. It is beautifully written and the last para is heartfelt.

    Jo
    Jo's Jumbled Jardinière

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  29. Great post! I know just how that feels. It's hard to miss holidays or important events in friends and family lives.
    Melanie @ meandmr.com

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  30. Thanks for sharing on How To Get Organized At Home, this is an awesome post:)

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