Dedicated to my dad, who passed away 2 years ago on March 6, 2014. He was an expat for over 30 years. I was an expat child. I remember that even before the advent of social media (I'm talking medieval times, circa 1977!), being an expat was associated with frivolousness, indulgence and greed. In fairness, most of us don't do much to discourage that perception.
But the truth is, most of us left our comfortable lives elsewhere to pursue a chance at bettering our lives. It wasn't without fear or without pain. We're striving to pay off homes, provide for our kids' futures, and make a difference where we can. Just like everyone else, we're trying to run the house, keep bills afloat, drop the kids off at school, earn a living and deal with daily life. Some expats have opted for a great location with meagre pay, some have chosen to live in a shit part of the world for a chance to earn big bucks. No matter what our choice, it always comes at a price.
More to the point, being an expat doesn't change who you are and what you experience. This post isn't about expats feeling 'more'. It's about expats 'feeling'.
My Facebook feed is chock full of expats posting details of the latest grand adventure: tales of escape weekends to Dubai, videos of snorkelling with whale sharks, family pictures taken on the Great Wall of China, stills of a lion chasing a gazelle taken from the back of a jeep while on safari in Tanzania.
My own page is shamelessly peppered with these little snippets of adventure packaged as samples of the wonderfulness of what it must mean to be an expat. Topped off with images of backyard bbq's, weekends at the beach, and desert safaris.
Weekend banter reads along the lines of ''Suzie, we're in Abu Dhabi this weekend ... remember last October? What a blast! Wish you were here.'' To which Suzie replies: ''Wish we could have made it, darling, but (insert Suzie's 6-year-old son's name here) had a rugby match in Bahrain so we thought we'd make a weekend of it. Next time!''
We expats (unabashedly? unwittingly?) use social media to promote and perpetuate the notion that living overseas is one big, happy escapade.
Checking out our feed, you'd think we do nothing but smile, travel, bask in the sun and sip on froufrou drinks.
You'd think the expat life is nothing but one big happy party.
And yet sometimes expats cry.
It's usually in those moments when the reality of what it means to be an expat hits you square in the gut. Take, for instance, that day you were getting into your car after a long day at the office. Remember that moment, exactly two years ago? The moment this message came through on your phone: ''Dad has passed away''
These are the messages that don't get posted to Facebook. These are the moments that can't be captured in all their glory on an i-Phone. In fact, this message seems oddly detached even to me when I read it today. It's almost like a different person wrote it. And in a way it was. It was the true expat me. The one who kept on telling herself ''keep your shit together, don't lose it, just make it home and then you can fall to pieces, but for God's sake don't lose it in Doha traffic.''
You can't really see the anguish in this text or in any picture for that matter. You can't feel the despair that comes with being an ocean away when you learn you've lost a parent.
There are those moments in the months that preceded that fateful text. The ones where you flew back home to hold your loved one's hands for what you knew would be the last time.
You cried a lot then, didn't you?
You cried like a child because you knew you were losing a parent.
And you cried like an expat because you'd left. And because you knew you'd be leaving again. You cried because you'd chosen this life, and even though you knew you wanted nothing more than to be with your dad in his final moments of life, you had to go back to your family - the one you'd left an ocean away - to keep on building the life he'd made you promise to build for yourself.
And you left him in a dark room, surrounded by your brother and sisters. And you cried. Like a daughter, you cried. Like an expat, you cried.
Actually, thinking back on it, you cried when you'd left your husband and daughter behind to be with your father. You left your daughter a notebook: 14 pages filled - one for each day you'd be away. Fourteen morning greetings, written in 14 different colours because she was only eight years old and she'd still think that was really fun. There was a teardrop on each page. It blurred the writing, but if Kiddo asked, you could always fib and tell her you'd spilled your tea.
You cried because you knew you were missing her class recital. Your husband would be there, and he'd send you videos. And you'd cry when you watched them, when you watched her standing proudly and singing at the top of her lungs on stage, 9,500 km away.
Remember that monster fight you had with your husband? The one where you were sure that was IT, it was over, there was no coming back? And your best friend in the world was exactly 10,500 km away? You curled up in a ball and you cried.
And when you'd finally made an expat best friend, she announced she was leaving ... and you'd only had two years, come ON! SHIT! You cried!!!!! (Just not in front of her; she was heading for greener pastures - best expat friends don't put a damper on things like that.)
There's that time an expat co-worker died. And his wife had to rely on the help of friends to figure out how to fly her husband's body home in a casket, how to sell or arrange to ship all her worldly possessions, how to tell her kids their dad wasn't coming home and in one fell swoop they had to say goodbye to their school, friends, and life as they knew it. She had to figure out how to access the bank accounts, clear any debts and keep her children with her in a land that barely acknowledges a woman's rights. You cried for her, for her frustration, for her anguish, for her terror. And you cried because it could have been your frustration, your anguish, your terror.
There was that time 13 children and 6 adults died in a local mall fire. You didn't know any of them. But you'd brought your child to play at the nursery where they died. You'd left her there under the supervision of some of the women who died that day. It's a small city here; everyone knows somebody who died there or knows somebody who knows somebody. You went running in the park next to the mall a few days after the fire. You were keeping pace with your husband and all of a sudden you rounded a corner and saw the smoke still coming out the roof. And you fell to your knees. And cried.
That time you spoke up because someone cut in front of you at the checkout counter and you got told in no uncertain terms that if you didn't like it you could go back to where you came from? You held it in 'til you got home ... and then you cried.
The 12th time you went to the phone company to get your bill sorted only to be told that your husband's signature was needed because yours was virtually worthless in this country? You waited 'til you got in the car ... and you cried.
There was the day when the crazy 2-hour drive to the only ''bacon and booze shop'' 5 km away rattled that last nerve. You sat stuck in insane Doha traffic. You pounded futilely on the steering wheel. And you cried.
There was that cancer scare ... and the doctor spoke to you in broken English and you got home not really understanding what you'd been told and not knowing what to do. You got home, you sat on the bathroom floor and you cried.
And then you went for further testing and the doctor spoke English clear as day and lay a gentle hand on your shoulder and told you in the kindest voice that it was all ok. You cried. Right there in her office, her hand on your shoulder. You cried because you understood what she was saying. You cried because she was kind. You cried because for the first time in days you didn't feel alone. You cried.
There was that silly, silly 4-month period when they stopped importing Heinz Ketchup. For some strange reason that made you cry.
And even sillier was that time you found jars of Cheez Whiz (which you know is poison) on a supermarket shelf. It reminded you of home: you bought twelve. And you got home, unpacked the groceries, and when your husband saw the jars you both laughed so hard you cried.
There are all those times you didn't cry. You made light of a bad situation. You spun some humour into a tragic affair. But inside. Inside, you cried.
Because that's what expats do. They don't expect a pity party; after all they're living the life they chose to live. But it's not because they live a life less ordinary. They make the mundane seem extraordinary. They make the sad seem touching. They make the bad seem fleeting. They make the danger seem adventurous. They make the insane seem funny. They make the best of what they've got. They put up with a lot of shit. Alone. Far from home. Then they put up a lot of pretty pictures.
And sometimes they cry.