There’s this one wall in my house that is both a highlight and a challenge of our international life. It’s our family photo collage.
A display of dozens of people and places, it's the wall that people walk up to, stare at and ask about when they come over for playgroups or dinner. It’s the wall that reminds us, despite all of the moving, that we come from somewhere. It’s the wall that my children use to educate themselves about their cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents because, admittedly, they don’t see them in person all that often and it can be hard to keep all the names straight.
But, that giant wall of frames is also a challenge because we come and we go and lining up all those photos just right takes time. When we arrive somewhere I get out the hammer, the nails, the step stool, the level and get to work. It usually takes several hours to get everything looking just right. After it’s all said and done, I have my husband come and (hopefully) confirm that it’s all straight and balanced. All the while knowing that, it will all have to come down again sometime in the relatively near future.
When I think about it, the whole thing is so very much a metaphor for our lifestyle.
I look at all those photos and I see our story. We have a history. We go from place to place collecting major life events. Just like anyone (even people who never move) our stories are the layers of life that make up who we are and how we see the world. Even if we’re moving, we keep becoming. Sometimes that can be hard to see because each time we move our story seems to start over. The past can get lost when we say goodbye to somewhere. The future always has a level of uncertainty. And yet - we are still us. We have a history.
But because all of this moving makes our life more complicated, we also have to have a whole additional set of tools to put our story together, to ensure that it’s heard and to reassure ourselves that it will live on. When I begin the slog that is hanging up our family photo collage, I don’t just need a hammer. This is a complex and often overwhelming task that is definitely not for one tool alone.
As expats we need a whole tool box of tools to tell our stories and remember who we are.
We need a (gently wielded) hammer. We must find ways to give ourselves a little push here and there. We need something that makes a difference when things aren't moving the way we want them too. To create a sense of purpose and passion, we need to feel we have some power over our situation. We must develop the skills to stand up for ourselves and for our needs. We must create a medium for our stories and speak them in voices that can be heard.
We need nails. We need something to make our stories stick. We benefit from telling them over and over again. We need photo albums and journals and Facebook posts and blogs to remind us that the things that happened to us really did happen because without the constancy of place, there’s high potential the stories (and subsequently our selves) will be lost.
We need a step stool. We have to find ways to reach outside our comfort zone and get support in accessing the parts of ourselves that don’t come easily. If you’re introverted, meeting new people can feel like the most dreaded task. If you value your professional life, leaving your career behind to follow your spouse can cause you to feel a complete loss of identity. So you need support. We need something to boost us up to the places that are naturally hard for us to reach.
We need a level. The most successful expats find balance between the various parts of their lives. That balance is different for everyone, but the key element comes in taking time to reflect on what matters to you (and your family) most and arranging your life around those values.
Finally, we need a second set of eyes. There are many aspects of the expat life that feel solitary. Loneliness happens to all of us at one time or another. However, we must surround ourselves with people who can help us find our way, can call us on our bullshit from time to time and can remind us of all the strengths we bring to the table. All those photos on my wall get crooked from time to time. As expats we need that second set of eyes from a trusted person to remind us when we’re off kilter.
It seems like a lot, but it’s doable. In fact, we develop these tools every single day. We do it with patience and attention to the ever-changing circumstances in which we move. And sometimes we face (or make) a big mess.
But, in true expat style, we reach in our tool belt and find just the right thing to get the job done.