Expat Life: Living In the Middle

Woman in green shirt and messy ponytail looking out over canyon.
Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

We’re moving soon. Right now I’m in a canyon of in-between.

Desert wildflowers and brambly bushes compete for space with rattlesnakes and scorpions along the banks of a bubbling stream from which hawks swoop down to quench their thirst. In short – despite the outward appearances of beauty, it often feels like one false step could lead to disaster.

On the other hand, I’ve been here so many times before I’ve become quite used to it. The reality of our time in Japan winding down (approximately 102 days from today) seems both unreal and entirely what should be happening right now. I imagine a bit like coming upon a rattlesnake den in a canyon. You’re shocked…but then, you are in a canyon.

Over the course of our expat life I’ve come to realize that trying to define these events as having distinct beginnings, middles and ends is fruitless. Right now, for example, when we have neither moved from Tokyo nor arrived in Brussels, feels like beginning, middle and end; a little bit of all three mixed up in a strange, confusing mishmash of this moment.

Yet, even if it’s confusing, there is indeed a real feeling to this in-between place. If we can never really define something as beginning, middle or end, what is it then that makes this part of the expat journey so distinct from other phases?

Is it knowing that at some point in June we will lift off from Haneda and in those very seconds we will have left Japan, but won’t have arrived somewhere else? Will it be those 8 weeks or so this summer when we go home to Austin without an actual home to return to?

Expats talk about this all the time – the in-between phase. Honestly, it doesn’t actually need a definition or clear lines to be real. It exists. We feel it.

You know how it goes…

It’s that time when you start to pull back from the life you’re leading in one place and begin to allot designated moments to begin to deal with the preparations of the next location.

You begin to calculate which dinners, coffees and social events are worth your time. You start to actively consider whether or not this particular friendship is worth it. You start to make your bucket list for shopping and travel. You begin to come to terms with the places you’ll simply not have the opportunity to visit (Hokkaido – waaaahhhh!).

It’s a mental unbuttoning of one layer of clothing while simultaneously pulling on another. As you can imagine, it can feel clumsy and even reckless at times. For those of us who’ve done it often, it also feels comfortingly familiar.

Either way, like the ecosystem of a dessert canyon, it remains both completely explainable and surprisingly complicated.

I think in the grand scheme of things, what’s more important than trying to pinpoint the exact nature of this experience, whether in your eyes it’s the beginning, middle or end of something – is remembering to develop a comfort with the stillness, ambiguity and the in-between-ness of it all – the in-between-ness of the entire expat experience. To learn to walk neither fearfully cautious nor optimistically blind through the canyon, but to cultivate a deeper awareness of all that comes up as we navigate the unpredictable terrain at any phase.

The only real question then, is how.

I think we do it by owning that we’re in-between people. We’re neither at the very moment of our birth nor (in most cases) the edge of the end of our life’s journey. We’re always in the middle. We like to believe that the next exciting adventure is just about to begin, but I’m not sure it works that way. One moment is always beginning and just like that it’s also ending. And over and over and over.

We learn to become comfortable in this liminal space by seeing what’s really here in this very moment – our real emotions as they are, our thoughts as they jump us forward or pull us back into the next phase. We accept both the simple truths and the distracting clutter of the moments we live right now as the real place. We become trusting of our ability to be insightful and open to learning from the unexpected. We take up residence in the awareness of right now. We admit it might all be the middle…of something.

When we see it that way, it’s a whole lot less scary.

One of my very favorite quotes is from Sue Monk Kidd in one of my very favorite books When the Heart Waits. It reads, “What makes you think life happens on tomorrows stage? This is no rehearsal. This is it. Live it now!”

In all the many places we may live, the canyon is always there in both its beauty and ruggedness. We live here. And, you know us world travelers, we can make anywhere home.

Three Must-Have Goals for Expats in the New Year

expat woman reaching her 2019 goals at top of mountain with arms outstretched

Whether you’re staying put or off on another adventure, these 3 New Year’s goals can make all the difference in your expat life.

This year is one of the big years for us. Three and a half years into our life here in Tokyo and we’re now heading into another transition, another transformation, a new destination in our expat life.

My husband has made a science of his to-do lists – mapping, categorizing and sorting every detail in hopes of smoothing the lines from our life as it is now to our life as it will be come June.

We’re asked constantly if the kids are excited, if they’ll miss their friends, if they’re looking forward to a new school or sad about leaving this one behind. It’s barely January and I’ve perfected the answers…to the extent that they can be perfected. I mostly just try to translate their shrugs.

I always spend time at the end of the year reflecting on goals and setting intentions for the year to come. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know I usually pose a set of expat life centered self-coaching questions. I believe taking time in self-reflection is more likely to produce goals that are clear, values-centered and sustainable.

If we simply start making a list of things we want to do, it’s always seemed to me that our intentions will fizzle by the time March rolls around. We may lack direction or a deeper understanding of the why behind the goals we’re setting. This is exacerbated by the unpredictability of expat life. One little glitch can lead us astray.

That being said, there are some goals that are universal. There are habits and intentions that we can bring into our lives that are foundational to creating the everyday, practical goals we hope to bring about in the New Year.

There are three goals in particular that I’ve found are essential to goal setting for anyone, but especially for expats. That’s because turning these goals into habits teaches us to be present and comfortable in our own skin, our own minds and our own hearts. When we’re able to do that, we can feel at home anywhere.

Be present with what’s happening.

Make it your goal to turn your attention towards what you’re experiencing – even when it’s painful or uncomfortable. A common mistake we make is to think that shoving our way through challenge will lead us to our goals of happiness, contentment and life satisfaction.

However, success through adversity is not about pushing out the other side with blinders on, it’s about tuning in to the lay of the land, noticing what we’re experiencing and taking stock of what feels right and what doesn’t sit well. It’s only then that we can confront difficulty with all the information we need to overcome.

Learning to practice simple informal mindfulness techniques – even for just a few minutes each day – can help you establish this habit. Mindfulness meditation is also a wonderful tool for getting off to a good start with this goal.

Take time to regularly look at the why behind your goals.

When we change homes often, it’s normal to reach out to others for insight and guidance. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary. Doing so builds community and reminds us that we’re not alone and that we don’t have to reinvent the rulebook every time we move.

However, it’s also important we don’t fall into the trap of meeting someone else’s expectations of how we’re supposed to be – an especially tempting response when we’ve just arrived in a new place.

We can improve our ability to stay true to our most important goals by taking time to look at the underlying values and beliefs that motivate us. We can start by asking – Why do I want to reach this goal? And then we can deepen our understanding by asking again – Why else? And even again – Any other reasons? This simple process brings clarity to the resolutions we’ve set at the New Year.

Make a habit of self-compassion.

We’re so hard on ourselves. How many times a day do you look in the mirror with faint criticism of the lines around your eyes or the beginning sag in your chin? How often do you think, “That was so stupid!” as you reflect back on something you did or said?

We often speak to ourselves in ways we’d never talk to anyone else we love.

In our life between worlds we find ourselves regularly in situations for which there is no clear and correct response. We’re winging it a lot of the time and even though often we’re actually doing quite well, it’s easy to get hung up on the set-backs. However, it’s my experience that the most adaptable expats are the ones who are forgiving of their faults and loving of their imperfections.

Self-compassion is a beautiful habit to bring in to your goal setting because it’s not about letting yourself off the hook for every mistake – it’s about seeing the challenges you face as a normal part of being human. Because those ups and downs are normal. And you are human.

So this year…

As you sit down to spell out your resolutions or as you look ahead to a horizon filled with another transition, another life yet lived, consider adding these foundational goals as the backbone of whatever outcome you’re reaching for. They’re habits to last an expat lifetime.

Are you looking for a solid start to your goal setting in 2019? Get a boost from my self-paced, online course Goal Setting for Globetrotters.

My Latest Article on I Am a Triangle: How to Wake Up in 2019 – 13 Mindfulness Practices for Expats in the New Year

Expat woman with eyes closed and face to sun.

Is mindfulness more accessible than you think? Could it make all the difference in your expat life?

Expat life is full of ups and downs, but we don’t have to weather uncertainty, setback and transition with blinders on. The New Year is the perfect time to wake up, tune in and start fresh with accessible, everyday mindfulness practices you can access wherever you go. 

I’m so happy to share these 13 expat-friendly mindfulness practices in my latest piece for I Am a Triangle. Mindfulness is more doable than you think and these practices are the perfect start to your 2019!