As I’ve often written, living abroad is in equal measure exciting as well as confrontational.
By moving abroad, many expats don’t realize that they’re also signing up for being forced to question all of their old beliefs, values and ways of life when they land in a new country. But that’s exactly what starting a new life in a different sociocultural context offers.
Life abroad forces you to ask difficult questions about the validity of the beliefs you’ve been brought up with as well as of the things and ideas that you’ve taken as “the normal way of things”.
In many ways, expat life can be a recipe for identity crisis or profound self-growth. This is the path that Patti, an American expat, has been on since moving to Marrakech in 2017.
Alongside her self-discovery journey, she has also faced the question of where she should live, given how she has changed and grown over the years. For now, she has found happiness being away from the US, living in Tangier, Morocco with her partner.
You can follow Patti’s journey on Instagram.
Please introduce yourself to the readers – what has your journey looked like so far?
My name is Patti and I am 35 years old. I am originally from the Los Angeles area in California, USA and lived in Seattle, Washington, USA in my 20s. I moved to Marrakech, Morocco in 2017 and now live in Tangier, Morocco. I have been here in my current city for about 7 months.
My ex and I ended our marriage and I lived alone for the first time in my life for a year in Seattle. While I was elated to move on with my life, I wasn’t happy with so many things at that time. Family, the political climate, and trying to find my way in life after a 6 year marriage were just some of the reasons for the unhappiness.
During this time, I was also teaching middle school kids, in a suburb outside of Seattle. I was finding that my unhappiness was impacting my work, and it made it worse. Overall, I desperately wanted a different scenery and place to work through some life things, but in a different place.
I had been keeping in touch with someone I met on a summer trip to Ireland, and I visited him a few times, and he visited me in Seattle during this time. We became very close, and he offered for me to come and stay with him in Cork, Ireland for the summer of 2017 and try to find some employment in the international education community.
After about 3 months, living in Cork, Ireland and trying to find work, I was quickly running out of money and finding it harder to build a relationship with someone who needed some time to work on their life and challenges.
So, I started hitting the international school market hard online, but was coming up short on getting a coveted international teaching job, until one day a school emailed me from Marrakech. We interviewed and I was hired.
About 2 weeks later I packed up my two backpacks and headed towards North Africa. I had never been to the continent ever. I had 0 expectations and was scared and excited at the same time.
“The culture shock didn’t happen for me at first. I was so happy to be in a different place, than I had ever experienced before, and at that time in my life, it was what I needed and wanted most.”
My attitude about living in this country was better than most expats/immigrants I met, however, there were and still are times when I have very low low’s about living abroad.
I spent three years in Marrakech. I worked as a teacher at an international school. I traveled every chance I got during school break both in Morocco and in Europe. I also kept in touch with my the Irish boy and we saw each other frequently throughout that time.
“I made a ton of mistakes, had scary and amazing things happen to me during this time, and I learned that I am very happy living away from my home country.”
On my good days in Marrakech, I was happily practicing French and Darija (Moroccan Arabic), going out in the city, and finding great places to shop and eat. On my bad days, I was getting my wallet and phone stolen, dealing with difficult Moroccan bureaucracy and cultural differences, and missing comforts of a “western life”.
After a couple of years of exploring myself in a strange new place, where I couldn’t converse with most about my deepest fears and joys, I finally felt that I found my grounding and footing, and started to ride the wave. I wasn’t happy with my school/life balance and expectations at the school I was at in Marrakech, but I loved Morocco.
I love the hospitality, cost of living, beautiful places and food. Also, the Irish boy loved the country and after some time to work on himself, decided he wanted to be here as well. We then decided to start fresh in a new city in Morocco.
He came to Morocco two months before the pandemic and we had a wonderful experience in quarantine, learning to live and love each other. During this time we both decided to try to see what Tangier was like and I got a job teaching in the north. He amazingly found a job working online for a barbeque sauce company in America.
Although it probably isn’t what it normally is like because of the pandemic and we can’t visit Spain often like we hoped for, we are very happy here.
When and why did the “should I stay or go?” question start bugging you?
I asked myself the: “should I stay or should I go” every couple of months in Marrakech. The main reasons being:
- feeling alone with no one to talk deeply with about my struggles because of the language barrier
At one point in Marrakech, I was ready to see a psychiatrist or therapist to work through some issues. It was impossible to find someone, especially someone who spoke enough or understood English. I worked through a lot of things on my own, and with the help of friends.
I seriously thought of going somewhere else with more mental health services during my second year of living in Marrakech.
- missing my partner but knowing it wasn’t a good time to have a relationship
Another reason that I consistently asked myself the stay or go question was over my want of being with my now partner from Ireland. He had things to work out, and he needed the time to do this. Usually during this time, I would seek out travel experiences and work on my own issues and challenges. This was the easiest stay or go question, especially since I had been married before, and felt that I missed out on opportunities because I didn’t want to be “away”.
- struggling with business and cultural differences
Being an American, there is this deep rooted feeling that customer service and efficiency is of utmost importance. Often you may wait at a table for dinner or in line to renew your residency in most places in Morocco, and no one will notice you.
There doesn’t seem to be an urgency to take care of customers here, but I have learned that this attitude can also be good and people don’t bother you here. On the flipside, some will invite you over to meet their family, make you couscous and spend hours over coffee chatting about philosophy.
“This kind of experience has led me to deeply reflect on what it means to “unlearn Americanisms” and I am finding that I am truly enjoying the process, but also mourning a piece of my identity.”
The inefficiency of how things are done also drives me insane at times. What would be a transparent process isn’t such in this country. Even with the pandemic and understanding restrictions and health laws.
To go along with the inefficiency of how things work, there is an attitude of “it’s who you know” here.
Thankfully, I have been very lucky, and I have made connections, but I also question the reason why I am able to make those connections. “Is it because I am white? An American? Have a decent salary?” I often question if I am taking advantage or giving back to a country that has been very good to me.
There are cultural aspects that I feel uncomfortable with as well. In Marrakech, not so much Tangier, I would walk to the grocery store, pharmacy, a friends house or to dinner, and there is a constant berating of “Zweena” which means “beautiful” in Darija. I learned to walk with my earbuds in, and fast through certain parts of the city.
Many people in Marrakech would assume I was a tourist, and they would treat me as such, including the constant bartering daily to get a taxi ride, or to buy certain market goods. Fortunately, this encouraged me to learn Darija, so that I could get by with a few words and numbers and phrases.
4. concerns about family members back home
Finally, one major reason I have asked myself the ultimate question is Coronavirus. “What if someone in my family dies? Would I make their funeral? Would I want to risk my own health to travel home?” These questions keep me up at night, but I have learned to talk about these questions with fellow expats/immigrants.
You mentioned “unlearning Americanism” and reflecting on your identity evolution/loss. Tell me more about how you’ve gone about finding your way in life in another context.
On the websites, blogs and Instagram pages I follow and search out about living abroad, it is very rare to see or hear someone discussing that this life changing experience also includes the experiences of an identity evolution (I love that term).
“There is so much information on what to do in situations or where to go, but not so much on how to handle the most difficult challenge: questioning who you are on a daily basis.”
Naturally, I think anyone who makes the dive into living somewhere else, especially a place that is a 180 from what you know includes questioning and practicing moving through the discomfort of identity. I am not any different.
For a while, I sat with my discomfort and tried to do the recommended things: journal, read, talk with friends. These things worked in the short term.
As I continued to struggle with the discomfort I began asking myself where I got lost in the mix, going all the way back to childhood. I realized that a huge gaping hole in my life was due to the lack of connecting with myself spiritually.
Every day in Morocco, you hear the call to prayer go off 5 times a day, in the beginning a hard thing to get used to, and later in my experience, a very welcomed new comfort (especially after leaving Morocco for a longer period on summer holidays). These calls to prayer were in a symbolic way also calling me to search deeper in my own spirit.
I read, listened to podcasts, and researched a lot of different ways to connect with oneself spiritually. I leaned heavily on Taoist principles and Jesus’ teachings in The Gospel, and also dabbled in some Wiccan practices.
I asked questions of my Muslim friends and students, and learned deeply that spirituality, no matter what religion or creed, or where you are in this world, was about a personal relationship with something bigger than yourself.
It was this exploration that saved my head this time.
Digging deeper into my spirit and discovering that we are all connected by energy and the need to connect, has made the unlearning of my isms easier.
I welcome this unlearning even though I know that my transformation has also made it challenging to connect with my past life.
“Each time I go “home” to The States, I find myself growing further and further apart from family and friends, and once-comforts. In the beginning this used to be painful, but now I try to live my life by the mantra: ”This is my life to live.”“
In light of this journey of self-growth, during the times when you have asked yourself “should I stay or go”, how have you then gone about finding answers?
I lean heavily on my spiritual journey and the faith that I have that there is something bigger than myself. Also, the motto “this is my life to live” has helped me tremendously in handling this specific question.
I keep the feelings of should I stay or go to myself, as I don’t want to rely on another person’s reality to affect mine. I have found that if I do this, my own perspective starts to become foggy. Instead, I reach out to people that I have built trust with and we have deep, unapologetic, and non-judgemental conversations.
I think that the majority of what I wrote above helps answer this question, but there is a recent example I have in my life that may help.
In the collegial community I work with, you see professionals come and go. They too, are also on their journey and I have to remind myself of this.
Lately, there have been a few of my new friends that have started to disconnect as they plan their next steps to another place, or even to the place that they call home.
They no longer accept invitations to events or drinks, they don’t share as much as before, and it is like they are building a wall again.
It hurts to be shut out, but again, I put myself in their shoes and try to understand that this has nothing to do with me. This is their life.
“Should I stay or should I go, I feel, is a natural part of the process in our individual journeys. I feel that it is a necessary question to ask yourself, and the discomfort of it means that change is happening and no one else but yourself can answer this question.”
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.